Popular Posts

Sunday, September 14, 2014

NCEA Consultation


I’m at a consultation of the Executive Committees of the National Catholic Education Association this weekend (I serve on the Executive Committee for Seminaries), which has just completed a study on the future of the organization.  At the center of members’ concerns from across the country is the declining number of Catholic Schools (23.2% decline in the past ten years) and Catholic School students (22.7% decline in the past ten years).  Several hundred leaders in Catholic Education are brainstorming on this important area for the life of the Church.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Archbishop Chaput on the Film "Calvary"

Lots of folks have been talking about the new film "Calvary", in which an anonymous man in the confessional threatens to kill a priest because he has been molested years before.  The man was not molested by this priest, however, but by another priest.  Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.P. offers some very telling reflections on the film which I offer here in case you have seen or plan to see the movie.  By the way, Archbishop Chaput is also the author of one of the best books ever written on the relationship of Church and State: Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life” (Random House, 2008)

    ‘Calvary’ is an unblinking, unforgettable film

by Archbishop Charles Chaput

Calvary” is the kind of film that leaves a theater silent at the final credits. It’s not the silence of boredom or a morgue, but the silence of people collecting their emotions in order to breathe again.
Friends who’ve seen the film, some of them already two or three times, have noticed the same effect. From the first frame to the last, “Calvary” has an understated power – a blend of everyday pain, faith, despair, humor, candor, bitterness, and forgiveness – that brands itself onto the heart with spare simplicity. It’s also the best portrayal of a good priest in impossible circumstances I’ve seen in several decades.
Plenty of good reviews of Calvary already exist. I can’t improve on them here. It’s enough to say that the cast – led by Brendan Gleesonin an extraordinary performance – gives us a menagerie of human foibles, and the County Sligo setting has a raw Irish beauty that few viewers will ever forget.
But it’s the story that makes the film.
Gleeson plays an innocent man, a good priest, in the aftermath of Ireland’s devastating sex abuse scandal. A late vocation, a widower with a troubled adult daughter, he’s surrounded by people he knows better than they know themselves, characters ripe with indifference, resentment and cynicism, sprinkled with just enough courtesy to mask their contempt.
Into his confessional comes a man, the victim of clergy rape as a child, who informs him that he will murder him on Sunday in a week’s time – not because he’s a bad priest, but precisely because he’s a good priest. The rest of the film is the priest’s day-by-day path through the needs and circumstances of his people, and his own fear, to a meeting on the beach with the man who intends to kill him – a man whose voice the priest recognizes, but does not disclose, from the very beginning.
This is not a film for the young or the naïve. But along with the darkness come moments of great beauty: the priest’s kindness to an aging writer friend; his love for his daughter; his awareness of his own flaws and his patience with the flaws of his people; his humor and mentoring with a young altar server; and an astonishing scene with a young French woman, widowed in a car accident, about faith, death and gratitude for a married life filled with love.
Near the end of the film is a scene – a telephone conversation between the priest and his daughter filled with mercy, reconciliation, and forgiveness – that stays in the memory long after the screen goes black.
The Irish actor Chris O’Dowd, who plays a key supporting role in the story, has described himself as an atheist and organized religion as a “weird cult” in recent interviews. But he’s also said that “the relationship I have with priests in my own life is very, very positive. Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a Catholic anymore, I wouldn’t have done this film if I felt it was a hatchet job on priests.”
O’Dowd may be the voice of a “post-Christian” Ireland, but it’s curious: Amid all the ruin, suffering and unbelief caused by the abuse scandal of the past decade, the witness of a good priest who loves his people can somehow, so often, remain intact.
Or maybe it’s not so curious. One of the truths at the heart of this film is that the sins of the past bear a bitter kind of fruit in the present, in pain, anger, and revenge. Hypocrisy never stays hidden forever. But the opposite is also true: Love also leaves its indelible mark on the world.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). It’s the easy sort of passage from Scripture that Gleeson’s priest would admit sounds like a tired cliché, and yet he gives his life to it.
The result is an intimate, unblinking, unforgettable film.

The Smile of God...

Sandy Barry, our Director of Annual Giving, has been out on leave as she and her husband Craig have been welcoming their newborn son. Dillon Barry was the center of everyone's attention as Sandy brought the newest member of the Saint John's community for lunch during this past week. His presence reminded me of Pope Benedict XVI's homily at a Baptism he celebrated in 2008: "Each child born," said the Holy Father, "brings to us the smile of God and invites us to recognize that life is His gift, a gift that must be accepted with love and protected with care, always and at all times." (Pope Benedict XVI, January 8, 2008)


New SJS Website Goes Live Next Friday!

For many many months we have been hard at work on the new SJS website, both in its public version and the internal website for faculty and seminarians.  I am grateful to all who have worked so hard on this complex and vital resource, especially our webmaster, Matt Doyle.  I am delighted to announce the new website will go live next Friday, 19 September, with Faculty previews beginning this weekend.

By the way, I love this cartoon and have been looking for a chance to use it!




A Liturgy Conference with Fr. Briody

Father Joseph Briody presented a Liturgy Conference to the seminarians this evening.  Here is the text of his presentation on The Liturgy and the Seminary.

What we do here and why we do it?
In this brief presentation I would like to reflect on what we do here and why we do it?  This will involve a brief look at the Liturgy in general, the Paschal Mystery, interior and exterior dimensions, the Mass, adoration, the Liturgy of the Hours, beauty in the Liturgy and some practical applications.

What is the Liturgy?
The Liturgy is the official, public prayer of the Church and yet it is also the primary expression of our personal and intimate relationship with the Lord.  Its essence is communion with God and fellowship with Christ.  It allows us to encounter Jesus Christ in time (YOUCAT, 165).  God himself is present in sacred signs and ancient prayers. The Liturgy is given to us as a gift.  That is why the Second Vatican Council made clear that “no one, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, pr. 22,3).  The Liturgy is a gift from God through the Church.  St Paul says “this is what I have received and in turn pass on to you.” We receive it in faith and obedience.  It transforms us, shapes us, moulds us into Christ.  Were we to invent our own liturgy, it would have little transformative effect. It would be in our own image and likeness, not God’s.  
The Liturgy gradually shapes us “that Christ be formed in us” (Gal 4:19), as St. Paul says.  God pours out his grace in the Liturgy. Christ acts through the Liturgy and the sacraments just as he did when he visibly walked this earth.  “Our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments” (Pope St. Leo the Great tells us in his Ascension sermon).

The Paschal Mystery and the Mystical Body
The Liturgy continues “the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, pr. 5).  It flows from the side of Christ crucified, and now risen and glorious at the right hand of the Father interceding for us.  From his pierced heart flowed blood and water, the “wellspring of the Church’s sacraments” (Preface of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus).  From his death and resurrection flow the Mass, the sacraments and all graces.   The passage of Christ from death to life is called the Paschal Mystery i.e. his passion, death, resurrection, ascension into glory and sending of the Holy Spirit.   This passage from death to life is the substance of every Christian Liturgy.  All Liturgy has the shape of the Paschal Mystery in order to form us into the image of the crucified and risen Lord.
All of this is for the glory of the Father and the sanctification of man (Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 17).  This is the purpose of the Liturgy – the glory of God and our sanctification.  The Liturgy then is the worship offered by the members of the Church united with Christ their Head.  It is the worship of the full Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ (Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 20).  We could summarize as follows:
  • The Liturgy is the continuation of the work of Jesus Christ.  
  • It is the action of Christ and the Church (the whole Christ)
  • It directs our whole life towards God.  
  • Through it we offer ourselves with Christ to the Father in the Spirit.
Interior and Exterior Dimensions
The Liturgy has both an interior dimension and an exterior dimension since it is the action of a body i.e., the action of the entire Body of Christ along with Christ her head.  The Liturgy necessarily involves external things – readings, bread and wine, oil, water, the altar, vestments etc.  We are led by what we see, to the things of God that are unseen.  Through “God made visible” in Christ, we are “caught up … in love of things invisible” (Roman Missal, (2011) Preface I of the Nativity of the Lord).  We are drawn into the mystery of Christ, the Paschal Mystery and enabled to live no longer for ourselves but for him who died and rose again for us (cf. 2 Cor 5:15).  
Interior attitude should correspond with exterior celebration.  Otherwise, the Liturgy could become something artificial, like a theatrical performance, “formalism without meaning” ( Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 24), an empty shell, and not our spiritual worship. In contrast, St. Paul urges the Romans: “I urge you … to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).  A good test is how I offer Mass when there is no congregation or how I act before the Blessed Sacrament when there is no one else around.
The chief element we bring to the Liturgy is interior – our dispositions, our openness, our preparation: “For we must always live in Christ and give ourselves to him completely… so that … the heavenly Father may be … glorified” Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 24).  The Liturgy is not merely the outward or visible part of divine worship or just “ornamental ceremonial” (Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 25). Mind and heart are to turn to the Lord.  We are to “have the mind of Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5), as St. Paul indicates.  As members of the Body of Christ we unite ourselves with Christ the Head. We have to dispose our hearts to receive his grace.  This is what is meant by “active participation.”  It is not so much doing things physically or moving around, as uniting ourselves with the action of the Liturgy, the action of Christ himself.  
Today we are going to look very simply at the pillars of the Liturgy for the priest or seminarian i.e. the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours.

The Mass
The Holy Eucharist is the

SACRAMENT in which Jesus Christ gives his Body and Blood—himself—for us, so that we might give ourselves to him… The … sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is made present … in a hidden, unbloody manner. Thus the celebration of the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium [LG], 11, in YOUCAT, 208).

The Mass is possible because, (as Pope Benedict XVI expressed), Christ transforms his death into an act of love.  The Crucifixion becomes “an act of total self-giving love” (POPE BENEDICT XVI, August 21, 2005).  This act of total self-giving love is made present in the Mass.  Christ, glorious at the right hand of the Father, still bears his wounds (Easter Gospels) and presents them to the Father for us. He lives now forever to make intercession for us (Hebrews).  He is “the Lamb standing (risen) as if slain (still bearing the wounds of his passion)” (Revelation).  The Mass then clearly makes present the Paschal Mystery – the passage of Christ from death to life for us.

We might note two vital points about the Mass that we cannot repeat enough: Sacrifice and Real Presence (from Pope Paul VI’s Credo of the People of God, [June 30 1968]):  1) “The Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary rendered sacramentally present on our altarsthe bread and wine … are changed into the body and blood of Christ enthroned gloriously in heaven (35) … 2)  [T]he bread and wine have ceased to exist after the Consecration, so that it is the adorable body and blood of the Lord Jesus that from then on are really before us…(36).
By adorable we don’t mean adorable in the sense that “that baby is cute or adorable” or “my girlfriend is just adorable.”  We mean it in the sense of “must be adored” because He is the Lord.  Jesus Christ is Lord! This evokes the same response in us as it did with those who fell on their knees before Christ and the New Testament is full of this.  Saint Augustine asserts about the Eucharist that, “No one eats that flesh, without first adoring … not only do we not commit a sin by adoring …, but we sin by not adoring ...”  Reverence and posture are important. I know this has been spoken of in orientation and human formation, how to avoid certain casual habits in the chapel, like hands in pockets, slouching and so on.  

Adoring the Lord: Posture and Practice
Kneeling and Standing:  Because kneeling is probably the most distinctive posture, let’s look at it first. “Kneeling doesn’t come from any (particular) culture … it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 185).  The New Testament is full of “kneeling” – the verb is used fifty nine times there, twenty four times in the Apocalypse, which presents the heavenly liturgy as model (Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 185).  Kneeling expresses adoration, the recognition of Jesus as Son of God, and it also expresses supplication.  As with all bodily gestures, it is “the bearer of spiritual meaning” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 190).  The act of kneeling or genuflecting affects the whole person.  Cardinal Ratzinger states that “the man who learns to believe learns also to kneel” (Ibid., 194). 
When we kneel or stand in the liturgy we look out from ourselves to the One who comes to us and draws us to himself.  This is very different from the lotus position or the sitting position of oriental meditation.  There “man looks into himself.  He does not go away from himself to the Other but tends to sink inward, into the nothing…” (Ibid., 197)  Kneeling and standing in the liturgy are distinctively Christian postures of prayer, as we are drawn out of ourselves and towards the face of Jesus Christ in whom we see the Father (Jn 14:9).  
Bowing low expresses respect, humility, worship, supplication and dependence on God.  Again it expresses “the spiritual attitude essential to faith.”  It expresses the truth of our being.  Monsignor Moroney referred to this act and spirit of bowing low before God in his opening Rector’s Talk, when speaking of the Supplices of the Roman Canon.  Check it out again on the Blog.
Sitting expresses attentiveness, receptivity, readiness and willingness to learn from Christ the Master at whose feet we sit.  And so we sit for the biblical readings, except for the Gospel which merits special reverence. On the other hand, other actions such as forms of dancing and applause are not part of the liturgy and are more on the level of entertainment, when we focus only on ourselves, our own closed circle and what is merely human.
At Mass: Sometimes there is some confusion over when we should genuflect or bow.  We genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament when entering and leaving the sanctuary at the beginning and end of Mass.  However, during Mass, we bow low to the altar because the altar is the focus during Mass.  After the Consecration, the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar are the focus, and so we genuflect if passing or approaching the altar after the Consecration.  After Communion, once the Blessed Sacrament has been reposed in the tabernacle, the altar becomes the focus again and we bow low before the altar.  
Outside of Mass we genuflect before the Most Blessed Sacrament, when passing before the Tabernacle.  During Morning Prayer, if a server is coming to read at the ambo he bows low to the altar.  At Evening Prayer, because the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, a genuflection is made because at this point the exposed Blessed Sacrament on the altar is the focus.  Many people like to make a double genuflection during Exposition if entering the chapel late or leaving early.  This is commendable and praiseworthy.  However, if you are reading or serving during holy hour then a single, reverent genuflection towards the Blessed Sacrament is sufficient.
Last year, a new tabernacle was installed and blessed in the college chapel of St. John’s.  This makes it very clear the Jesus Christ is the center of our lives here.  Everything we do revolves around him.  He is the living heart of our churches and our lives.  Pope Paul VI reminds us that the unique presence of “the Lord glorious in heaven” is made present “on earth where Mass is celebrated” and  
 …[T]his existence remains present, after the sacrifice, in the Blessed Sacrament which is, in the tabernacle, the living heart of our churches. And it is our very sweet duty to honor and adore in the blessed Host which our eyes see, the Incarnate Word whom they cannot see, and who, without leaving heaven, is made present before us. ( Paul VI, Credo of the People of God, 26)

Before the Blessed Sacrament our prayer could well be that of St. John Chrysostom.  He suggested that when we see the Body of Christ we should say:  “Thanks to this Body, I am no longer dust and ashes. (Cf. Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 144)

The Liturgy of the Hours 
By becoming man, Christ introduced on earth the hymn which is sung always in heaven.  In the Divine Office we are united with this hymn, sung always before the throne of God and the Lamb.  
YOUCAT 188 explains it like this:

The Liturgy of the Hours is the universal, public prayer of the →CHURCH. Biblical readings lead the person who prays it ever deeper into the mystery of the life of Jesus Christ. Throughout the world this gives the Triune God the opportunity at every hour of the day to transform gradually those who pray and also the world … The seven “hours of prayer” are like a treasury of the →CHURCH’S prayers. It also loosens our tongues when we have become speechless because of joy, sorrow, or fear. (When we don’t have the words, or feel we cannot pray, though God can be very close at those times).  Again and again one is astonished in reciting the Liturgy of the Hours: an entire reading “coincidentally” applies precisely to my situation. God hears us when we call to him. He answers us in these texts—often in a way that is so specific as to be almost disconcerting. In any case he also allows us to have long periods of silence and dryness so that we can demonstrate our fidelity.

Every year, before we begin again with Volume One of the Liturgy of the Hours, it is very useful spiritually to read the General Instruction which explains why we do this and how to do it.  The Psalms and the Divine Office in general should become our food, the daily bread of our mediation and our own personal prayer.  After the Mass, the Breviary and the Psalms will be perhaps your greatest consolation and companion as a priest.  As Bishop Barber reminded us in his retreat conferences: the Mass, the Divine Office and the Rosary are the staple diet of the diocesan priest.  In a sense, the spirituality of the diocesan priest is built around these.


Final word on the Importance of Beauty and Dignity in the Liturgy
Beauty draws people to God in a way that rational argument may not.  Beauty moves us in a way that helps us to encounter God.  Beauty helps us experience the presence and glory of God.  I’m sure you’ve heard the story, I’m not sure how true it is, of the messengers of Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent out to discover which version of Christianity they should adopt.  It was said that when they entered Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they were so caught up in the chant, the incense, the icons, the liturgy, and the sense of the holy presence of God, that they were completely overcome.  In their report to the Prince they said they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth -- they had never experienced such beauty!  They could not describe it except to say, "there God dwells among men…" (http://pastoralmeanderings.blogspot.com/2011/07/we-did-not-know-if-we-were-in-heaven-or.html#sthash.ogCyZCre.dpuf)  Beauty is important in the Liturgy.  The Church’s Liturgy, in communion with the heavenly Jerusalem, makes the same point: “here God lives among men.”

Some practical points
Please don’t opt out of the singing, especially the singing of the Office hymns and psalms and the parts of the Mass.  
A clear outline of the various roles and functions in serving Mass is being completed and will be circulated shortly by the Masters of Ceremonies.  We have been trying to see what works best.
The only practical change to be introduced at this stage is in the Liturgy of the Hours and it is this: we should all sing the entire Gospel canticles together at Morning and Evening Prayer.  When we recite/say the Office, we recite the gospel canticle together, so it makes sense to also sing the entire canticle together.
This serves to heighten the importance of these gospel canticles which express so powerfully the Incarnation, the Coming of the Savior and the salvation he brings.  In the words of the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (50), these canticles are sanctioned by age-old use and are “expressions of praise and thanksgiving for our redemption.”  So as a general rule we will chant the entire gospel canticles together at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, except on Sunday at Morning Prayer when the verses of the canticle alternate between the cantors and the congregation. This doesn’t affect the way we sing the psalms. We will continue to sings the psalms antiphonally, that is, from side to side, as is appropriate.  
The Gospel Canticle at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer is a high point: the Benedictus or “Canticle of Zechariah” at Morning Prayer and the Magnificat or “Canticle of Mary” at Evening Prayer.  We stand for these, as we do for the Gospel at Mass.   Indeed the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours states that “The Gospel canticles of Zechariah, of Mary and of Simeon are to be treated with the same solemnity and dignity as are customary at the proclamation of the Gospel.”  
We will sing the entire gospel canticle together.  It also makes sense, during the gospel canticle to face the altar.  The altar is the focus during these canticles.  On Solemn occasions, the altar may even be incensed during these canticles, as we do from time to time at the discretion of the celebrant.  At Evening Prayer the Blessed Sacrament is on the altar, so it makes even more sense to face the altar.  If we face the altar together during the gospel canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer then it makes sense to maintain that direction and focus for the Intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer and the Concluding Prayer.  We can then turn to whichever priest is leading the Office for the blessing.  To summarize, during Morning and Evening Prayer we face each other during the chanting of the Psalms and the Scripture reading.  We face the altar for the gospel canticle, the intercessions, the Our Father and concluding prayer.  And for the blessing we face the priest, if that is convenient.  This can be reviewed after a few weeks.
Sacred Silence
If you are lector at Morning or Evening Prayer, leave some time after the psalms before you go up to do the reading.  Don’t rush up immediately.  Also leave some time for reflection between the reading and the short responsory.  Don’t rush directly into the short responsory.
Please come to any serving practices/rehearsals organized by me or the Masters of Ceremonies.  These are mandatory. Generally speaking there will be a rehearsal for the servers for Sunday Mass immediately after Morning Prayer on Sundays.  On a normal Sunday, if things are organized and everyone is there, this should only take 10-15 minutes at the most.  So if you are serving on Sunday, the default position is that there will be a rehearsal immediately after Morning Prayer for ten minutes.

Conclusion
Thank you for your cooperation and patience in these matters.  Whatever we do here is for the Lord.  That should be our motivation and intention.  We all make mistakes.  There are things we could improve on, things we should do better, things that irritate us.  But if we lose sight of what we are doing and why we are doing it, then we lose out on many of the graces and blessings God offers us in the Sacred Liturgy, as well as losing out peace, our tranquility.  We shouldn’t let ourselves become distracted from what really matters – the one thing necessary, what takes place right here at this altar.  
We shouldn’t be afraid of celebrating the Liturgy properly.  Jesus makes this clear when he asks his apostles to go and prepare the room for the Last Supper and to ensure that everything was suitable and in order.  He also makes this clear in the scene at Bethany where the woman came in with a bottle of costly, sweet-smelling ointment and wasted it on him.  Judas thought it should have been sold and the money given to the poor.  Christ said of the woman: “she has done a beautiful thing for me; she has pleased me well.”  Let us celebrate the Liturgy always well and always for the Lord.

Tomorrow is the feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary so let us pray: Hail Mary…

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rector's Conference: Three Roads to Holiness

The following Rector's Conference was given on 4 September 2014.


When St. Francis heard the voice of Jesus speak to him from the crucifix in the crumbling church of San Damiano, he set out with a naïve stubbornness, taking the Lord’s command literally: Rebuild my Church!  

 So he set about literally rebuilding the church of Saint Damien and then the little chapel we now call the porziuncula, the site of both the birth of the Franciscans and the death of their founder.

I have always loved the porziuncula as a prototype of what a church could be.  Unpretentious but washed in Grace, beautiful,  but with a beauty which points beyond itself, its walls encrusted with the prayers and the tears of generations of folks like you and me.

But what impresses me the most about this impressive little chapel is what it says on the floor at the door as you enter.  Hic Locus Sanctus Est.   “This Place is Holy.”  It is the ultimate Iconium to a building, and the ultimate purpose of each man’s life: to be called holy, beatus, sanctus.

That was so evident a couple years ago when I stood with a quarter of a million folks in Piazza San Pietro, as the Holy Father canonized Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.  

It meant so much to me because 34 years ago I was a seminarian in Rome as Kateri was first called beatus, blessed.  But now, the Pope solemnly proclaimed her to be known as Sanctus, Holy, St. Kateri, the Lily of the Mohawks.

Of course, only God is truly holy, as the angels who stand before the throne understand. 

But the Saints who aspire to join their voices with the heavenly hosts know that they were made by God to reflect his glory, to shine with the splendorous light of the face of God.  It may be only a reflection, but we were made for this great work. And we spend our lives polishing our souls and refocusing our hearts that we might be worthy of the work.

The Council fathers wonderfully envisioned the whole world called to holiness: priests and popes, and parents and toddlers, even politicians and pawn brokers, each called to holiness, preparing themselves for an eternal destiny of praising the God whom they have spent a lifetime seeking to reflect (as in a mirror, darkly), day by day.

“...all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” (Lumen Gentium, no. 10.)
Seminarians, of course, are especially called to holiness, and tonight I would like to suggest three of the many roads which might help you to get there. These roads are as unpretentious as they are eminently practical. They are three simple ways which this aging cleric has found to be useful in trimming his sails and seeking to be just a little less self-centered and a little closer to God. Three roads to holiness.
Thankful Prayer, the Poor, and Perdurance.


THANKFUL PRAYER

Timothy Dexter is one of the most colorful characters to walk the fields of Massachusetts in the decades following the American Revolution.  Born in Malden, he made his first fortune by speculating in Continental currency.  His continuing success was due to a combination of audacity and incredible good luck.  

Against all odds, he exported wool mittens to the West Indies, at just the time an exporter in that tropical climate began shipping to Siberia.  Next, he literally sent coals to Newcastle, at just the moment a British coal miner’s strike made him a fortune there.  He exported Bibles to the Muslim East Indies, stray cats to the Caribbean, and having hoarded a warehouse full of whalebone, by necessity invented the whalebone corset, which became all the rage in nineteenth century New England.

He was eccentric, but wise beyond his capacity, and never ceased to attribute his multiple successes to those who helped him along the way.  Indeed, gratitude was, in his view, the most important of virtues.

 “An ungrateful man,” he would frequently say, ‘is like a hog under a tree eating acorns, who never looks up to see where they came from.’

Remember the nine lepers in the Gospel parable who were just such narcissistic hogs?  Only one came back to give thanks, but the nine who were cleansed of their disease, cured of their disability, now set on getting on with their life, with not a smidgen of gratitude and not a word of thanks to the Lord who cured them.

And we are not so very different.  Sadly, ingratitude is so rampant in our day and age that we often become surprised by folks who are habitually grateful.

On the day I received my last postgraduate degree I practically sprained my wrist patting myself on the back.  But did I think of Miss Lucasak who first taught me cursive in third grade, or Miss Morin who encouraged us to write those one page essays with the pictures two years later.  Did I think of the Priest who first inspired me with a love for the Liturgy, or my parents who put me through College, or the inspiring professors I had come to know along the way.  Did I think of the scholars who had constructed that world of knowledge in which I had gained some small degree of proficiency, or those who built the institutions which had led me through those mysteries.

No, I thought of none of them, I never gave them a thought or a prayer.  I never said thank-you.  Just like the ungrateful lepers, I got on with my life and I never looked back.
I was like the cancer patient, who through the chemo and radiation begs God for just a few more years to see her daughter married or her grandchild graduate.  She prays with fervor, begging God in the early morning darkness to hear her prayers, bargaining and promising that God will be all that really matters in whatever years he might graciously give her…and when she’s cancer free, things get back to normal...minus the fervent prayer, the desperate search for God, and the repeated pledges to do his will.  She gets back to living HER life, and gives God the hour on Sunday, as long as she doesn’t have something more important to do.  She gets on with her life and never looks back.

It’s like the sad anger of the spouse who stands by the grave of the woman he has loved for sixty years and with bitterness blames God for taking her from him.  His God at that moment is a cruel puppet master, who pulls the strings and makes us dance, and causes the dark evil of death and suffering in fulfillment of some perverse scheme of manipulation.  And as he stands there he forgets the day that God brought together two young teens as the light of their lives in the dark days of the depression, skating at Elm Park and knowing that nothing could ever be this beautiful.  He forgets the first time they wept with perfect joy, cradling their newborn baby in their arms, convinced no God could ever be this good, and no child could ever be so beautiful.  He forgets the infinite number of sacrifices, acts of mercy: tiny expressions of exquisite love all made possible by that same God’s unbelievably gracious love for him.

For right now, he is blinded by the pain, and all he can do is cling to the darkness...he has to get on with it and he can’t look back.

It’s like those who were Baptized into Christ, learned to pray, made their First Communion and maybe were confirmed, but who now seem to have forgotten where the Church is, who seldom say a prayer, feed the poor, forgive, or even seek to love others as they were loved.  They go about living their lives, happy enough, but never full satisfied, getting along, but still uncertain about what it really means.

Sure they know joy, for a moment, in the money, in the power, in the successful career, in all the thousands of little reflections of God’s goodness which this wonderful world contains.  But all they see are glimmers and reflections.  Never the full face of him who waits for them, never the splendrous glory of his care for them, never the beauty of listening to him, never the strength of receiving him, never the joy of giving thanks.

For they have things to do, and they will continue to take, without looking back, and never say thank you.

And then there’s you and me.  Fickle, self-absorbed, and sinful as we are, we still try to crane our necks to at least look back.  To break the bread, to tell the story, and to give thanks as best we are able.

For that is what we do each day in this holy house: We celebrate the Eucharist, the thanksgiving: a memorial of recollection and gratitude, in which we remember all that He has done for us, from our first breath to our last, the love, the mercy, the sacrifice....the faith which makes sense of the darkest days and the mystery which defeats the deadly with eternal joy and eternal life.

Which is why, at Mass, speaking in the person of Christ himself, the priest calls out to us:  Lift up your hearts.  And we lift them up to the Lord.

And unlike ungrateful lepers or hogs, we will give thanks to the Lord our God.  For it is right to give him thanks and praise.

  
THE POOR


We’ve only been back to school for a couple weeks, which means that in about another seven we’ll have mid-terms. And I am certain that as you will prepare for those exams you would love to have an answer key.  Because if you know the answers to the exam, it's very easy to prepare for it.

Well we have the answers to our final exam.  Not the one which Father Cessario or Father Van De Moortell gave to their students, but the one which Christ will give to Father Cessario and Father Van De Moortell and Monsignor Moroney and to each one of us.  Christ gave us the answers when he told us that we would go to heaven or hell based upon how we treated the least of our brothers and sisters:

I was sick....did you care for me?
I was hungry....did you feed me?
I was in prison.....did you visit me?
I was naked....did you clothe me?

We've got the answers to the final exam.  Shouldn't be too hard to prepare for it, then!

Remember when the Lord told us about the rich man who failed the test. Remember Lazarus, the poor wretch who used to beg for food on the front steps of the rich man's house, and how the dogs used to come and lick the sores on Lazarus' body, while the rich man turned his head the other way and stepped over the beggar on his front stoop.

And you remember how Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man went to hell.

Why did the rich man go to hell?  Because he was rich?  No...there's no sin there.  He went to hell because he failed to love his brother.  And who is his brother.  Well, that was last week's parable.

Hospitality, love for the stranger and the alien, the poor wretch and the one whom everyone else forgets is the only correct answer to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.

That's what Abraham and Sarah teach us when the three strangers go walking by their tent on a stinking hot day.  They could have ignored this trinity of strangers, but they did not.  They invited them in, bathed their feet, gave them something cool to drink and cared for them.  Why?  Because they knew they were divine messengers?  No.  They invited them in because God would have wanted them to. And because they did, God fulfilled his covenant with the elderly and childless couple, promising them a son, Isaac, the son of laughter in their old age.

The first path to heaven, then, is hospitality, for hospitality's sake.

And then remember the other Lazarus, Jesus's dear friend.  Lazarus is there along with his sisters Martha and Mary.  

Martha understands hospitality.  She's cooking the meal, running around the kitchen, setting the table, seating the guests and breathlessly exhausting herself in order that everyone might be at home.  

But then she looks over at Mary, who, we are told, is sitting at the Lord's feet, listening to him, deep in conversation with Jesus.  The sweaty and exhausted Martha is enraged....so enraged that she goes right up to Jesus, and in words that could only have come from a friend says to him: tell that sister of mine to help me rather than sitting on her....chair chatting with you all day.

And then Jesus tells us something extraordinary.  He tells us that there is an even more excellent way, a better part than hospitality.  The better part which Mary has chosen, is to spend time alone with the Lord, and that better part shall not be taken from her.


So, hospitality, feeding the poor, forgiving and embracing the stranger, welcoming those rejected by everyone else...are indispensable to those who seek to walk the path to holiness.  But one thing more is required, to pray, to listen and to dwell with the Lord.

I have a lot of friends who are great social workers, selfless advocates for the poor and the downtrodden.  Indeed, for many years, I used to do spiritual direction with a lot of Catholic Workers and Jesuit volunteers and the like.  And you know what one thing they struggle with more than anything else.  Its not the getting up in the middle of the night to drive someone to detox, or having the patience to put up with all the stresses of working with the poor...it's shutting up long enough to pray, and stopping “doing stuff” long enough to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him.  The Martha in them would keep them going, twenty-four hours a day, like the energizer bunny, running in circles.  But what they need is contemplation, and quiet and peace with the Lord, if it's all ever going to make sense.

I also have friends in monasteries, like the Trappists in Gethsemane Abbey in Tennessee, where I preached their retreat a couple years back.  They are wonderful monks, who pray five times a day with an intensity and a joy which is a marvel to behold.  But you know what their struggles are?  Forgiving that monk who gave them a dirty look, or putting up with that guy who entered with them thirty years ago whom they've never been able to stand, or seeking out and caring for the monk who is struggling and alone.

For the second road to holiness is paved over two paths: hospitality and prayer, Martha and Mary.

And they are not really two paths at all, but the one path which leads to the cross of Jesus, to the perfect sacrifice of love and devotion, which is our hope, our salvation and the only way to heaven.


PERDURANCE

And the final key to holiness for the seminarian and the priest is perdurance.

I think I first started to learn the importance of perdurance as a little child.  Did you ever read The Little Engine that Could?  It’s been among the most popular children’s books since it was first published in 1930.  

The story is of the littlest engine in the railroad yard, whose sole job was moving trains back and forth for maintenance but, due to its size, was never deemed appropriate for more ambitious long hauls.  

One morning, as the little engine was waiting for its next assignment, it noticed a long line of heavy freight cars and the engine which usually pulled them looking for a replacement.  One after another, the bigger engines refused the job with he excuse: "I can't; that is too much a pull for me.”  In desperation, the freight cars asked the littlest engine to draw it them up one side of the hill and down on the other. 

"I think I can," puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." 

As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, "I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can." 

It reached the top because it just wouldn’t give up.  And as it descended the little engine puffed to itself:  "I thought I could, I thought I could."

That little story was my first lesson in not giving up, not limiting God’s grace, not doubting that God will give me whatever I needed to do whatever he asked me to do.

A True Story:

John was twenty years old when Father Balley opened a seminary near his home town.  The problem was that John was not very good at academics, having no more than a little arithmetic, history, and geography from his elementary education.  His early writings reveal that he found Latin extremely difficult and he and his best friend Matthew would sit up late at night reciting declensions, which he never really mastered.
  
But if this wasn’t enough, a war broke out and John was drafted into the army.  After basic training he lasted less than a week.  You see, in the morning his regiment was due to march into battle for the first time, so John got up before the sun rose and snuck off to Church to pray.  However, he lost track of time, and when he returned to camp his regiment had already left.  While he escaped being punished for that incident, he soon decided that military life for not for him and he joined the resistance, deserting the army and serving as the schoolmaster in a nearby town under an assumed name for over a year.  When he eventually contacted his family, his Father, was naturally furious with him.  In the end, his brother volunteered to join the army in his place and no charges were ever brought.

So he returned home to try the Seminary again.  However, his Latin was still so bad, that he failed the entrance exam the first time around, but kept trying and eventually passed.  

Three years later he was ordained a Priest and sent as the associate to Father Balley, the good Priest who first encouraged him before the war.  But Father Balley died within a few years and Father John was sent to one of the smallest and most remote parishes in the entire Diocese.  

And from that parish, John Baptiste Vianney, the Cure of Ars, transformed the Priesthood and revitalized the Church, which is why Pope Benedict XVI named him the patron of all Priests, for Father John “taught his parishioners [not just by words, but] primarily by the witness of his life.”

If Father John Baptiste, with all his troubles and failings, could do God’s will so well, so can every man who hears my voice right now.

Never be afraid my brothers.  Listen carefully for his voice from deep within your heart.  And know that they’re waiting for you our there...all those sheep without a shepherd.

So be thankful, love the poor, and hang in there in joyful hope.  And you, like Kateri Tekakwitha and the Curé of Ars and all those who dwell in heaven will be holy in God’s sight and live with him forever in glory!

It’s just that simple.


God bless you.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Back to Class...

On one of the warmest days of the summer, the Seminary headed back to class today.  Here are a couple clandestine shots of seminarians laboring long into a humid afternoon.  Pray for them!