Saturday, March 31, 2012

Palm Sunday: Holy Week begins

Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Prepare ye the way for His kingdom!

Timothy Cardinal Dolan on "passing over"

I picked this gem up from Cardinal Dolan's blog, The Gospel in the Digital Age:

Speaking of Passover, which this year runs 6-14 April, I am currently reading Steve Stern's remarkable novel The Frozen Rabbi (and so should you, assuming, of course, that you love Jewish literature, like, say, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Rebecca Goldstein, et al.), which tells a wonderful tale, one that begins in the shtetls of Russia and Ukraine. With regard to passing over, Stern, commenting on the weary road trodden by the displaced Jews from Ukraine as a result of the pogroms of 1906-07, writes that after having their spirits lifted by young enthusiastic Zionists, the weary refugees would again grow weary and begin to drag their feet in what the author describes as "the continuation of a trek that had started in Egypt, then passed through Jerusalem and Sefarad into Eastern Europe, where it took a breather for a millennium - a long, slog during which many fell..."

Friday, March 30, 2012

"The heavenly bread ends all symbols"

On this final Friday of Lent, as we prepare to turn the corner and enter Holy Week, meaning the Sacred Triduum is just around the corner, I can think of no better traditio than Pavarotti singing Panis Angelicus with Sting unplugged.

Oh, miraculous thing! The body of the Lord will nourish/The poor, poor, and humble servant/The poor, poor, and humble servant

A program note: While I have missed blogging here, it has been nice to take a little break. I have not been idle, however. My friend Stefania and I have completed the first-ever English translation of then-Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini's (later Pope Paul VI) 1962 Lenten pastoral letter to his diocese, the Archdiocese of Milan, which he composed in Rome where he was preparing for the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pensiamo al Concilio. Our translation appears on the website Conciliaria, which is dedicated to reacquainting, or acquainting, as the case may be, people with the Second Vatican Council. We translated the 63 section letter in seven 9 section installments. I encourage you to read this remarkable letter as we prepare to observe the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Council later this year: Pensiamo al Concilio:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII

While I suggest visiting Conciliaria often and taking the time to read everything, along with Pensiamo, I highly recommend reading the 1962 pastoral letter written by Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, archbishop of Montréal: Disunited Christians:

Part I
Part II

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Annunciation of the Lord

And so, nine months before Christmas we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. I always like to joke that this shows we can do liturgical arithmetic. Very often people mistake the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception with today's glorious feast.

"Lowliness is assured by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer. Thus, keeping with the healing that was needed, one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other" Pope St. Leo the Great. This shows shows something stated quite succinctly yesterday in relation to today's solemnity by my friend Fr. Peter Nguyen, S.J., who, responding to an observation that Eastern Christians don't move today's feast (it is usually on 25 March, but moved this year to Monday on the Roman calendar because it falls on a Sunday), specifically to the statement "imagine preaching on the Annunciation and the Crucifixion or the Annunciation and the Resurrection in the same homily," wrote, "I actually would find preaching on such occasions both challenging and enjoyable because these liturgical feasts are theologically connected. The annunciation is ordered to the cross/resurrection." I think that the beginning of Leo the Great's letter demonstrates this well. I am also indebted to Fr. Peter for the image for my post today.

"At the center of Christianity ...stands the miracle of the Incarnation. Only aganist the background of the Incarnation do all the words and deeds of Jesus exercise their binding claim upon us"- Martin Mosebach. We are such a people of joy that sometimes, even in Lent, the glory just breaks through! Today we rejoice in the fact that "Eternity stepped into time," to quote Michael Card, "so we could understand."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Year B Fifth Sunday of Lent

Readings: Jer. 31:31-34; Ps 51:3-4. 12-15.; Heb. 5:7-9; John 12:20-33

In our first reading today God, through the prophet Jeremiah, promises to make a new covenant with His people, Israel (Jer. 31:31b). This new covenant will not be like the old covenant that Israel consistently ignored and violated. This new covenant consists of God forgiving their evildoing and remembering their sins no more (Jer. 31:34c). In a word, this new covenant is best described as mercy.

Mercy does not “work” for the one who is not contrite, that is, the one who does not recognize her/his need for mercy, his/her need to be forgiven, which means recognizing and acknowledging our evildoing and sinfulness. After all, mercy has no value if we don’t think we need it; this is as true of the do-gooder, who is convinced of her/his own goodness, as it is of the hardened sinner, who makes no pretense of being good. In this dichotomy, the hardened sinner is dealing more in reality than the do-gooder, which is why Jesus spoke of prostitutes and tax collectors being closer to the kingdom of God than those convinced of their own righteousness (Matt. 21:31b).

It bears noting again that God has only ever sought to establish one covenant with humankind, the content of which is given us completely in our reading from Jeremiah today, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33c).

Our Psalm today is Psalm 51, known for centuries by its first word in Latin as the Miserere. Miserere means to feel, or to take pity. The Latin root of miserere is miser, meaning wretched. In and through Christ, God looks with pity on our wretchedness, our nothingness, our evildoing, our refusal to love, our many infidelities. For Christians Friday has always been a day of penance, just as Sunday is always a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Each Friday, the Miserere, that is, Psalm 51, is the first Psalm of Morning Prayer, or Lauds, regardless of which of the four weeks of the Psalter we are praying. So, we pray: “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offense. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin” (verses 3-4).

We begin each Mass with the penitential rite. It is right and good that in the new translation of the Roman Missal we ritually beat our breasts three times as we acknowledge that we have sinned in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and failed to do, through our own grievous fault- mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa- “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” By doing this I acknowledge that my failure to love is the result of conscious choices I deliberately make. Being an “urgy,” liturgy is something that we do, not merely something we think and so stands in contrast to an “ology,” which can easily remain abstract. Liturgy is where we give objective and real, as opposed to ideal, form to what we believe. Hence, liturgy is the prime way we engage reality, which is why the Eucharistic liturgy is theologia prima, or first theology, where faith begins to understand.

To bring this point home, what would Jesus’ assurances that He loves us mean if He had not gone to the Cross? What do our assurances to others that we love them mean if our assurances do not translate into selflessness, costing us not only something, not merely a lot, but everything? What did Jesus hold back? Nothing!

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is taken, tells us, perhaps a little surprisingly, that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8b). The lesson here is not that Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered and so should we. Such an exegesis is arrogant, not to mention Pelagian, meaning that to read this passage in that way there was no need for God to establish the new covenant he announced through Jeremiah. Let’s be clear, only Jesus obeys the Father. Jesus accomplished in His own person what Israel was unable to accomplish, namely complete fidelity to God’s covenant, exemplified through adherence to the Law. This is no cause to be smug because the Church is no more capable of fidelity than was ancient Israel. If the Church is Christ’s Bride, then we are a frequently unfaithful wife, but one who is not put away because of Her frequent adulteries. Because of Christ’s obedience to the Father “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9b). There is no greater deception, no bigger evasion of reality, than to believe you can save yourself by being “a good person.” Your goodness is only relative to that of other people and so is nothing compared to the holiness of God.

St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians, wrote: “I … consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9).

Obedience to Christ is the obedience of faith, not of works. This was brought home clearly in last week’s Gospel when we heard Jesus tell Nicodemus, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). In today’s Gospel as the crowd is listening to Jesus a voice is heard from the heavens, some hear only thunder, others hear something they interpret as the voice of an angel speaking to Jesus. In reference to God’s holy name, the voice says, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again” (John 12:28). Jesus tells them all, ‘This voice did not come for my sake but for yours. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.’ He said this indicating the kind of death he would die” (John 12:30-33).

The kind of death Jesus died was a terrible, bloody, sweaty, lonely, painful, agonizing death. He died it for you, because He loves you, even more than you love yourself. He willingly died this death to draw you to Himself, to show you that Divine Mercy sets a limit to evil and sin in the world, and in your heart. Far from a sign of humility, believing that your sins are greater than God’s mercy is satanic arrogance. Our salvation, our redemption is no mere “ology,” a topic only to be pondered, kicked around, argued about, dissected either in a classroom or a coffee shop, it is an “urgy,” it is not something Jesus said, but what He did, specifically what He did on the Cross, the altar on which He was sacrificed, which had to happen before He could be resurrected.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this is the great Paschal Mystery that Christ seeks to draw us more deeply into through this Eucharist, through our Lenten disciplines, through our relationships, our work, as well as through our sufferings. Our participation is no mere “ology,” even a theology; it is an “urgy,” something we live out day-by-day. Yesterday we marked the thirty-second anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Óscar Romero, who by his life and death concretely demonstrated just what I am trying to get across. In 1977, the year he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador, Romero observed: “How beautiful will be the day when all the baptized understand that their work, their job, is a priestly work, that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar, so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench, and each metalworker, each professional, each doctor with the scalpel, the market woman at her stand, is performing a priestly office! How many cabdrivers, I know, listen to this message there in their cabs, you are a priest at the wheel, my friend.” The same is true of you when you are sent forth today at the end of this Mass.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Don't you need to feel at home?"

It's been pretty quite here this past week. I wish I could say that it was because I had been able to spend a lot of time in prayer and solitude, but I have been very busy, which is to be expected the last half of Lent. I am never to busy for a little music and posting a Friday traditio. This week's installment is the Goo Goo Dolls covering Supertramp's "Give a Little Bit":

There's so much that we need to share/So send a smile and show you care

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Vatican II: The "rediscovery of God and Christ"

In his truly remarkable Lenten pastoral letter of 1962, Pensiamo al Concilio (i.e., Let's Think About the Council, which it has been my joyful Lenten task to translate into English for the first time, along with my friend Stefania, for Conciliaria- Part VI, the penultimate installment, will post tomorrow morning) which he wrote from Rome, archbishop of Milan, then-Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, writing about the upcoming Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in the fifty-sixth section asks whether this bold attempt to update the Church will work. In the three or four preceding sections he attempted to describe the scope of the council, which was vast, as is revealed by what he writes after wondering whether what the council was to attempt would work:

Will the world understand there is an institution on earth only trying to make it good, healthful, peaceful and happy? Will the world understand its agnosticism, its materialism, its atheism must be finally overcome through a bold and wise rediscovery of God and Christ? Will it remain silent before the Church’s great invitation to pray together? Will it at least reply, moved by a new spiritual and revealing experience, uttering timidly, “Amen”? will its victorious song to the God of the Universe, to the Christ of the true civilization, ring again on earth?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Beauty does not linger, it only visits"

"The media," observed John O'Donohue in Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, "generate relentless images of mediocrity and ugliness in talk-shows, tapestries of smothered language and frenetic gratification. The media are becoming the global mirror and these shows tend to enshrine the ugly as the normal standard. Beauty is mostly forgotten and made to seem naïve and romantic."

We long for beauty because we need beauty. Beauty does not just sit alongside of truth and goodness, but integrates, synthesizes and, above all, makes them concrete, that is, perceptible. O'Donohue wrote of "the Beautiful as a threshold which holds the real and the ideal in connection and conversation with each other."

St. Augustine wrote: "I asked the earth, I asked the sea and the deeps, among the living animals, the things that creep. I asked the winds that blow, I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars, and to all things that stand at the doors of my flesh ...My question was the gaze I turned to them. Their answer was their beauty."

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"when your eyes freeze behind the grey window"

I was thinking up some big post for St. Patrick's Day that included a passage from theologian James Mackey's wonderful book Christianity and Creation: The Essence of the Christian Faith and Its Future among Religions, which I have found imaginative (in the best possible sense), informative, erudite, and above all provocative on many levels, about each culture having its own Old Testament, followed by a reflection on Celtic culture. I was then going to proceed, using several sources in addition to Mackey in order get this point across, while reiterating the pan-Celtic nature of St. Patrick, a Welsh-speaking Celt, originally from Scotland, who came to Ireland as a slave from Britain and then returned as a missionary from Brittany. One of the additional sources I was going to use was the John O'Donohue, whose works, along with Mackey's, has been transformative for me over this past year or so.

As Bishop Wester reminded Fr. Silva and I this afternoon, man proposes, but God disposes. A more popular, not to mention Celtic way, of saying this is, "We plan and God laughs." Instead, being true to my prompting, I offer the late John O'Donohue reciting his poem "Beannacht," which means "Blessing" in Gaelic:

Friday, March 16, 2012

Longing, Celtic style

As I remind everyone each St. Patrick's Day or thereabouts, Patrick is a really a pan-Celtic figure. He was originally a Welsh-speaker who first came to Ireland as a slave, but who later returned as a missionary, as a bishop. 1 March is the Feast of St. David of Wales, who, though less well-known than St. Patrick, is another great Celtic-Christian saint. I am sorry that I overlooked Dewi Sant this year on my blog, but I never forget him in my heart.

I am keeping it simple this Lent. So, Lough Erin Shore, performed by The Chieftans and The Corrs, a beautiful tune that draws out the longing of the human heart, a tune that brought tears to my Celtic eyes this morning, is our Friday traditio for this Friday, which is the day before St. Patrick's Day. Speaking of Erin's shore, if our pilgrimage through this world, or even this Lent, is a sojourn through the desert, then heaven must look a lot like Ireland.

Also from the Breastplate of St. Patrick:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sickness shows us the limits of human satisfaction

In his short and profound book, On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of the Human Person, Cardinal Martini, the archbishop emeritus of Milan, in a section of the first chapter entitled "Sickness is part of life," observed: "Sickness is part of life, not like growth or gratification, but more like an interruption, a suspension, a burden, a nuisance even. Far from being an accident, it reveals to us the normal, limited condition of all human satisfaction. Sickness defines me as a fragile, weak, uncertain, and needy being."

"Sickness clearly reveals what is hidden in me even when I am healthy, and I fear it because I am loath to see my limitations and my [weaknesses] revealed." In this way sickness comes to the aid of our desire because, as Cardinal Martini noted, "it reveals to us the normal and limited condition of all human satisfaction."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Desire and God, who is Love

In the first part his encylical letter, Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XVI deals with the reality expressed so memorably in film and song, namely that "love is a many splendored thing," even when looked at from the divine perspective, at least to the extent we can grasp it.

Eros enrapturing Psyche

After pointing out that the Greek word eros appears only twice in Sacred Scripture, both times in the Septuagint, which is the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and so not all in our uniquely Christian Scriptures, originally written in koine Greek, he takes up Nietzsche's argument, which he set forth in his work Beyond Good and Evil, that "Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice" (par. 3). Sympathetically picking up the thread of Nietzsche's critique, the Holy Father went to state, "Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn't she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator's gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?"

It is obvious that the answer to the question posed as a result of Nietzsche's critique is a qualified "No." It is equally obvious that agapé and eros, while clearly distinguishable one from the other, possess "some profound underlying unity." It is also demonstrable that "the message of love proclaimed to us by the Bible and the Church's Tradition" does have "some points of contact with the common human experience of love." Eros and agapé, it is noted, "are often contrasted as 'ascending' love and 'descending' love." All of this leads to what I can only describe as a brilliant synthesis:

In philosophical and theological debate, these distinctions have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them: descending, oblative love—agape—would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love —eros—would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)(par. 7)
I can't help but tie all of this to the two ways human love is corrupted as explicated by Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, in his wonderful book What Is the Point of Being a Christian?, which he identifies as lust and infatuation, with lust correlating to eros detached from agapé and infatuation correlating to agapé similarly cut-off from earthly and human reality, something like exaltation of the unrequited love of the troubadour. As with many things "love" is a matter of holding these aspects in tension in order to maintain a balance. This balancing act can never mean an attenuation, or aim at either dissipation or dilution, but completion, perfect, blissful completion.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Orienting desire

Last week in several of my posts I dealt with desire. More dangerous than desire for the wrong things is a lack of desire for anything. Desire, like love, which is its fulfillment, can easily be mis-directed, misspent, deformed. Taking an inventory of our desires is useful in showing us how imperfect we we are, how attached we are to things and even to other people. For Christians the only point of detaching ourselves is to turn around and attach ourselves to Christ, to adhere to Him, that is, stick to Him.

In his Confessions St. Augustine wrote about "the major forms of iniquity that spring out of the lust of the flesh, and of the eye, and of power." He observes that at times "there is just one; sometimes two together; sometimes all of them at once." Writing about the Ten Commandments, which the Church gives us to consider today, Augustine wrote, "we live, offending against the Three and the Seven, that harp of ten strings, thy Decalogue, O God most high and most sweet." He goes on to ask, "But now how can offenses of vileness harm thee who canst not be defiled; or how can deeds of violence harm thee who canst not be harmed?' Still thou dost punish these sins which men commit against themselves because, even when they sin against thee, they are also committing impiety against their own souls. Iniquity gives itself the lie, either by corrupting or by perverting that nature which thou hast made and ordained. And they do this by an immoderate use of lawful things; or by lustful desire for things forbidden, as 'against nature;' or when they are guilty of sin by raging with heart and voice against thee, rebelling against thee, 'kicking against the pricks'..." Even for St. Augustine desire is not to be banished, just transformed, that is, killed and resurrected.

Here's an experiment, with your search engine setting set to "safe" or at least "moderate" type desire into any search engine, then click on "images." This will give you a decent grasp of human desire.

Rather than be discouraging we should find this encouraging because it gives us a place to start. Think about how dissatisfied you are when, after some effort, you succeed in gaining what you desired, thinking, "Is that all there is to it?" We learn something else through such excursions, namely that the journey, the struggle, the agon, matters. Reaching a destination, after all, requires a journey. In his Lenten pastoral letter of 1962, in which he wrote about the upcoming Second Vatican Council, then-Cardinal Montini wrote about his hope that the council would help the Church "call upon Christ to ... [to] really shape present Christian life as a pilgrimage towards the final goal so that all human experience over time is judged and valued on the basis of this extremely unearthly interaction: what is its purpose for eternity?" This is a good question to interrogate our desires, "What is directed towards eternity?" As difficult as it is, we must live sub specie aeternitatis, or, under the aspect of eternity. When we live "this way" we recognize that eternal life is not life after death, but, in light of our baptism in Christ, our dying and rising with Him, is now: "The kingdom of God is at hand be repenting and believing in the Gospel!"

through our observance of Lent,
help us to understand the meaning
of your Son's death and resurrection,
and teach us to reflect it in our lives.
Through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Desiring God: praying

In our cynical age it it has become vogue to attempt to be hip and ironic even in our approach to matters of faith, especially to God and prayer, which typically results in being either directly or indirectly disparaging of those who seek to cultivate their spirituality according to the spiritual disciplines that for some 2,000 years have constituted Christian living. This is one response to the reality that spiritual life consists of often long periods of dryness, of at least of seeming to wander in the wilderness. Praying all the time, or at least regularly, meaning daily, is a challenge. If we are not aware of all this, it is easy to feel a fool and the take the stance of an outsider, as someone who observes others and who excludes himself, someone who holds back from the fray, from the agon, convinced that it is a fool's game.

Julian of Norwich conveyed what was revealed to her about dryness in prayer: Pray inwardly though thou thinkest it savour thee not, for it is profitable, though thou feel not, though thou see nought, yea though thou think thou canst not. For in dryness and in barrenness, in sickness and in feebleness, then is thy prayer well pleasant to me, though thou thinkest it savour thee nought but little and so is all thy believing prayer in my sight."

When it comes to what to happens when we pray, Metropolitan Anthony tells us that in prayer, as in life, "We must be ready to receive from God whatever experience is sent." He is quite right to observe that when we pray one day and feel God draw close we fall into the temptation of expecting the same thing to happen the next day and are disappointed, sometimes even unto despair, when this does not happen. God does not only draw near to comfort us, to bolster us, to give us a big warm fuzzy, especially the closer we draw to Him. Anthony reminds us that God's drawing neigh occurs in a number of ways; "it may be joy, it may be dread, it may be contrition," or a variety of other ways. So, we have to keep in mind "that what we are going to perceive today is something unknown to us, because God as we new him yesterday is not God as he might reveal himself tomorrow." Always remember, "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29).

Friday, March 9, 2012

"Witness to your empty heart"

No Love Lost by Joy Division is our traditio for this Friday as we move deeper into Lent.

You've been seeing things/In darkness, not in learning/Hoping that the truth will pass/No life underground, wasting never changing/Wishing that this day won't last.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Pastoral echoes: Cardinal Montini on Vatican II

Over the course of this Lent, along with my dear friend Stefania, without whose help this would not have been possible for me, I have been working on what, as far as we know, is the first ever English translation of then-Cardinal Montini's (later Pope Paul VI) 1962 Lenten pastoral letter written to flock his in the Archdiocese of Milan from Rome, where he was serving on preparatory commissions for the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The Italian title of his letter is Pensiamo al Concilio, or, in English, something like, Let's Think About the Council. This translation is part of an effort begun and brought to fruition by initiative of my brother deacon Eric Stoltz, who has graciously allowed me to participate. The effort is Conciliaria. You can link to Conciliaria by clicking on the picture of the Second Vatican Council on the upper right of this blog.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini during a Corpus Christi procession

We are completing the translation week-by-week. So far we have translated and posted a little more than half of the letter's sixty-three sections in four installments. At the rate of nine sections per week there will be a total of seven installments. It is a remarkable letter that shows what a great and pastoral heart Giovanni Battista Montini had, what a tremendous love for the Lord and for Christ's Bride, the Church, which he so faithfully served until the moment he drew his last breath. For his tireless efforts and courageous exertions he is arguably the most maligned and disparaged of popes. I encourage one and all to read Peter Hebblethwaite's Pope Paul VI: The First Modern Pope and/or to watch the 2010 film Paul VI: The Pope in the Tempest. Please go to the links below to read then-Cardinal Montini's breathtaking pastoral letter of 1962:

Pensiamo al Concilio, Part I

Pensiamo al Concilio, Part II

Pensiamo al Concilio, Part III

Pensiamo al Concilio, Part IV

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Desiring God: Sts. Perpetua and Felicity

In the wake of posting about the inextricable relationship between desire and struggle, or the struggle borne of desire, it seems fitting that today we observe the liturgical memorial of the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity of Carthage. Perpetua and Felicity, were martyred 7 March AD 203. Perpetua was a 22-year old newly married noble, and a nursing mother. Her co-martyr Felicity, was an expectant mother and Perpetua's slave. However, they were sisters in Christ, even before their martyrdom in the Roman coliseum at Carthage, where they were killed and devoured by wild beasts. Martyred with them were several catechumens: Revocatus, who, like Felicity, was a slave, along with Saturninus and Secundulus.

Deacons appear throughout what is believed to be Perpetua's actual prison testimony of her experience, which is passed down as The Passion of St. Perpetua. Her Passio was originally written in Latin and later translated into Greek. It was widely disseminated in the early Christian Church. First, in Section III, St. Perpetua wrote: "Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child in their charge."

Then, in Section VI of her account, after a failed attempt by her father to win her a reprieve before Hilarianus the Roman governor, she wrote, "Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits. But my baby had got used to being nursed at the breast and to staying with me in prison. So I sent the deacon Pomponius straight away to my father to ask for the baby. But father refused to give him over. But as God willed, the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor did I suffer any inflammation; and so I was relieved of any anxiety for my child and of any discomfort in my breasts..."

Finally, in the Xth Section she records a vision or dream she had on the night before her martyrdom, which was 6 March AD 203: "The day before we fought, I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon had come hither to the door of the prison, and knocked hard upon it. And I went out to him and opened to him; he was clothed in a white robe ungirdled, having shoes curiously wrought. And he said to me: Perpetua, we await you; come. And he took my hand, and we began to go through rugged and winding places. At last with much breathing hard we came to the amphitheatre, and he led me into the midst of the arena. And he said to me: Be not afraid; I am here with you and labour together with you. And he went away..."

With a deep diaconal bow to my friend Fr. Peter Nguyen, S.J., I quote one of the three sermons St. Augustine preached on these glorious martyrs of Latin Africa "For Perpetua and Felicitas are the (names of two, but the reward of all... so that we glory in perpetual felicity" (Augustine, Serm. 281.3.3- it is important to note that these sermons, along with others, were (re-)discovered in Erfurt, Germany just a few years ago).

your love gave the Saints Perpetua and Felicity
courage to suffer a cruel martyrdom.
By their prayers, help us to grow in love of you.
We ask this through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Desiring God=struggle

I have to admit that with everything I have going on presently it has been very difficult to post anything here. On the whole, that is a good thing, but I still miss it and feel slightly perturbed when I let a day go by without putting anything up. It's not so much that it is a compulsion (I have considered that on more than one occasion) but there isn't a day that goes by that I don't experience something I am eager to share.

In my homily for the First Sunday of Lent I preached that what ought to motivate us in our spiritual disciplines is our desire for God. But this prompts a question, "What about when I desire something, or even someone, more than I desire God?" We'd all be less than honest if we did not acknowledge that this is sometimes true. Sometimes it is very often true. One of the best definitions of sin is to desire something/someone more than we desire God. While ruminating on lack of desire for God, a passage from Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes came to mind, the part where he describes the experience of losing his virginity while he was working as a messenger boy. While doing his job he came to know a girl by the name of Theresa Carmody who was consumptive (she later dies). McCourt, describing what went through his head as he entered the throes of passion, wrote, "my head is filled with sin and iodine and fear of consumption and the shilling tip and her green eyes and she’s on the sofa don’t stop or I’ll die and she’s crying and I’m crying for I don’t know what’s happening to me if I’m killing myself catching consumption from her mouth I’m riding to heaven I’m falling off a cliff and if this is a sin I don’t give a fiddler’s fart." Let's face it, sometimes we don't give a fiddler's fart either, it is a spiritual state. It's precisely in the struggle, even in our giving in, that Christ comes to meet us.

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Artists struggle with their art. There is no great work of art that is not the result of an agon, a struggle. As the title of the film about the life Michelangelo puts it, "the agony and the ecstasy." It was Blessed Teresa of Calcutta who urged us to make of our lives something beautiful for God. If Dostoevesky was correct, then beauty will only save the world because beauty entails struggle.

In the end, it is not our own exertions that will win the race, but Christ's love and fidelity, which can't truly be grasped in any other way except through experience, all experience, nothing remaindered. The philosopher Martin Heidegger was convinced that we experience something very important in and through boredom. I also preached that engaging in the struggle helps us to grasp our weakness, our great need, which creates the condition for us to experience for ourselves that Jesus is the joy of human desiring.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Transfiguration: terror, terrified, terrific

Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified (Mark 9:2-6).

Terror is an element that is palpably present in our readings for this Second Sunday of Lent. Abraham, while walking along with his son Isaac towards Mount Moriah, must have felt terror as he puzzled over the incomprehensible command that Lord God had given him and which, with great trust in God, he set out to faithfully fulfill. St. Paul, in our second reading, writes what we can take to be reassuring words either in a sentimental way or in a meaningful way. When taken sentimentally, we must take his words, "If God is for us, who can be against us," out of context and take it to be true only insofar as everything in life is going our way, those days when we can sing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah from our hearts. In context the apostle's words have deep meaning. The context is similar to the context of our first reading. God shows us the He is for us by not sparing "his own Son but hand[ing] him over for us all." In short, we can only know that God for us by way of experience, painful experience. After all, it is a few verses earlier in the eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans that St. Paul tells us: "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

On the holy mountain, Peter, James, and John were not transported out of the world, as it were, but were allowed to see things as they really are, to behold reality in all God's glory. They were changed precisely because they were terrified. The Greek word that is the last word of verse six is ekpfoboi, which is the plural of ekfobos, meaning stricken with fear or terror, exceedingly frightened, terrified. In the King James Version this word is translated, "they were sore afraid." After all, "terrified" and "terrific" are closely related, both linguistically and existentially, like "awesome" and "awful." Like Jesus' three disciples, we are to be transfigured, transformed, changed, converted evermore into the likeness of Christ in and through experience, not over and above it.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Worthiness is never the issue

I take it as a good sign that so far during Lent I am just soaking things in, not generating a lot of disparate thoughts, but going deeper with the help of some very good guides. One guide I have had for many years, as long time readers know, is Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who I consider to be one of the greatest spiritual masters of the last century. His books are short, but packed with wisdom and insight. Even in re-reading his works, especially Beginning to Pray, which is his best-known work, and Living Prayer, which I am currently reading, there is always more than when I first read them. For end of this first full week of Lent, I am sharing one more excerpt of beginning to pray because I think it captures well the reasons we observe Lent, which too often becomes a sort of pseudo-spiritualized effort at self-improvement.

Marc Chagall, The Prodigal Son

[W]e are, in the Church, the children of God, and these first words 'Our Father' establish the fact and make us take our stand where we belong. It is no good saying we are unworthy of this calling. We have accepted it, and it is ours. We may be the prodigal son and we will have to answer for it, but what is certain is that nothing can transform us back into that which we no longer are. When the prodigal son returned to his father, and was about to say: 'I am no longer worthy to be called thy son, make me as one of thy hired servants' (Lk 15:19), the father allowed him to pronounce the first words: 'I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight and am no more worthy to be called thy son,' but there he stopped him. Yes, he is not worthy, but he is a son in spite of his unworthiness. You cannot cease to be a member of your family, whatever you do, whether worthy or not. Whatever we are, whatever our life is, however unworthy we are, we are called to be the [children] of God, or to call God our father, we have no escape. That is where we stand.
When, like prodigals, we return to our Father in the sacrament of penance it is important to understand that we don't go there to find out whether or not God will forgive us. We are always already forgiven because of Jesus Christ. We go to realize, that is, to make real, to experience, like the prodigal, the great love and Divine Mercy of our Father.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Making God's kingdom a present reality

"Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Phil. 3:17-21 ESV- italicizing and emboldening emphasis mine).

In the passage above, St. Paul is referring to the fact that, in the words of Metropolitan Anthony, "we are a colony of heaven." By this, Metropolitan Anthony goes on to observe, the apostle "means a group of people whose mother city is heaven, who are on earth to conquer it for God and to bring the kingdom of God if only to a small spot. It is a peculiar type of conquest, which consists in winning over over people to the realm of peace, making them subject to the prince of peace and making them enter into the harmony which we call the kingdom of God. It is indeed a conquest, a peacemaking that will make us sheep among wolves, seeds scattered by the sower, which must die in order to bear fruit and to feed others."

Seeing Lent for what it is meant to be

We are now ten days into the holy season of Lent. We are passed the silliness and quickly passing trendiness that is for many Ash Wednesday. Past all the "giving up" of things only to make ourselves slightly miserable, and all the rest. We are past it being easy, at the point where perhaps you have failed. So, the question is, do you persevere, or give up? For those who try and fail, Lent is a time to experience how God's grace exposes our weaknesses, which is the only way God can perfect our desire. It is a time of humility, but not humiliation. While God might permit us to be humiliated for His sake (in all such circumstances we are blessed), God does not humiliate us, but humbles us so that we become more like Christ.

This beautiful version of the prayer composed by the ancient Syrian deacon, St. Ephrem, is our Friday traditio for this second Friday of Lent.

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hosea 2:16.17c.18.21-22; Ps 145:2-9; Matthew 9:18-26 Our Gospel today is Saint Matthew’s version of events first written about ...