Epiphany and the tools it gives us for life…

THOUGHTS FROM MY EPIPHANY HOMILY

Epiphany… a season no just of information, but of illumination… of the light and warmth that comes from worshipping Christ in his humanity – thoroughly established at Christmas – and now in his divinity.  Joining the magi on bended knee we find ourselves called to deeper conversion, and also mission… a mission to spread the good news in every dimension of life.  We’re also equipped with tools for mission.  Epiphany marks the beginning – in some senses – of sacramental economy… that is to say, the use of the things of this earth for the purposes of conveying divine life.  Let’s explore some of these tools and how they relate to our Epiphany mission.

Time and Knowledge Matter…

The magi were astronomers, masters of natural sciences from the East.  Unlike scholars today, engaging in siloed, categorized fields of inquiry, the ancients simply studied.  All higher knowledge was categorized as “philosophy;” literally the love (philos) of wisdom (sophia).  Scholars like the magi observed the stars to track the movement of seasons, plant crops, map geography, chart sea journeys and much more.  Now, for the first time, that natural, rational wisdom is turned by our Lord’s birth toward the purposes of evangelization.  Brothers and sisters the Church never fears knowledge or the Truth… she shouldn’t, anyway… because Christ is the Way the Truth and the Life… Like the magi we can and should always use natural reason to guide us to the author of all Truth, Jesus.  It’s interesting to note also that the first sin was the seizure of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil… and now among the first things to be redeemed is knowledge.  

There’s more thought… because it’s not just ephemeral knowledge that is baptized in this Epiphany season… Time itself is turned to Christ.  The magi’s astronomy was first and foremost about the movement of time… and now, in the fullness of time, they find themselves at the foot of the Infant Lord.  Like knowledge time is precious.  Its value only increases as we consider its finite nature.  Your life and mine will eventually end.  We have seventy years, eighty for those who are strong (cf Ps. 90:10).  Time itself will come to an end at the final judgment.  Time is precious… and we can use it for God’s eternal purposes or our own all too mortal ones.  

Matter Matters…

Time and knowledge are great… but epiphany also very definitely touches on stuff… matter.  How did the magi choose to worship God?  They brought him stuff… literally the stuff of the earth: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Royal gold acknowledges Jesus as King.  Mystic frankincense proclaims him High Priest.  Embalming myrrh recognizes and prepares for his saving death.  

Matter begins to be sanctified when Jesus takes our humanity to himself… today’s feast marks the expansion of this mystery to the things of this earth.  The holiness of things culminates with the establishment of the seven sacraments.  Common water baptizes us into his death and resurrection.  Simple bread and wine become his body and blood.  Vegetable oil is given healing and blessing qualities for anointing.  Simple words are granted the power to absolve sin.  How amazing the uses of stuff!  There’s nothing wrong with having stuff.  What do we use it for??  Therein lies the critical question.  

We matter…

The final thing to consider in sacramental economy and missions is we, our very selves.  At some point, for all their knowledge and wealth, each of the magi had to make a decision, “I’m going to journey across the desert to an unknown destination, to worship and unknown king.”  That’s a massive personal investment.  It’s not just that they took a physically perilous trip across the desert… We can only imagine the cost of taking such a trip.  At a personal level did they risk their reputations on this trek?  And as if all that wasn’t enough, on arriving in Jerusalem they take their very lives in their hands as they unwittingly rouse the anger of Herod (cf Mt 2).  Ultimately, all of us need to make a personal decision… an investment of the whole of our lives into the Jesus experience.  It’s important.  

On the negative side, we’ve seen what happens when even a few of us walk away from Jesus, when we turn hypocrite.  I’m referring, of course, to the scandalous news that has rocked the Church since this past summer.  A tiny minority of individuals have brought the whole Church to it knees shaking the faith of us all.  The personal investment of individuals matters.

On the positive side, I think of an old colleague, Ed Sullivan.  Ed just died a few days ago.  He was an active Knight of Columbus serving others, praying, and befriending all those he met.  Mundane stuff, right?  But in the midst of these mundane exercises Ed met some college guys and invited them to found a K of C council at the Catholic University of America.  From that council have come vowed priests and religious… and ten times as many good faithful Catholic men who will be husbands, fathers of families and raise up a generation of faith and hope!  …all because one simple man was a friend to a few others.  The personal investment of individuals matters.  How will you invest yourself after the example of the Magi.

A season of epiphanies…

The Feast of the Epiphany may have happened this past Sunday, but the season of Epiphany is far from over.  On the old calendar there was a whole explicit season called “Epiphanytide”.  Remnants of this are still with us.  The second Sunday after Christmas is Epiphany when the magi worship Christ.  The Third Sunday after Christmas (now called the First of Ordinary Time) is the Baptism of the Lord, when the voice of the Father recognizes his Son and the Spirit descend on him in the form of a dove (Lk 3).  The fourth Sunday After Christmas (now reckoned as the 2nd of Ordinary Time) may appear non-descript as the priests dress in Green once more… but look at the Gospel… It’s the wedding at Cana (Jn 2) when Jesus performs his first public miracle and people begin to recognize his divinity… a third epiphany moment!  Spend these weeks absorbing the light and warmth of epiphany in all its forms… Like the Lord and the magi, start using the things of this world to convey his divine life to others.  

Family: It’s heights, depths, and everything in between

A few observations On today’s feast of the Holy Family, in which we rejoice at the mystery of the family.  

First, how does family come to be called a mystery?  When did family become a mystery… akin to the mystery of redemption, or the mystery of the Eucharist?  Family has always existed, at the very least, as a natural institution.  For the propagation of the species, family has always existed.  Because it’s easier to survive in groups, family has always existed.  Even Scripture confirms this basic reality:

“Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help.  So also, if two sleep together, they keep each other warm. How can one alone keep warm?  Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken.” (Ecc.es 4:9-12)

With the birth of Christ however, family – like all other earthly elements – becomes sanctified as the Lord clutches it to himself elevating it to the level of something mysterious, an instrument of salvation.  The particular avenue of this elevation leads straight to the heart of God Himself. 

When Jesus is born he begins immediately revealing to us the fullness of God.  Existing as the Holy Trinity, God is a communion of loving persons eternally bound together: God the Father loves God the Son… God the Son loves God the Father… The love between them is so strong that it takes on its own personality in the Holy Spirit.  By entering the world in the context of a family, Christ draws our attention to this reality.  Family is no longer just an earthly reality.  It becomes a living, breathing icon pointing us to the image of the Trinitarian God Himself.  

The Trinity!  It doesn’t get higher than that.  Truly, there’s not much more the Church can do to exalt the family.  At the same time, the very height of our honor for the family also draws attention to its converse: our mourning when family doesn’t work.  Here, we find our second observation: We need to acknowledge, that family rarely looks -today- as it did in the manger 2,018 years ago.  Some families get started along what seems like a good path, and then break up.  Sometimes death or tragic circumstance creates great difficulty in families.  And sometimes, family is never even given a chance: parents walk out on kids, men and women have a hard time meeting the right person… you name it, there are all sorts of reasons the family process short-circuits today.  When this happens, it puts me in mind of that wonderful moment in the Gospel:

“When [Jesus] disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (Mk 6:34)

When you and I see families that have been so battered by the powers of the world, our hearts should be moved with pity.  All of us have the same yearnings for happiness, for fulfillment… and when a neighbor’s pursuit of those legitimate human goals is complicated by the world, our first response should be to aide our neighbors however we can.  I’ve seen so many examples of folks who, when the grace of (let’s call it “standard”) family life is challenged, find that grace anew through the extended family of the parish… a large group of persons bound together by love.  In the secular world too, we see this.  People find meaning through service of the community in government or civic organizations etc.

This brings us to our third observation: While I don’t know that we can truly say (if we’re using precise philosophical language) that there are many “kinds” of family.  I think we can say that there are various degrees of participation in the definition of family.  We’ve already noted one of them: the parish.  

It’s not quite what the Trinitarian definition of family points to in the manger scene, but it certainly participates in that mystery by extension.  Likewise, the many families I’ve encountered in the inner city where classical structure (mother, father, child) is missing, and replaced by grandmother, mother, children (often from different fathers).  This grandparent-centered structure is certainly a participation in the mystery of the Holy Family, but its members would be the first to tell you they wish it could’ve been otherwise, that the traditional structure of mother, father and child could’ve come together.  

Once I was approached by a couple.  I had just witnessed their marriage and they needed a favor.  Their tango instructor had died in a car accident, and the groom was asking if I would offer some words of comfort at a memorial service.  I was happy to… The instructor wasn’t of any particular religion.  His students came from backgrounds too numerous to count… and boy were they numerous.  This man, simply by being a great teacher had touched so many people.  They filled a local civic center hall for his memorial service.  They all knew, supported each other, and were there to comfort one another at the loss of a loved one.  Had you asked any of these folks, they would’ve affirmed in an instant that they were family to one another.  And in many ways they were right.  

But what guide do we have.  Surely we need more than merely the structure of traditional family if we’re going to talk about participation in its mystery.  Thankfully, St. Paul helps us out today in his Letter to the Colossians (3:12-21).  

Brothers and sisters:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.

And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.

And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.

And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.

He’s listing for us the virtues of family and reminding us to lift it all up to God, “over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.”  Insofar as we participate in these virtues, and come together in the “bond of perfection” we are engaging in some degree in the mystery of family. 

When it comes to preaching this in the world and to working with families, I think the Church faces many challenges of mis-perception from the outside world… and indeed from among her members.  

Far too often, Catholics fall into the old temptation (common to soooo many heresies) to adopt a strictly dualistic view: “It’s nuclear family or nothing!”  “If for some reason I can’t receive communion it must mean I’m out of the Church.”  “People are either good or bad.”  In most of Church life, there’s much more gray than these dualisms admit.  It’s not always easy to get that across in homilies, but one-on-one conversations with parishioners often allow for much deeper, more nuanced explorations of family situations.  

Outside the Church, the world usually applies this same dualistic vision to our teachings.  Lately though, another challenge has arisen.  One would think that our world would be happy to accept a Catholic understanding of the various degrees of family I’ve described.  But for popular culture it’s not enough.  The arbiters of culture seem to reject dualism (…Good…), but they also seem to reject what I’ve described.  They favor a sort of equal and universal celebration of every degree of family… or as they’d put it, “every type of family.”  The sincerity of each “family’s” belief in itself is the only criterion for its celebration.  

The challenge to this pan-familial celebration is that sometimes it celebrates as equal two things that are each other’s opposite.  A divorced family… a traditional married family… a polyamorous relationship… heterosexual families… homosexual families… open relationships… monogamy…all are to be treated the same even though they often outright contradict each other.  I’d propose that what society is exalting is not “family,” but rather sincerity, since that is the one common factor between the otherwise contradictory examples I’ve offered.  That’s another much more wide ranging philosophical discussion, for another time.  

For now, on this Feast of the Holy Family we’ll just wrap up noting how we’ve celebrated the heights to which family can ascend… We’ve grieved the depths to which it sometimes falls… and acknowledging the goods that can exist at every point in-between.  Pray for families!  Pray for them and support each other in seeking their many blessings wherever we find ourselves participating in this beautiful mystery.

The Thanks We Fear to Give

Thanksgiving was wonderful in DC!  One of the things I loved most this year was marveling at how the city empties out.  Walking home from dinner last night I past huge apartment buildings, normally packed with young adults, windows twinkling with signs of life… but last night almost every window was flat black.  The rare exceptions, those who stayed in town for the holidays, stood out like lonely sentinels keeping vigil over the quiet street.

Amidst all of my considerations about gratitude I thought about writing to some folks who’ve helped out a lot over the last few months here at the parish… and then a strange thought occurred to me, “What might happen next?”  I’m usually fairly effusive in my thanks, never more so than when I write to someone… and it’s an unfortunate sign of the times that the desire to express gratitude is sometimes squelched by the need to [potentially] cover your back.

It’s not just gratitude, actually… there’s all sorts of silences that have begun to pop up in Church life.  When a colleague… or even more so, a superior… asks me, “How are things going?” a flat “OK” or “Fine I suppose.” is sometimes the best I can manage… not because it’s actually how I feel, but because the neutral response can’t come back to haunt me later.  Right?  I mean when you answer, “Oh things are going great… couldn’t be better!” and then something blows up the reply comes back, “but Father we thought everything was just dandy and now this…”  And so I (and many priests I know) limit ourselves and our official correspondences as much as possible.

It’s painful on a number of fronts, mostly summarized in this: Limiting communication means limiting the good that may come, even as you limit liability.  And there it is… the word that has so come to dominate Church life, “liability.”  Priests are treated as potential liabilities instead of treasured resources… conversations with parishioners always have, “how could this come back to bight me?” hanging over them… not only from the chancery but from the parishioner himself/herself… So we adopt protective measures… insurance policies, ostensibly to protect the Church, ourselves, you name it… The irony is, we end up being less Church-like and more corporate.  Isn’t that one of the many overarching concerns about the deliberations of our leaders lately? Stuck inside our newly agreed upon silence, one begins to feel its limits more and more… its dehumanizing.

Recently I’ve been going back and forth over leaving the social media platform Twitter.  I’ve always wanted to be part of the positive digital evangelization, but there’s just so much negativity… and often so unfounded.  I’ve seen good people derided and squelched on Twitter… I’ve seen very dangerous and unorthodox people celebrated on all sides of all issues.  The limits of Twitter -as a medium- are something akin to the unhealthy silence I mused on above.  There’s another kind of silence: that of the official/public person.  As a priest I try to be VERY reserved on Twitter because of my official and public position in the Church… meanwhile I watch other priests and even employees of my own local Church spout off on all sorts of things… seemingly without any consequence… Is there a level playing field to be had?  The silence hurts.  It stands in stark contrast to the beautiful affirming silence Cardinal Sarah speaks about in his book, “The Power of Silence”.

Should I stay on social media?  If I do, should I be more vocal…? less?  A devil-may-care attitude has never really been my thing… but …well, I don’t know.  But it strikes me that when the administrative culture of the Church (under which I include not only the actual governance but also how we communicate) gets to a place where I am nervous about being grateful… that’s a problem.  And when good Catholics lambast each other online… that’s a problem too.  More questions than answers today I’m afraid.  But one mustn’t be afraid to confront them with eyes of faith.

Sometimes the sidelines are more interesting…

Earlier today I visited the National Gallery of art.  I took in a beautiful special exhibition, “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy“.

Chiaroscuro is a printing technique utilizing wooden blocks, each of which carries the etching for part of a picture, and the colored ink that belongs to that portion of the picture.  When the block prints are layered one over the other, you end up with a complete image.  For the world of renaissance art this [then] new technique represented a huge leap in the ability to multiply images and sell them… or send them to far off markets.  What strikes me, however, is this art form’s ability to convey such pathos.

Take for example this Deposition From the Cross, printed by Ugo Carpi, a father of the technique.  The limp body of Christ, the strained bend of the figure over the Cross’ left arm… To convey such motion and emotion by carving in wood.  And to represent such depth through the application of successive printing blocks… It blows me away.

What’s equally moving about these pieces is how many “moments” they convey; not just the principal subject matter but the ancillary stories.  In the “Deposition,” you could spend an hour just meditating on the women ministering to Mary in her need (see detail below).

In a carving, no easy feat by itself, one can perhaps expect more motion… sculpture -after all- utilizes three dimensions.  In fact, elsewhere in the gallery I found this piece… same subject matter:

Monnot, “The Virgin Mary Swooning Over the Dead Body of Christ”
Monnot, -Detail-

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the “Healing of The Man at The Beautiful Gate” (Acts 3) you can see the surprise and excitement in the man as Peter and John restore him:

Likewise in the “Catching the Draught of Fish”(Lk 5)… the nets are heavy, the boats lie low in the water and you can almost hear Peter cry out, “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” (5:8)… It wouldn’t be the last time he needed to say it.

Just amazing… but back to the main theme: side themes…

Carpi, “Death of Ananias”

Several other prints had important side stories.  In the “Death of Ananias” (Acts 5) The Apostles stand in judgment over Ananias, who having lied to the Holy Spirit out his generosity (or lack thereof) was struck dead.  Certainly a cautionary tale about administrative life in the Church… but look at what’s going on at the right.

Carpi, -Detail-

While the Apostles govern, the other disciples are busy handing out charity to those in need.  Both are happening at the same time.

In “Martyrdom of Two Saints,” by Parmigianino, the swirling motion of the swords and the soldier’s cloak focus us on the main them, framing out the martyrs-to-be, but check out the juxtaposition of the Angel vs. the Imperial Eagle at the top: angel totally wins!  It’s a beautiful exercise to consider, “What are the side characters talking about among themselves?” Are there conversions about to happen among them because of the martyrs’ witness?

In life, there’s usually more going on than initially meets the eye.  Taking a contemplative moment to see things through eyes of faith can reveal so much more!  At the moment, the picture of the American Church would appear to be chaos, a horrific swirl of bad news and sadness.  But look to the side stories, especially in your own parishes.

Today a young man in my community gave thanks to God for helping him in time of deep mourning.  Another parishioner took a moment of pause in the midst of the midterms and had an epiphany about holy detachment.  A woman took special time out to pray for her grandson. Three simple but beautiful actions of grace… and they’re just what I heard about on my day off!  Is our central frame a mess… YES!  But it’s hardly the whole story.  Look to the sidelines!!

Two Expressions of the ONE Rite: From whence do we take our hope?

This weekend at St. Mary’s revealed, once again, that the two expressions of the one Roman Rite: the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form speak to us the same ONE Truth from Jesus Christ.  Below are transcribed homilies I gave… the first for the Feast of Bl. Karl of Austria (EF, yesterday)… and the second for the OF Sunday masses today.  Each one addresses one of my favorite issues: Hope… and it’s origins in hard times.


In Commemoration of Blessed Karl of Austria

In the beginning, the Apostles, the first Christians, drew their hope directly from an encounter with the Lord Jesus.  In the readings for today’s mass, the Lord enjoins us, “be prepared, for at what hour you think not the Son of Man will come.”  The Apostles believed that within their lifetime, Christ would return to inaugurate the end of time and the fullness of the Kingdom.  Based on that, and on their personal relationship with him in faith, they remained hopeful through martyrdom and other persecutions.   As time passed and it became obvious that the Second Coming wouldn’t be happening any time soon, the Church in her beauty and wisdom developed various means by which we could stay awake and girt with lamps burning waiting for the master’s return.  Literature, music, cuisine, ceremony… CULTURE developed as an instrument of hope linking us back, confirming us in the hope that comes from a personal encounter with Christ.  

The thing of it is… over time, the chaos of the world begins to creep back in to our consciousness.  We can become distant from Christ so that the cultural instruments of our hope begin to feel hollow, or even disappear.  The first time this happened, St. Benedict left Rome and established his order (We’re blessed to have some Benedictines with us today)… so that from Subiaco and Cassino bright centers of learning and peace and music and… well, culture might once more confirm our people in hope.  Their work, it is popularly said, “saved civilization.”  Eventually however, as perhaps it must, chaos began to creep in again, until the Lord called up Francis, Dominic and their itinerant friars (some of whom are with us today) to kindle again the fire of culture.  Time passed and again saints were needed.  St. Philip Neri renewed Rome (and, as it happens we have members of his Oratory with us today) using the tools of culture to renew hope among a cynical, despairing, and all too often depraved Roman establishment.  Over and over again… and we could name so many more great saints… God provides for a reanaissance of culture unto the confirmation of hope!  But it was never just the vowed religious who confirmed the brothers and sisters in hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In St. Peter’s Square one sees, at the heart of it all, the monumental basilica where Peter rests waiting for the Resurrection.  The first bishop at the heart of the Church… but reaching out embracing the world… or so it seems whenever the square is full… reaching out are the arms of the Church the colonnade of Bernini, which begin with two statues: Constantine, the first Christian Emperor and Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor.  Representatives of the laity, who bonded to the clergy embrace and love the world, bringing hope to all.  

Blessed Karl of Austria was the last heir to that Tradition that began so long ago.  He saw his life as a ruler as that of the shepherd, meant to build a realm… and a culture… where people could be safe enough educated enough and faithful enough to touch hope.  He, the arms of the Church would take the lessons he’d learned at mass and put them to use serving his people in the world.  With the conclusion of World War I this would all be sorely tested.  Blessed Karl and his family lost everything: power, wealth, prestige, and not only their home but their homeland.  Exiled to a small Portuguese island, all the instruments of hope were taken away from them.  But what Karl learned and what we all must learn is that the instruments of hope are just that: instruments, means to an end.  Hope begins with a personal encounter with the living God… And this does not require wealth, power, music, literature… any of that.  Furthermore, all those instruments of hope are pointless if they don’t spring from a profound encounter with Christ.  We know that Karl learned this lesson because he passed it on to his children… whose descendants are also here today.  They are living breathing icons of the reality that hope begins and ends with Christ who rose from the dead… And no earthly circumstance can change that.

Today the Church, and society in general, finds itself challenged to hope.  All the cultural instruments that once buttressed our hope are gone.  The Empire has fallen and is not coming back.  Our teachings are not just challenged… much worse, they are ignored both without and often within the Church.  Our songs, literature, drama, art, ceremony… all are threatened either by active assault or the sad possibility of obsolescence.  And we… we are left to wonder, “how can we stay awake until the master’s return. 

If in our mind’s eye we return to St. Peter’s Square and enter the great portal of the Basilica, we find at our feet a seemingly nondescript disc of red stone.  Once, in Constantine’s Basilica, there were twelve such discs.  They were carved from red porphyry – stone of the Pharaohs, the Senate and the Emperors.  When Julius II began to build the present church, eleven of these precious discs were broken up, sent to monuments in various parts of the holy city.  This one remained… because on this stone, on Christmas Day in the year 800 the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne was crowned, signaling the return of culture, peace and hope to the West.  For five hundred years only popes and Catholic monarchs could traverse the porphyry disc… until St. John XXIII removed the barriers around it.  Good Pope John pointed out that the royal dignity of the popes and monarchs was not ultimately based on their coronations, their wealth or their power… but upon their baptism… the baptism ALL of us share, our very first encounter with Christ.  From that moment we all have royal dignity with the Lord… and our hope springs to life as we are joined to his death and resurrection.   This was the lesson Blessed Karl learned and taught us by doggedly holding on to a joyful hope until the end.  Through his prayers may we be likewise blessed, may we remain awake and vigilant until the Master’s return.

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
“It’s going to be OK”

Today’s OF gospel for mass (Mk 10:35-45) exposes for us an anxious moment.  It’s not just that Jesus is concerned for the Apostles about their infighting.  He’s preparing for crucifixion, worried that they just haven’t gotten it.  And when he’s gone, to whom will they look? 

It’s a question we’re all facing right now.  In an America that no longer agrees on what it means to be American, with our national identity shredded by identity politics, we feel uneasy, uncertain about our future.  Historically we would look to a unifying figure, the President, not necessarily to solve everything at once, but to say to us, “It’s going to be OK.”  But we don’t seem to have that at the moment.  Likewise in the Church.  There have always been problems in Church life, even grave scandal, even war.  The faithful rightly seek out a familiar voice to say, “It’s going to be OK.”  At the moment, it’s hard to find that voice.  The credibility of our bishops has been deeply scarred, and even Pope Francis by his comments, or at least by the media coverage of them, makes it hard to believe that, “It’s going to be OK.”  

A number of parishioners have come to me in recent days looking for me to tell them that and I found myself running on empty, hard pressed to tell them, “It’s going to be OK,” because it’s hard for me to see where our story goes from here… as a society, as a Church… and the voices to whom I would normally look are confused, silent, retired, discredited.  It was such a striking feeling that I actually went to see a friend who’s a therapist to discuss the matter.  He confirmed for me, (a) I’m not crazy (…big relief there…) and (b) this really is a hard moment.  I put that second point in there because often I find that I minimize challenges.  I assume that my life as a priest doesn’t have big epic-scale difficulties… those are reserved to people like corporate titans and high state officials… but it’s true.  This is a ground shaking moment for us as a Church.  

Then I looked at today’s second reading (Heb 4:14-16) and these words, 

“Brothers and sisters:
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,

let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.”

Heaven doesn’t depend on human beings, but on Jesus Christ… and HE is risen from the dead.  He remains sympathetic to our situation.  He reigns on high.  I don’t know what the future will look like for our society… for our Church.  Maybe, in all honesty I never did.  Maybe before we just had a greater statistical grasp of what the future would most likely be… but even that was never a guarantee.  The challenge of our Christianity is not to know the future, but to “hold fast to our confession” in the present.  To all our people: I don’t know how life turns out… but I do know, it’ll be OK… because Jesus is risen from the dead.

Two feasts… express on one day the one Roman Rite celebrating our one Faith in the the one Lord

Today we celebrate two feasts.  On the Ordinary Form Calendar we honor Pope St. John XXIII, who announced on that day his intent to open the Second Vatican Council.  On the Extraordinary Form Calendar we honor Mary, precisely in her role as Mother and so patroness of our parish.  These two feasts represent in a beautiful way the diversity and the harmony of our community.  

One way to understand Mary is in her role as the primordial Church.  Before there were 1.2 billion Catholics there were 12… and before there were 12 there was just 1: Mary, worshipping Christ, loving him, bringing him into the world.  She did this by the “overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.” (Lk 1) .  In a similar way, 1,963 years later, Pope John XXIII recognizing a need to renew the ways in which we worship Christ and bring Christ into the world placed the Church firmly in the hands of the Holy Spirit and called together all her bishops in Council. 

Today, fifty years after those historic events parishes all over the world experience the legacy of Mary and of John XXIII.  At Nazareth, Mary raised up Jesus in the synagogue, not desiring to bring about a new religion, but to see the full flowering of Judaism in the new covenant inaugurated in her Son.  She looked to the ancient realities of the faith to ground her steps raising up Christ.  John XXIII understood this concept well.  Opening the Council, he very firmly established that the Church was not out to find new doctrines, but to find new ways of expressing eternal Truths.  Likewise all parishes.  

We look to the eternal Truths of Scripture and Tradition.  We place ourselves prayerfully in the hands of the Holy Spirit, and doing our best, we worship Christ, introducing Him to new times and new people.  At St. Mary’s our Latin Mass Community, our immigrant Chinese community, and our largely newly-arrived young adult community all want the same thing: heaven… And looking to the ancient Truths – the mysteries of the life of Christ – we each try our best to apply his love in our very diverse circumstances… trusting the the Holy Spirit will protect us and keep us as one faith-family.  He did it for Mary and Jesus… He did it for St. John and the Church… I’m very confident he’ll do the same for our parish.

The Rosary Jumpstarts the Engine of Holy Wisdom

Yesterday I attended a beautiful celebration.  A parish family who live in the country invited a bunch of friends and fellow parishioners out to their home for a Lepanto Party.  The name comes from yesterday’s feast, Our Lady of the Rosary, which celebrates the victory of the Christian fleet over the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto (1571).  We ate drank and had merry enjoying local ciders, homemade delights and -of course- locally… distilled… products.  When everyone was full, the whole group gathered to pray the Rosary.  It was the very first time I’d been present for something like that: a group of lay families gathered at one of their own homes all praying the rosary together.  And… as if that wasn’t enough… after the Rosary ended, the children of several families lined up to recite -from memory- G.K. Chesterton’s epic poem Lepanto.  

The afternoon festivities confirmed something I’d been praying about and preaching on earlier that morning: the Rosary is an incredible spark for the engine of salvation.  What do I mean??

The EF readings for the feast begin with, interestingly, Proverbs 8:22-ff… a tribute to holy wisdom.  As we’ve discussed before, wisdom is the fleshing out of mere information/data.  Anyone can read an instruction manual to operate a machine, but the long-experienced worker who knows the machine’s inner workings, its temperament (so to speak) handles its operation with wisdom.  The ordinary means for the passing on of saving wisdom is the family.  God has so designed that wonderful basic unit of society that it’s particularly good at handing on wisdom.  As an old Irish professor of mine used to say, “you learned it from your mother’s knee…”. But with the breakdown of the family unit, and the rupture of real catechesis that has happened over the last several decades, there has been a concomitant breakdown in the ordinary means of handing on wisdom.  

I see this on display in various parts of parish life, ironically among those who are most faithful.  An earnest Catholic young adult walks in.  He’s read every word JPII ever wrote and visited half the Marian shrines in Europe.  He knows the information that constitutes our faith.  But he’s nervous as a leaf on a tree, worried that he’s committed a grave mortal sin, when -in actuality- his life has been benign.  What’s going on?  Information… such as the young man has read… can tell us that lust is a mortal sin… but it takes wisdom to know where and how that plays out in life.  My visitor is relieved to find that holding a girl’s hand and thinking thoughts doesn’t constitute a mortal sin separating him then and there from communion and salvation.   

We NEED wisdom in our lives again… and not just nervous young Catholics, but all of us.  Since ancient times, God has used the mysteries of his Son Jesus’ life to jump start that engine.  Mysteries so striking that the hard human heart can’t help but melt before them.  In his own earthly ministry isn’t that exactly how it happened: Jesus is conceived – Mary says, “yes.”  Mary visits Elizabeth – John leaps in the womb.  Jesus is born – the shepherds fall down in praise and the pagan world pays its homage in the wise men.  The Holy Spirit descended and the Apostles began to preach in his power.  Divine mystery prompts a new human response.

Fast forward to the middle ages: the engine of faith was breaking down.  All the usual methods were failing.  Then Our Lady gives the Rosary to St. Dominic and the tide shifts.  Speaking of tides, let’s jump back up to 1571 when the Turkish fleet, laden with over 100,000 soldiers approached a fractured Christian Europe intent on burning Rome.  A lighter Christian force commanded by the illegitimate son of the House of Austria, Don John, sails out to meet them, out numbered and out gunned.  Pope St. Pius V commanded all the faithful to pray the Rosary on the day of the battle… and against all odds and rules of meteorology, the winds shift… the Turkish fleet is annihilated saving Christian Europe.  

The mysteries of the life of Jesus, enshrined in the Rosary are the extraordinary means of rekindling the ordinary engines of wisdom in our experience.  

In our times, it can be so easy to despair.  I’ve not only heard it from our people, I’ve felt it myself.  But whenever I turn to meditation on the mysteries of our Lord’s life, in Scripture and especially in the Rosary, somehow worry fades and confidence is restored.  If you’re feeling down about life, about the Church, whatever the case may be… pick up the rosary to get your engine going again.

On the power of being listened to…

We hear a lot lately about being a “listening Church.”  And so we should.  To be a listening Church has some wonderful practical ramifications… it helps us to address reality by constructing [we hope] an accurate picture of that reality from the data we gather.  There is another side to being a “listening Church:” People like being listened to.  It makes them feel respected, acknowledged… and in some ways we may even say it helps people feel hope.  To be listened to means you are not alone, and THAT – I would argue – is the beginning of hope.  

I’ve felt this in my own life recently.  There’s nothing worse for a preacher than to look out over his congregation and see faces that are utterly disengaged.  Conversely, there’s nothing better than to look out and see people actively listening.  I’ve been blessed to have “listening” congregations.  Recently, in the wake of all the sad news being revealed/revisited by the Church, I’ve noticed this dynamic present among my brother priests.  The crisis spurred several listening sessions wherein clergy were totally free to express their worries, concerns, critiques etc. about the present moment.  The men felt listened to… and it gave them a sense of hope.  This in sharp contrast to the frequent conversations we have about how we don’t always feel listened to or like there’s even a place for dialogue to happen with our superiors.

Listening is important.  

That’s why a seemingly spare phrase in this mornings Office of Readings really hit me during my holy hour.  Psalm 17(18):36.  In the Ordinary Form Psalmody it reads,

You gave me your saving shield;
You upheld me, trained me with care.

‘sounds fine, right?  But here’s the Ordinary Form Latin (neo-Vulgata) with my own translation based on a simple dictionary search:

Et dedisti mihi scutum salutis tuae          You gave me your saving shield
Et dextera tua suscepit me                          and your right hand lifted me up
Et exauditio tua magnificavit me            and your generous
                                                                             hearing/understanding
                                                                             glorified me

I then consulted the Vulgate (Extraordinary Form) Latin

Et dedisti mihi scutum salutis tuae            You gave me your saving shield
Et dextera tua suscepit me                            and your right hand lifted me up
Et mansuetudo tua educavit me                and your clemency/gentleness
                                                                               led/taught me

I’ve been diving into Latin as part of my assignment at St. Mary’s in DC.  We celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and the Ordinary Form side by side quite harmoniously.  But had I not been here… had I not begun this study, I never would’ve known this morning that God HEARS me… and that his hearing is qualified by his clemency, his gentleness… and further that he desires me to be lifted up in the same way that Mary’s soul lifted up praise of him (Magnificare).

I’ve been coming across more and more inconsistencies like this as I dive into the Scriptures using multiple languages (vernacular English, Italian, Spanish), comparing them with what is supposed to be their origin today (neo-Vulgata Latin) and our ancient Vulgate texts from St. Jerome.  It has so enriched my prayer… and it makes me thank God more and more for the new translation of the mass and other sacraments.  Folks get hung up on some of the seemingly awkward cadence of the new translations, but they’ll get used to that over time.  The richness of spirit that can come from being ever more true to the actual texts of Scripture is too good to pass up.  Among other things, that richness reminds me today that God is a listening God who has not left me alone… and it inspires me to be part of a listening Church.

On the Assumption: How do we touch hope…

Midway upon the journey of our life
  I found myself within a forest dark,
  For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
  What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
  Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more…

Dante’s opening to his epic Divine Comedy … it’s something of a spiritual autobiography, but it’s also an every man’s tale of rediscovering hope.

What does hope look like?  Today’s Solemnity of the Assumption offers us a useful key to perceiving, understanding, and touching hope.  Like Dante we discover through today’s feast that hope springs first and foremost from the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  But Christ’s resurrected glory is so astonishing… so beautiful mere human faculties cannot fully embrace it… they can only know it’s real and stand in awe.  Like Moses before the face of God, we cannot look him in the eye… we can only bask in the radiance as he passes by… and even this leaves us changed, radiant forever.

But thanks be to God in Christ Jesus – his hope… our hope cascades from the unapproachable empyrean into the realm of things we might dare to touch and that might even embrace us…

Because in light of what her Son would one day do, Mary was preserved from sin… From the first moment of her earthly existence she was defined by hope.  As a result of this, when her earthly life ended Mary was assumed into heaven… again a vehicle of hope… where our queen has lead we know… we hope… we may one day follow.  

Revelation confirms and enshrines this historical reality.  She reigns now with Christ, enthroned, the moon at her feet, 12 stars crowning her.

But if Mary, the vehicle of our hope… one who is like us and has gone before us into the heavenly homeland… if Mary’s assumption permanently secluded her in heaven, our hope would remain still distant… and this in the midst of the Church’s ongoing spiritual combat on earth.  Thanks be to God… His gift of hope does not stop with her… the cascade flows further…  The ancient hymn of the Church for this feast points the direction:

O woman who subdues hell and death,
From the side of Christ, eagerly watching over us;
Heaven and earth glorifies
Their mighty queen.
But the terrible serpent persists
In threatening the people now given to thee;
Merciful Mother, come to our aid,
And break the necks of the malignant.
Protect the followers of the divinely inspired faith;
Lead those who go astray back to the holy sheepfold:

And what mother… hearing the cries of her children could remain in heavenly seclusion.  Throughout history Our Lady continually appears two us in two ways… each allowing us to touch hope on earth:

She literally appears to us: At Carmel, at Pompeii, at Knock, Lourdes, Fatima, Guadeloupe, LaVang… even now in Michigan at our Lady of Good Help…and innumerable other places.  Hope has not left us… one like us appears to us from her heavenly throne that we might touch hope through our faith…

But that’s still not the end because Our Lord did not come to heal the healthy… to give hope only to those who were already people of faith… he leaves a door open for all people to come through him beginning even with their human faculties… 

And so hope cascades… from our Lord in unapproachable light… to our Assumed Lady who leads the way… to her apparitions so dear to people of faith… to her blessed daughters in consecrated life throughout the history of the Church… who we have known, seen, heard, touched.  And Among these I’d like to touch hope in just a few… not just the existence of hope… but also the how… the how of how they teach us to live hope:

St. Hildegard von Bingen – the medieval abbess, prophet, visionary, musician, and apothecary.

St. Catherine of Siena – a genius of spiritual theology and church reform.

St. Therese of Lisieux – the tiniest spiritual giant who ever lived.

And finally… dare I say… Mother Angelica of Birmingham Alabama.

A mighty abbess, a lay-dominican, a humble Carmelite, and a simple nun who wanted to spread Jesus’ Eternal Word:  What did they all have in common… what can we learn about the transmission of hope?

First – hope isn’t based on earthly circumstances… they knew it was based on a firm relationship with Jesus Christ… and so hope can never be defeated…

Second this relationship must be nuptial… whether through marriage or vowed celibate life, or baptismal chastity… the Church manifests hope to her neighbors through healthy nuptial self-sacrifice of Jesus Loving his Church and the Church pouring herself out for him.

Third – hope comes from courageous prophetic witness… sometimes that prophecy manifests in spit-fire preaching… but more often through the courage to quietly experience an inner death and hand that up to God as a worthy sacrifice.  Sacrificium Dei spiritus contribulatus…

Finally – It is not enough – even in charity – to point out the world’s failings or the Church’s… though we MUST.  For Hope to spread we MUST be DOERS of the word… they must see us joyful… they must see us peaceful… they must see us loving… A lifetime of good and humble works gave Hildegard the credibility to stop wars before they could start with a single word… a lifetime of perseverance in good gave Catherine the credibility to humble cardinals and even the Pope himself into admitting they were wrong… a lifetime of quiet service gave Therese the credibility to renew the spiritual life of France and the world… and the fruit… the physical tangible fruit of blood sweat and tears gave Mother Angelica the credibility to stare down unholy men and prove them wrong.  By their fruits you will know them.  If you would be prophets of hope… be doers of Love and Humility.

We began with Dante… wandering midway through life’s journey seeking hope and direction… and like him we can follow a trail of sanctity… from our lives… through the lives of the saints… to the Assumed Mary Immaculate to her Son the source of all our hope.  At each stage hope’s reality is confirmed… by our senses, by our faith, by revelation… and at each stage we should take from this feast day the inspiration and confidence to continue to be a Church of Hope for all peoples.  Amen.

Thoughts on moving…

On Friday I received word that I’ll be moving to a new parish in July.

Whenever a priest moves there are mixed emotions on all fronts.  People at both parishes are usually sad to see their local priest move.  Despite the many protestations of pop culture, I’m fairly convinced that most human hearts don’t jump at the prospect of change; not this kind of change anyway.

At the exact same time, one feels excitement.  The excitement of new challenges, new possibilities… even something as mundane and the opportunity to rearrange all your pictures in new quarters.  Like I said: it’s a mix.  And that’s before the priest even considers himself.  While priests are called on to think of themselves last, we do still have to think of ourselves.  In my case, moving is always a challenge because in my heart of hearts I yearn for stability.  Perhaps it’s God’s sense of humor that in ten years of priesthood I’ve lived in five places… six if you count the time I did emergency fill-in work for two months at a parish… living out of a suit case.

What’s a parish, and what are priest, to do?  How do all of us process these changes that must come at some point?  Below is my homily for Trinity Sunday. I hope you find it edifying, a helpful spiritual proposal for how to process such moments in the light of our Catholic beliefs about the Holy Trinity.

Please be sure to pray for my current parishioners at St. Francis Xavier whom I am sad to leave, and the people of my new parish, St. Mary Mother of God in Gallery Place who I am so very excited to meet… and if you think of it, offer up a prayer for me too.