Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Conversion of St. Paul - Jan. 25

When today's feast day comes around, the first thing I think of is the famous painting by Caravaggio (pictured at right). I love Caravaggio's stuff. What's not to love? His use of light and dark, his realistic detail, and most especially the expressions on peoples' faces are amazing. This painting can be found in a side chapel to the left of the main altar at Rome's Santa Maria del Populo church, hanging across from another Caravaggio: The Crucifixion of St. Peter.

So today is all about conversion. What a pivotal moment in Christianity when St. Paul goes from obsessed persecutor to fierce defender! He was pivotal in my own entry into the Church. Back around 1990, I attended a day of recollection for those who were considering a vocation to the Priesthood, and part of the day included some quiet time in a church. To occupy the time, we were given a bible and a slip of paper with some biblical citations about vocations in general. The first quote I picked was out of Galatians 1 (which is also part of today's Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours): "You have heard of my former life in Judaism, ... But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me..." Like Paulie, I was 'knocked off of my horse' when I read those words.

Conversion always brings with it a bit of zeal. It's natural and it's a good thing. But what's funny is that zeal in the case of religion (and apparently only in the case of religion) is considered a negative by most people. The other day some former parishioners came to visit, and while we were talking one of them mentioned how her teenaged son told her that his friends consider her a bit of a "religious nut." Now, consider the source: A bunch of teens who will spend hours watching a football or basketball game, quoting obscure lines from Wil Farrell movies they've seen dozens of times, and willing to throw a fit in order to 'fit in' with the mob mentality that is high school. Why are a bunch of fans who go to a football game barechested in freezing weather called "diehards" and applauded, and a bunch of people who go to Washington to protest abortion in freezing weather called "religious nuts" and ridiculed?

Zeal after conversion may be intense, but it's also usually short-lived. Whether it's the zeal of being a new fan of a sporting team or a new convert to the Church in an RCIA program, many start off intense and willing to give of their time (to attend events) and cash (to buy the books, posters, window decals, etc.). But then what happens? The team plays badly. The Church (personified in the Bishop or a Priest, Deacon or Sister) disappoints them. Or, some other new and exciting thing comes along and captures their attention, drawing their time and treasure.

What if St. Paul's zeal had burned out early on? Would we be commemorating his conversion every year? What if he was 'on fire' for the first two years, but three years of preaching in Damascus got boring and he left? We remember St. Paul's conversion not just for that moment on the road to Damascus when Christ opened a can of whoopa$$ on him, but because it was the moment that affected every other moment for the rest of his life. His conversion is the overture of what's to follow. Think "Lexington & Concord". Think "Fort Sumter". Think of when you see on a screen "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...".

I've said it before: we're an "instant gratification" society that also suffers from attention deficit disorder. The Church doesn't need sprinters, she needs marathon runners. Sprinters can run 50 or 100 yards very quickly, but then they're exhausted and have to stop. Marathoners may not cover that distance as fast, but they'll keep going for miles and miles, despite distractions from the outside (weather) or from within (cramps). Let's ask the Lord to reveal Himself to us, and let's ask St. Paul to pray that we have the fortitude to do great things once it's happened.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

January 24 - Feast of St. Francis DeSales

St. Francis DeSales' feast day is today. Since he is the patron of journalists, it is right to give him his honor on this day. How did he get that distinction? Pamphlets. Lots of pamphlets.

Francis was ordained for the Diocese of Geneva, but when staunch Calvinism made it dangerous for Catholic clergy in Switzerland, the Church administration moved into exile in France. It was here that the Francis caught the attention of the Bishop of Geneva, who would eventually ordained him to the Priesthood. St. Francis began his Priesthood determined to bring the recently "Calvinized Catholics" back to the Church. But how do you do that when it's downright dangerous to be publicly professing the Faith and refuting Calvinism?

The answer, so obvious today, was for Francis to write a series of small pamphlets which were printed up and made readily accessible to the public. They refuted the attacks on the Church and showed the flaws in Calvin's thinking. But DeSales' writing was not limited to small pamphlets. Looking for something to read during Lent? Try his classic Introduction to the Devout Life.

Because of these, DeSales gets Catholic media under his patronage. In fact, Pope John Paul's last Apostolic Letter, The Rapid Development, written on the topic of modern communications, was released two years ago on this day to honor the patron of communications.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Happiness is...

...the first time you ever see a book you helped to write on the shelf of a bookstore.

I snapped this with my cellphone at a local Barnes & Noble. Click the link on the right of this webpage to get the book from Amazon (with your help, we can raise it's popularity to something under number 300,000 on the Amazon "most-popular" list). Or, now I may say, check the shelves of your local bookstore (in fact, if you realllllllllly want to do me a favor: grab it off of the shelf of the "Religion: Christianity" section, walk it to the front of the store and put it nicely in the "New Releases: Non-Fiction" section).

Friday, January 19, 2007

Venetian Table, Anyone?

Angelo Cardinal Scola has what's got to be one of the top five coolest titles in the Roman Catholic Church: Patriarch of Venice. I first heard of him in the seminary in the mid 90s, before his move to Venice, when he was Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University and the head of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. In our moral theology classes, we had begun to read his stuff, as well as the stuff of his predecessor at the JP2 Institute, Msgr. Carlo Caffara (currently the Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna, another not-too-shabby gig).

This past Wednesday, Cardinal Scola was at the United Nations to present the journal, Oasis, in the United States. The journal is geared towards Christians who live in predominantly Muslim countries, as well as nations that are experiencing ever increasing numbers of Muslim immigrants. I received an invitation to attend the event, which was a panel discussion on the topic of "Peoples and Religions." Joining Cardinal Scola on the panel were a Rabbi from the World Jewish Congress, a Muslim scholar from George Washington University, and Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson (whose connection to Scola goes back to Anderson's days as Dean of the Washington, DC campus of the JP2 Institute). The event was put together by Crossroads New York Cultural Center, an outreach of the Communione e Liberazione movement.

What did I learn? Above all I realized how smart I'm not. As much as I like to think I'm doing what my seminary professors told me, continuing my education by reading current articles in magazines, journals, and newspapers, I'm not doing enough.

Anyway, here's some pictures that I snapped that night. Please forgive the blurriness.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

St. Anthony of the Desert

This morning's Office of Readings in the breviary gave this passage from St. Athanasius' biography of St. Anthony:

"...This was all in [Anthony's] mind when, entering the church just as the gospel was being read, he heard the Lord's words to the rich man..."

Was I reading this right? Was St. Anthony of the Desert another one of those who seem to arrive at Mass 10 minutes after Mass has begun? Was there one of the Church's saints who has set the pattern for the crowd who always seem to get to Mass late (which sometimes works out well, since they take the seats of those who are leaving Mass early)?

But as is often the case, I was wrong. Re-reading the passage a few sentences before, I read that "he was on his way to church for his usual visit." In other words, he wasn't going to Mass; he was going to make a visit to the Lord. So Anthony was not being minimal in the minimum that God asks of us, but doing something extra that even today most people don't think to do (even those of us who have a church connected to our rectories). Then I got to wondering whether Anthony was blowing off Mass in favor of a quickie 'pop into a church'?, but I realized sometimes I over-analyze things, and I just shut up.

Yes, I've been reading the Liturgy of the Hours for fifteen years now, but how many times it became just superficial and something to 'get out of the way' so the so-called "real" day's work can begin? How many times I neglect prayer.

But back to St. Anthony: The opening prayer of today's Mass asked God that "By his prayers and example, may we learn to deny ourselves and to love [God] above all things." Deny ourselves? Talk about counter-cultural! Love God above all things? Do I love God more than I love CSI or the New Jersey Devils? Will I plan my schedule so I can spend an hour watching my favorite television show or a sporting event, but the prospect of spending an hour in quiet prayer with the Lord is unthinkable? Impossible? And when I do get myself to go and pray, do I bring enough stuff to read that it looks like I'm waiting for a train at Penn Station? Fortunately the prayer itself gives me hope: It asks God that we can learn to live this way, which means that it doesn't come naturally (which is especially true nowadays). In other words, to deny ourselves is not sliding downhill into some valley; it's a plateau which involves an uphill climb in order to get to.

Has the information society passed by the vocation to be a contemplative? Not so. In my own Garden State (Chester, N.J., to be exact) we have the Bethlehem Hermitage, where there not only exists a "Laura" (community) of men and women consecrated hermits, but the opportunity to experience life without iPods, the internet, and 400 channels of TV.

When I was a teen, there was a popular rap song at the time which said, "You talk too much. Home boy, you never shut-up." Great advice. St. Anthony of the Desert, pray for us!.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dress for Supernatural Success

The Responsorial Psalm at Mass last Sunday gave us the line, "Worship the Lord in holy attire." The unusually warm winter we've had here has meant that on more than one occasion I've had a few people come to Mass in shorts. Seeing them, I was reminded about a time when I was relatively newly ordained. Reading the Gospel for the following weekend, I saw that we would be reading the passage about the king who throws a banquet, invites the town, and gets offended when people don't come wearing their 'wedding garment'. In other words, the king saw it as a sign of disrespect towards him that people would come into his palace and into his presence and treat it as something ordinary. I thought, "What a perfect opportunity to write something in my parish's bulletin about the way people dress, especially in summer months, when they come to Mass!" What began as a "blurb in a bulletin" evolved into an article that was eventually published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Here's that article for your reading pleasure:

A small pamphlet spells out a golf course's dress code clearly. On the course, "Men must wear shirts with a collar or turtleneck shirts", "All shirts must be tucked in", "All hats must be worn peak forward and outdoors only." In the country club dining room, "Jacket and tie are required for gentlemen aged 17 and over at all times", "Ladies must wear a dress, skirt, or slacks", and no matter where you are, "Jeans, denim, and sweat clothes are not tolerated anywhere on the property." Does this seem harsh? Do we look down on the country club's rules? Do we worry about the need for the members and their guests to be comfortable whether on the course or sitting at table? Should the club's owner just be happy that people are coming? Probably not; most likely people appreciate the atmosphere that is created when people are dressed up. They might even look forward to dressing up for dinner at the country club, as a fancy night out.

Can you imagine what would happen if we printed a similar card with guidelines of how to dress for Mass on Sunday? What if ushers enforced this "dress code" as diligently as the country club enforces their rules for dress? What sort of letters would we receive at the parish office? How many telephone calls would the Bishop's office receive? What happens to our desire to dress up when it comes to Sunday Mass? Why is it that the only times we will dress a little nicer when going to church is for a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral? Sadly, it seems that the reasons people find to dress up on the Lord's Day have more to do with where we are going after Mass than our attendance at the Mass itself. Perhaps because our understanding of what truly takes place at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has diminished in past years. So like any good gardener, rather than simply pulling the weed out, let's attack the root.

So just what happens at Mass? Imagine an alien were to land on the church's front lawn on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning and wander into the building to look around. In making his report home, he would perhaps think this gathering an opportunity to come together to exchange local gossip, read funny stories, and be entertained for forty-five minutes (less if you arrive late and leave early, but that's a whole other article). Whole books have been written on the topic of understanding the Mass, so how can we keep it "short and sweet"? The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives an simple yet profoundly deep description in paragraph 1382:
"The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood. But the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion. To receive communion is to receive Christ himself who offered himself for us." Moreover the Catechism recognizes the need for outward signs of our inward understanding of just what is happening at Mass. "Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest." (CCC # 1387) Jesus Christ himself, not a symbol, not a reminder, but the man himself, becomes substantially present in the Eucharistic host. Each time we receive Communion, our hearts should be echoing the words of the Apostle John as he recognized the risen Christ on the seashore: "It is the Lord!". Truly it is the Lord who comes to dwell within us; how can that moment cause anything but an attitude of reverence and awe? A nineteenth-century Anglican clergyman, Gerard Moultrie, once translated a Byzantine liturgical hymn from the 400s which was sung during the Divine Liturgy at the presentation of the gifts. In what could be called a musical/ecumenical move, he combined the words of a Byzantine- rite hymn with the music of a Latin-rite hymn, and we are forever indebted to him for this powerful anthem. Fr. George Rutler, writing in his 1998 work, Brightest and Best - Stories of Hymns(available from Ignatius Press), calls this hymn "a sublime antidote to the lamentable musical trivia that has so mutilated the psychology of Catholic worship as it is ordinarily encountered." This truly is the mystery of faith:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of Kings yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth he stood,
Lord of Lords in human vesture,
In the body and the blood:
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

At his feet the six-winged seraph;
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the Presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry,
"Alleluia, alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord most high."
Now that we have a basic understanding of the Eucharistic sacrifice, lets explore our understanding of the Lord's Day, known as the sabbath (from the Hebrew "Shabbat"). The tradition comes to us from the very beginning of Sacred Scripture: "And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day ... So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it." (Gen 1:2-3) Centuries later it is clearly reaffirmed in the Law given to Moses: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it." (Ex 19:8-11) What began as the Jewish commemoration of God's rest after creating the universe was adopted and transferred to Sunday from the very start of the Church. In 1998, Pope John Paul II issued the Apostolic Letter Dies Domini ("Day of the Lord"), in which he beautifully explains the switch of days: "Because the Third Commandment depends upon the remembrance of God's saving works and because Christians saw the definitive time inaugurated by Christ as a new beginning, they made the first day after the Sabbath a festive day, for that was the day on which the Lord rose from the dead. ... In the light of this mystery, the meaning of the Old Testament precept concerning the Lord's Day is recovered, perfected, and fully revealed in the glory which shines on the face of the risen Christ. We move from the ‘Sabbath' to the ‘first day after the Sabbath', from the seventh day to the first day: the dies Domini [day of the Lord] becomes the dies Christi [day of Christ]! At this point let us note that this is by no means a uniquely "Catholic" understanding but extends to all Christian denominations. Even though we are a country which had its most basic roots grounded in the Protestant tradition, there are many terms which today seem of a bygone era which Catholics could just as easily relate to. If one spoke of "Sunday School", everyone understood this always meant religious instruction rather than math or reading. Putting on your "Sunday best", no matter what day of the week it really was, meant that you would wear what was normally reserved for the worship of God. What has happened to our reverence for this day? How many people remember to bring to the Sacrament of Reconciliation any sins against the Third Commandment, i.e. any unnecessary work done on the Lord's day? Does the crisis of dysfunctional families have anything to do with our dysfunctional relationship with God? Yes, financial burdens may require wage-earners to put in extra hours on weekends to better support their families. True, there are certain occupations (health care, for example) whose very nature requires constant coverage. But as followers of Jesus Christ, even though the circumstances may prevent us, no situation should take away our understanding of Sunday as a day dedicated to the Lord. "Even in our own difficult times", the Holy Father writes, "the identity of this day must be protected and above all must be lived in all its depth."

Perhaps nothing has done more to diminish the uniqueness of Sunday as the now commonplace anticipated vigil Masses held in just about every parish on Saturday evenings. In the 1967 instruction from the Sacred Congregation for Rites entitled On the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, it is mentioned that with the permission from Rome for Vigil Masses comes the instruction that "pastors should explain the meaning of this permission carefully to the faithful and should ensure that the significance of Sunday is not thereby obscured". Here we priests have dropped the ball a bit. In recent times many of the faithful have been conditioned to expect a Mass the night before a liturgical solemnity, and in fact make it their regular practice to attend these anticipated Masses. How many families regularly attend the Saturday evening vigil Mass, not because of the impossibility of attending Mass on Sunday, but because "we like to sleep in late", or, "we don't do Sundays"? This is especially sad when the Church seeks to honor specific days, such as August 15 or December 8, and so the liturgical moment is lost. Here mention must be made of the decision by the United States Bishops Conference that removes the obligation of the faithful to attend Mass if the Solemnity falls on a Saturday or Monday. What message are we sending out but "No one should have to go to Mass two days in a row". The Church sanctifies time in her feasts and seasons precisely to focus attention on a specific person or event in salvation history; giving options outside the point in time, if not properly explained, waters down the moment. In the parish I am assigned to, Christmas Eve Masses outnumber Christmas Day Masses, largely because people want the obligation out of the way, in order to concentrate on the festivities. Sometimes though you have to laugh: In my first year as a Priest I received a phone call from a woman who very seriously asked whether we would be distributing ashes for Ash Wednesday on Tuesday evening? We must remember that not only the "biggies" of the Church calendar carry the weight of a Solemnity, but each and every Sunday of the year!

Continuing this line of thought, it should be stated that Sundays are the Lord's day, even while we are on vacation! In my home state of New Jersey we are blessed with miles of beautiful seashore, but in this case the physical features are irrelevant. Many people have come to feel that summer vacation (wherever it may be) somehow allows us to treat our Mass attendance with a certain lack of concern. In many shore parishes from June through September, people can be seen attending Mass wearing clothes that would fit in just as well (and even more appropriately) on the beach. The sad part is that most people do, in fact, have a dress or blazer packed in their suitcases, but these are for ‘special occasions'. Good Lord, if the Mass is not a special occasion, than what is?!? They will go to a restaurant where jackets are required and never question the dress code, yet place those same requirements on Mass attendance and they suddenly become irritated. Some priests, fearing that correcting the faithful may result in a lower collection, quietly let it go unmentioned. Even worse are the horror stories of priests saying such things as "it's too hot to say the Creed" or neglecting such vestments as the chasuble. Recently I was told of a parishioner's friend's visit from California. She spent a good deal of time pressing the pleats in her skirt, not to wear for Mass, but for the brunch she was going to attend after Mass (she planned on going home to change clothes in between). When the parishioner questioned her about not dressing up for Mass, she was told, "They (meaning the priests, I imagine) should be happy we come." Speaking for my brother priests, I say that you should never come to Mass to impress me or your neighbors, but because it is the worship owed to almighty God, and required by the precepts of the Church to which you profess to belong. There are 168 hours in the week; can't we give God at least one of those hours?

If we understand the awesomeness that is the Blessed Sacrament, and we see the beauty of setting aside the day of Christ's resurrection as a day for the Lord, then suddenly the Sunday assembly of the faithful to celebrate the Eucharist makes perfect sense. Suddenly the obligation the Church places on her faithful to attend Mass each Sunday bothers us as little as our daily obligation to breathe or eat or drink. If we hold our breath, a reflex action causes our bodies to gasp for air. If we go without food for an extended period, the unexplainable yet very real sensation of hunger arises. Similarly each week as we face the burdens of life, the temptations to sin, and perhaps our own shortcomings, something inside each of us should cause us to yearn, to gasp for the Mass. To gather together as our Christian ancestors have done for centuries to give thanks and praise to God, to listen to the timeless words of scripture, and to share Christ's body in Holy Communion, we become the newest link in an unbroken chain which, if we traced back, leads to none other than Jesus Christ Himself! How do we react to this? Do our exterior actions show the feelings we have inside? Do we learn from the different postures the Church calls for at Mass? When we stand, do we see ourselves as standing in the presence of Almighty God, as we would stand in the presence of royalty or the President of the United States? When we kneel, do we realize it is with humility that we show our nothingness in the real presence of Christ? I have been blessed in my lifetime to get close enough to both Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa in their moments of silent prayer before the tabernacle. To see true holiness incarnate bent over in humble supplication only reinforces Christ's words, "Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves."(Lk 22:26) Recently a Catholic church, after completing some renovations to ‘get with the times', took out all the kneelers from the pews. A woman complained about it and was told that standing was a sign of respect, just as people stand when the President walks into a room. "You're right," she said, "I would stand for the President, but I kneel for Jesus Christ."

All this brings us to the question at hand: proper dress for Mass. On the surface, it has no effect. Whether the congregation is dressed in togas, tunics, or tanktops, Christ still becomes truly present in the Eucharistic species by the words and actions of the Priest. This is equally true in other circumstances as well. A couple will be validly married by a Priest or Deacon whether we attend the wedding in a tuxedo or a bathing suit. A baby will be validly baptized whether we attend the baptism in a dress or in pajamas. Our children will receive their first Holy Communion whether we wear something formal or something frumpy. In short, we do not wear the clothes to make the magic happen, we wear the clothes to salute the honored guest(s); to show we care about them and that they mean something very special to us. So the million dollar question must then be asked: "At a Mass, who is the guest who we come to honor?" It is none other than Jesus Christ. Then if we will dress up to honor ordinary people receiving Sacraments, how can we not dress up to honor the author of those Sacraments?

Here we must avoid the other extreme. If we are dressing to honor Christ, then we are dressing for Him alone, and not to be seen by others. Naturally not everyone has the same financial means, and so ‘dressing up' becomes a relative term. Quite simply, we should dress in a respectful and perhaps even slightly subdued manner, wearing the best we have for God. Mass should never become a fashion show in which we spend our time looking around and judging the best outfit! Nor should we plan our wardrobe based on what others will think. At its very root, our external demeanor is a personal salute between us and the Lord, and no one else should enter into the formula.

But there is another reason for dressing respectfully at Mass. As adults, even if we are not feeling as we should, we are able to ‘put on a good face'. If we come to Mass dressed shabbily, we may still have the deepest devotion interiorly. Children, however, are not able to differentiate between the two. They look at a picture of a monster and it is as real to them as if it was a living being. What they see on the outside they assume is also on the inside, and therein lies the teaching moment. A child may not understand the word ‘transubstantiation', nor could I explain the theology of the Eucharist. But if he sees his parents dressing up for Mass in the same way they dress for weddings, birthdays, and other big events, he will understand that going to Mass is a special event too. Recently comedienne Carol Burnett was explaining a time when her three daughters were quite young, and the family would be going to a rather fancy restaurant for dinner. Visions of food fights, spilled drinks, and public screaming filled her head. Rather than cancel the dinner, she decided to put her acting skills to work. Outside her bathroom she hung a sign: "Total Beauty Makeover, 2 cents". As each timid child made their way into the bathroom, Carol acted as their personal beautician, asking the girl if she wanted her hair done this way or that way, and if she would like to wear this dress or that dress to the dinner party. That night, without any coaching from their mother, each of her three little girls acted like absolute angels, saying such things as "Please pass the butter" and "No, thank you". By dressing them a certain way the children instinctively knew what behavior would fit. How this could change the character of Sunday Mass, where childrens' silence is often bought rather than taught. The Church sees parents as the primary educators of their children in matters of the faith. Pope John Paul writes, "For Christian families, the Sunday assembly is one of the most outstanding expressions of their identity and ‘ministry' as ‘domestic churches', when parents share with their children at the one Table of the Word and of the Bread of Life." If they learn that Mass is some legalistic minimum, something we do just to get it over with, where stepping in the door is enough, and attendance is measured by possession of a communion Host and a bulletin, then I fear what these children will pass on to their children. But if we begin with ourselves, and create an attitude which teaches children about the worship of God in a way that prepares them for intellectual growth later on, then we will not be the last link in the chain, but a proud link somewhere in the middle.

In the end, the country club's printed dress code seems absurd. The truth is we should not need any piece of paper to tell us what is appropriate to wear to Mass. Mass is not some foreign thing in a strange place; it is a ‘family reunion' on our home turf. We know what happens at every Mass, and we know how God wants us to spend his day. How we dress should be obvious.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Kissin' Cozzens?

Some of you who read Catholic World Report magazine know about the back page written by an anonymous writer named Diogenes, whose topics are filled with honesty and style I enjoy reading. He recently posted a blog entry which had me smiling and nodding with every sentence I read. While the main reason for his entry was to talk about a new book by Fr. Donald Cozzens on the question of clerical celibacy in these "modern" times, he tackles the bigger question of which Cozzen's book is only a symptom. Check out his blog entry here.

Here's some highlights....

"Fr. Donald Cozzens puts me in mind of one of those divers who takes higher and higher bounces on the springboard until he has everybody's attention, but then kills his jump, walks back off the board and robes up, still dry."

"We're all familiar with Cozzens's attitude, though perhaps most of us meet it in the celebrant at Mass. It's not as if they're obviously bored or perfunctory, but somehow they communicate the feeling that the real business takes place somewhere else."

"It's a priesthood in which the gift shop and the altar are simply two ways of reaching out to spiritual needs."

Check it out...

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Papal Alterations

The chasuble worn by Pope Benedict at today's Mass for the Epiphany (still celebrated in Rome and elsewhere on January 6, and not transferred to a Sunday) should seem familiar to Young Fogeys. The gold chasuble embroidered with seashells was worn at B16's Mass of Installation following his election in April, 2005. The idea of wearing a vestment embroidered with shells is not unique to Pope Benedict (the National Geographic documentary, Inside the Vatican, shows a papal sacristan laying out a similar vestment for Pope John Paul II), but B16 has had a shell as a heraldic symbol in his coat of arms since he became a Bishop in 1977, so it took on a new poignancy that made the vestment famous. So famous, in fact, it was recently reproduced by the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, making its debut this past Christmas on Papal Nuncio Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and by all the Shrine Priests on Christmas Day.

But did the Holy Father ask for changes in the vestment? Here's a photo of B16 at his installation:

And here's a photo of B16 from this morning's Mass for the Epiphany:

Where'd the roll-over collar go? Did the Holy Father's liturgical preference come out? The truth is that the man is known not only for his sweaters, but for his sweating. The roll-over probably made B16 'hot under the collar' (which is something you don't want in a pontiff).

I'll probably get in trouble for doing this, but I'll let you, my loyal readers, in on the big secret. When I put on my "Young Fogey Spy Glasses" and looked at the Pope's chasuble on TV, I could see written in big letters: "INDULT COMING SOON"! Yes, that's how he sends us secret messages. How can you get the spy glasses? It's a bit complicated (involving Proofs of Purchase from Ignatius Press and Gammarelli's over in Rome). Don't worry about it; I'll tell you what you need to know.

Just kidding. But maybe not.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Feast of St. Elizabeth Seton

Ah, Betty...

You'll excuse the familiarity I have with a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church, but her and I have been together for a while. Like her, I came to the Catholic Church, so to speak, "from the outside." I attended the university named after her by her nephew, Bishop James Roosevelt Bailey of the Diocese of Newark. I went to seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she lived the later part of her life and where she died. I was ordained a Deacon about 20 yards from her tomb. Betty and I are pals.

The Gospel passages we've been reading at daily Mass have been from John. Today we heard about how St. Andrew and another follower of St. John the Baptist made their first contact with Jesus Christ. It's a great story: The two guys are following Jesus, perhaps at a distance close enough to listen in on his conversations, but far enough to deny any involvement with him (something the Lord faces all too often today from some of His flock). Finally, Jesus has had enough. "What are you looking for?", he asks them. It's a great question that Jesus Christ also puts out there for us. We pray, we go to Mass, we kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, but why am I there? Habit? Routine? Another of Jesus' questions pops into our heads: "Who do you say that I am?" Have I forgotten to whom I'm speaking/praying? But back to the story. The two guys panic. Like us when we plop ourselves down in a pew and unload our laundry list of woes, they weren't expecting to be confronted by Christ "in their faces." Though we all say we'd love to have God answer our prayers, the truth is that we live in fear of God actually talking back to us. They never expected to have to explain themselves. All they could muster as a response was to answer a question with a question: "Rabbi, where are you staying?" Imagine, they're standing in front of the Son of God trying to make excuses for following him, when the answer to Jesus' question would have been, "Lord, you called us to follow, because you knew us when we were created!" Jesus invited them into his home and, for young St. Andrew, that moment made such an impact that even the very time of day was burned forever into his memory of it.

Now, the meeting also could have gone very wrong. What if Jesus spent that first meeting telling Andrew about the Passion? Or Andrew's own martyr's death years later? The poor guy might have run back to the safety of his fishing boat. Would St. Elizabeth Seton have been able to handle the whole picture of her life as a mother, widow, convert, social outcast, teacher and religious foundress all at once? Of course not. God doesn't lay out our lives all at once for us because the truth is that it would probably scare the pants off of us! Like St. Andrew, all he asks is that we 'come and see' the next step he has to offer. If God had shown me all that would happen in my life: a Catholic Priest, the host of a radio show, co-author of a book, Time Magazine's Person of the Year, I never would have believed it. Worse, I might have lived my life in fear of doing the right things so that these things would happen, constantly second-guessing every little decision I made. God knows His Priests are full of ambition with the need for affirmation. We're human beings; we can't help it. But when decisions are made based not upon whether it's the right or necessary thing to do, but whether the parishioners will come out of their coma of indifference and raise a stink, or whether newspapers or local TV stations will plaster this story all over the place, or whether this will be the topic of discussion around a lunch table in the chancery, then we've lost our focus. To extend it to the laity, do decisions get made based on whether they'll be received well by my co-workers, or with the neighbors, or simply because it'll avoid an argument between spouses or between parent(s) and child(ren)?

In today's Office of Readings for St. Elizabeth Seton's Feast, a conference she gave to her spiritual daughters gives us great advice for our lives:

"The first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills; and thirdly, to do it because it is his will."

St. Elizabeth Seton, pray for us. Catch 'ya later, Betty!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Does She? or Doesn't She?

After 4 days of relaxation at my old seminary, catching up on mail, and the normal weekend activities at my parish, I'm back for your 2007 blog-addiction fulfillment.

So let's start off with today, January 1st, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. While the title of this blog entry really goes back to some hair product commercial I remember from my childhood (congratulations to you, hair-product-marketing-person, you drilled that tagline into my long term memory!), the same question pops up every year: Is today a Holy Day of Obligation for Holy Mother Church?

[Note: it's now an hour later than when I started writing this. A call to the emergency room. Welcome into your little glimpse of the Priesthood.]

The answer is this: The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Roman Catholic Church (the whole list of H.Ds of O. can be found in the Church's Canon Law, No. 1246, paragraph 1). But if you take a look at paragraph 2 of that canon, you find out that conferences of bishops have the power to adapt these days (providing they get approval from Rome).

In 1991, the United States Bishops did exactly that. In a document available on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' website, you'll see that, while they affirmed the 6 Holy Days of Obligation mentioned in Canon Law, they ruled that "Whenever January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, or August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption, or November 1, the solemnity of All Saints, falls on a Saturday or Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated." What it means is that the Feast Day still exists and is celebrated with the readings and prayers proper to the day. The only thing different is that, when the feast day falls on a Saturday or Monday, the faithful's obligation to attend Mass is lifted. As an analogy, when my grandmothers were alive, I'd call them and buy them gifts on their respective birthdays. Now that they are deceased, their dates of birth have not changed, but I'm not really obligated to buy them gifts. Anyway, Rome approved of the US Bishops' decision on July 4, 1992 (an ordinary day in Italy, but an interesting choice of dates for a decree affecting America). Part of their power to "adapt" also means to transfer major feast days to Sunday, which is why feasts like the Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, and Corpus Christi have been shifted to Sunday celebrations, while still celebrated on specific dates elsewhere in the world (eg- January 6 for the Epiphany). The latest to fall is the Ascension, which has been bumped to Sunday in most of the US, except for a few holdouts in the northeast.

What January 1 is not is a "movable feast", which is a whole different animal. You're already pretty used to this one. Many feasts in the Church change dates each year, the most obvious being Easter Sunday. Because of that, days like Ash Wednesday, the Ascension (in dioceses where Jesus still spent 40 days on earth after his Resurrection, and not 43 days- hehehe), and Corpus Christi (which is celebrated on the Thursday after Holy Trinity Sunday, which itself is celebrated the Sunday after Pentecost, which itself is celebrated... Well, you get the idea) also shift dates from year to year. Some specific feasts also have the power to switch days, such as the one that we'll experience next in the US, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is usually the Sunday after Epiphany Sunday (another feast moved to Sunday), but when January 7 or 8 is a Sunday, then the feast is celebrated on the Monday after Epiphany is celebrated (confused? It's o.k.). Others include March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph (which, if it falls on a Sunday, bounces to March 20) and March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation (which, if it falls on a Sunday gets bumped to March 26, and if it falls any day during Holy Week gets bumped to the Monday after the Easter Octave). These are the aptly named movable feasts. Now, do you have to remember all of this? Not really, thanks to those calendars every parish seems to give out each year. All the work is done for you, so just enjoy the Feast and patronize the businesses that sponsored your local parish calendar so that you could get it for free.

So when it comes to our original question about celebrating the Feast of Mary, mother of God, I go back to the hair commercial's tagline, "Does she or doesn't she?" The answer is "She still does."