Memories of Holy Thursday

In the readings for Holy Thursday, Moses instructs the people on how to slaughter the Passover Lamb and keep a memorial of the Passover each year thereafter.  For the Jews, to keep a memorial is not a matter of stale dates on a page… It’s a bit more like… ?time travel?  Because each time you memorialize an event, the realities of the original action become fully present again.  It’s no coincidence then, that Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of the new covenant would instruct his disciples in how to keep a memorial of the event.  His instruction, understood in its proper Jewish context, testifies to the reality of Transubstantiation: our belief that bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus in all their reality each time we keep his memorial (that is, at Mass).

So Holy Thursday is a day full of memory.  It’s not just the events of Calvary that we memorialize, but also the establishment of the Priesthood.  Jesus – the High Priest – hands on to the Apostles the capacity to offer His unique and saving sacrifice for the rest of human history.  The Apostles in turn hand that capacity on to their successors and assistants, the bishops and priests of today’s Catholic Church.

Now each time a memorial sacrifice is offered, among the many things that go on, two stick out: the offering of thanksgiving, and the offering of expiatory sacrifice (that is to say, sacrifice for the obtaining of mercy).  And so as we keep this Holy Thursday, I propose that we engage in memorializing the priesthood with thanksgiving and supplication.

We give God thanks for the High Priest Jesus Christ, who not only opened for us the doors of salvation, but also invited us to collaborate with him.  He gave us the ordained priesthood of the clergy to lead that process, but he also gave us the royal priesthood of the faithful to be the lived substance of that sacrifice visible to the world each and every day!  Thank you Lord for the Priesthood of Jesus Christ!  We also offer to the Father, the Body and Blood of that same High Priest asking his pardon for our sins, our many sins.

We remember and we give thanks for our priests here on earth.  Their presence in our lives is an enduring spark of hope in a world that is all too often so conscious of its own limits, its own mortality.  Think of the priests you’ve loved.  The priest who baptized, you… who excited you with a great homily… who hears your confessions week in and week out… the priest who visited you or a loved one at the hospital… the priest who ministered to your family at the death of a loved one… the priest who offers masses prayers and other sacrifices for our needs whatever they may be.  These good men give us hope in darkness.  Some shine more brightly than others, but the virtue common to all that ministry is HOPE… not just earthly optimism, but a real hope of heaven.

We also need to remember and ask mercy for the priests who have failed us. News headlines remind us all too often of the extraordinary cases, but for vast majority of us, priestly failure comes in the form of mediocrity.  When a priest becomes bound to the earth, he stops inspiring, stops giving hope of heaven.  And while that’s not a crime, per se, it’s a failure from which the faithful suffer terribly.

I remember the priest in my neighborhood parish.  For decades, he was there boring us all to death… a nice enough man, but there was nothing about him that made me want heaven.  I returned to my home parish after ordination, in cognito as it were, to attend one of his masses.  I thought that my new identity as a priest might make me more understanding, or help me to see him in a different light.  Sad to say… it didn’t.  I couldn’t believe that in 20 years NOTHING had changed.  When a new priest finally arrived, the parish began slowly returning to life.

I recently heard a true story of a priest in Southern Maryland, in the days of Jim Crow who ordered seminarians to knock over the headstones of African American Catholics.  It was a crime against the dead and against God.  It was sacrilege.  Nonetheless, if we’re going to be a better Church than that, we must pray and offer memorial sacrifice for his forgiveness.

Priests have no spouses, no children, no one to remember them after they’re gone.  The fate of their souls is in the hands of the faithful… and so whether horrible or mediocre, we need to ask the mercy of the High Priest for them… because Hell isn’t something we should wish for anyone, even a bad priest.

This Holy Week, keep the memory of the priesthood… of the High Priest Jesus Christ, and of his earthly servants, good and bad.  Pray that one day we may all be united at the wedding banquet of heaven there to contemplate his sacred countenance forever more.

The meeting I didn’t attend

I recently received the minutes of a meeting I couldn’t attend… Actually it’s not so much that I couldn’t attend it as I didn’t.  More on that in a minute…

In today’s mass readings, Isaiah (49:1-6) speaks about his beginnings as a prophet.

“from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.”

He also points out that the mission of a prophet is not simply to be God’s lackey, but to be a gift to the whole world.

“It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant…
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Beautiful… but an odd pairing with today’s Gospel (Jn 13) in which Jesus identifies Judas as his betrayer.   Then the Lord gave me a clue as to what he wanted me to hear in today’s Scriptures.  Asking the Lord who would turn on him, Jesus replies to the Apostles,

” ‘It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.’
So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas,
son of Simon the Iscariot.
After Judas took the morsel, Satan entered him.”

Wasn’t Jesus offering Judas an out here?  All he had to do was say, “thanks but no thanks; I don’t want the morsel.”  and the moment might have passed by.  Indeed the Apostles themselves were so dumbfounded that even when Judas left the table they thought he was leaving to get the money bag or give alms.  Jesus gave Judas an out, but rather than receive his gift, his opportunity, Judas took the morsel, “and Satan entered him.”

It’s telling.  Isaiah was receptive and became and instrument of God’s light.  Judas took matters into his own hands and became an instrument of darkness.

Back to my meeting…  It was a meeting of good people, all of them well intentioned, talking about good things.  After attending many such meetings as a priest, my prayer antennae perceive something: a distinct flavor of frenzied activity.  …and beyond that, something more… a corporate flavor.  People throw around slogans, lingo and logos.  It’s all very nice and very well meant… but what I don’t perceive (and believe me I’ve tried) is the flavor of the Church.

In trying to take back lost ground in he cause of evangelization, do we sometimes risk taking the morsel instead?  Pushing our version of the Gospel instead of the version we know Jesus gives us?  I think Judas may well have thought he was doing a good thing, jump-starting the “kingdom process” that Jesus seemed to be doing so slowly… but in the midst of all his activity he missed the point.

Think about it: who do parishioners love more, the Pastor who leads them in meetings, or the pastor who leads them in prayer, family life, and service of the poor.  Think of the most successful parish you know.  Is it characterized by endless meetings, posters and peppy slogans?  or is it characterized by people who adore the Blessed Sacrament, visit the sick, and teach their children the faith at home?

A representative of the USCCB once said to me and a group of priests, “If you want to help your parish evangelize, do away with all programs that require posters.”  Of course there was some humor, some sarcasm in his words, but there was also truth.  I asked him afterwards if he’d ever said that to his bosses at the Conference… and there was silence.

The Church is so tempted by the society in which she finds herself to be  corporate instead of a convivial… litigious instead of canonical… sincere instead of sacred.  It’s an understandable temptation; I feel the tug myself.  We want so much to rebuild and to restore… but unless that effort begins with silence, Scripture and Saints… unless we begin by being receptive like Isaiah, we risk becoming acquisitive like Judas.  The proof is there.  “You will know them by their fruits.”  Have any meeting/poster-oriented Church efforts resulted in more baptisms, marriages, confessions?  In ten years as priest I haven’t seen it.  What I have seen is parishes and movements flourishing where there is a receptive attitude and a family spirit present.  Pray this Holy Week that we not take the morsel.

Encountering Gardeners: How do I treat the Body of Christ?

I can’t believe it, but it was almost fifteen years ago… Fifteen years; where does time go?  I was a seminarian living in the city on summer assignment.  Then as now, I loved taking long urban treks to clear my head, work out ideas, relax.  One such trek I was walking along P Street in Georgetown, not far from Rose Park.  It was hot, and -as if the heat wasn’t enough- the low angle of the afternoon sun contributed to an overall sense of fatigue.  The day itself was tired.  It wasn’t any surprise then to see a gardener packing up supplies outside an elegant townhouse.  Looking at the front yard, I’d guess he spent most of his day bagging last year’s wood chips and laying down a fresh layer.  The workman was clearly exhausted.  Long sleeves protecting his arms from the sun’s glare didn’t help preserve them from the heat.  Dust and splinters sat in suspended animation in the sweat on his face.  Even the heavy pants he wore to guard against the rough ground or the weed whacker’s detritus seemed to have surrendered, wilting on his frame.  Drawing closer to the scene, I noticed there was more happening than just end-of-the-day cleanup.  Another man, presumably the owner of the house, came into view.  He was livid.  In sharp contrast to the gardener, the homeowner was rigid with fury.  “Clean it up!  You call this finished?! I am NOT pleased.”  With these and other shrill critiques, the homeowner registered his displeasure.  I tried to look as casually as I could at the gardener’s work.  Some stray chips, a thin veneer of potting soil were strewn across the front walk; hardly a crisis… But there was no telling that to the owner… particularly since it became clear that the gardener didn’t speak English.  I was furious.  Who was this privileged prince to speak to another human being like this?  But for all my indignation, I did nothing.  I kept walking, much to my shame.

The story came back to mind yesterday (Palm Sunday) as we read the Passion narrative of St. Mark (14:1-15:47).  The first thing to strike me was a moment that usually gets passed over.

“When he was in Bethany reclining at table

in the house of Simon the leper,

a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,

costly genuine spikenard.

She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.

Elsewhere in the Gospel (Jn 12:1-11) this is the moment when Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus and dries them with her hair.  It got me thinking, “How do I treat the Body of Christ?”  In the Passion, there are two other examples of treating the Body of Christ.  There’s the soldiers/temple authorities, who treated it as an object, a thing, an inconvenience to be cleared away.  And then there’s Judas who kissed Jesus only to betray him.

We do – all of us – engage in all three ways of treating the Body of Christ.

When prayer is inconvenient, when we just don’t fee like genuflecting in Church, when there’s so many other things that need to get done rather than taking time for a personal encounter with someone…we turn the Body of Christ into an object.  He becomes something limited, controllable, something that can be easily set aside while we get about the truly important work of doing what we want.  We become like the Jews in the desert who made the golden calf: God will conform to this image, my image, of him and no more.  I see this in so many moments of my own life.  I also see it as a real possibility in wider Church life.  Anytime we want to put aside Jesus’ teachings to accommodate our soooo much more enlightened contemporary views/issues we risk objectifying Jesus.  We protest, “No, surely the Lord will understand.”  Only to hear Jesus reply, “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. (Mt 5:18)” …and suddenly, with the wicked, we may find ourselves saying (quite to our own surprise), “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, he reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. (cf. Wis. 2:1, 12-22)”

We can be smarter than this…and more cunning.  Never doubt the genius of concupiscence.  We say, “No, no, no… I’m with Jesus.  I’m one of his followers.  I’m just trying to live out a more relevant version of his plan.”  We wear the outward appearance of disciples, even apostles, only to betray him to the Enemy… like Judas.  Many have written that Judas just wanted to prompt Jesus, to goad him into throwing off the sham of humility… to force him, as it were to bring about an earthly Kingdom.  So it made sense: betray him, have him arrested and he’ll call down the angels to defeat his/our enemies.  But Judas’ version of providence was not God’s.  As a priest I know that this happens anytime I hide behind… or better yet, “lean” on my collar.  I don’t think it’s often, but I know it happens. “I can cut a corner liturgically.  I can speed through my breviary.  I can delay confession.  It’s ok, I’m a priest.  I know what I’m doing.”  Did you notice that Jesus’ name didn’t enter into that consideration?  In families we sometimes see this when/if we invoke how “right” we are.  “If the poor would just work like the rest of us everything would be fine.”  Or… “I knew bad things would happen to that family.  They deserved it.  Look how they lived.” Or… “I could’ve seen that one coming a mile away, but she got what she deserved.”  We fake to one side and kiss the cheek of Jesus… a momentary nod to righteousness… only to leap toward our real goal: judgment, keeping our fellow man “in his place” based on our vision of things.  How odd that such a lack of empathy should come under the guise of an intimate kiss.

Then there’s Mary… who in a moment of seeming madness anoints the body of Jesus.  She loves him absolutely.  It must’ve looked crazy.  In John’s account, though she’s in her own home, she doesn’t even stop to get a towel.  So crazed is she with love of the Lord she must dry his fee with her own hair.  She doesn’t care about other people’s plans.  She doesn’t think of her own reputation.  She simply loves.  And when the world protests, “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?  It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages

and the money given to the poor.” Jesus himself defends her… because the encounter is not about efficiency it’s about love… and love, real love, doesn’t exist on a scale of the efficient or the meritorious.  Love, in its purest form, is utterly gratuitous.  Such love is the only way of treating the Body of Christ with any sort of worth.  Do I treat Jesus like this?  I hope so… not only in the Blessed Sacrament, but it my fellow man: in my family, in strangers, and especially among the poor.  He desires all to be part of him one day in heaven, so all are worthy of that love.  “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me. (Mt 25:40)”

In another week, we’ll hear about Mary Magdalene encountering a gardener.  When she realizes it’s Jesus she throws herself at his feet.  I can’t walk down P Street without thinking of that day fifteen years ago, of the miniature human drama I saw play out in front of me and of my silence, which made it not just a drama, but a tragedy.  Lord, grant that the next time I see you in a gardener… or in anyone… I may throw myself at your feet, in your defense, in love of you.  Grant that I may treat your body well.  Amen.

Don Carlos and the Discernment of Spirits

Earlier this week, I went to the Kennedy Center to see Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Don Carlos.  It’s the story of eponymous crown prince of Spain and his family.  Based much more on Schiller’s play than on actual history, Don Carlos offers viewers a grand tangle of humanity.  Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition many contemporary critics see the play through a myopic lens.  “It’s all about liberty vs. oppression.”  “It’s about the cruel Church crushing the spirit of liberty!”  Wrong on both counts.

Don Carlos debuted in Paris, 1867.  At the time, Giuseppe Verdi was not only a world famous composer, he was also a patriot firmly dedicated to the unification of Italy.  The natural instrument of unification should have been the Pope, but history doesn’t always go the way we think it should.  Pope Pius IX was torn between his own love of country and his duty as a [then] national leader.  To unify Italy meant declaring war on multiple Catholic dynasties (Habsburg, Bourbon, and multiple smaller Italian clans).  As the ruler of the Papal States, the cause of unification put Pius IX in a terrible position.  Further, Pius IX had lived through the “year of revolutions” (1848) and seen the terrible toll they took on effected lands and people.  That he was hesitant to engulf Italy in further warfare should not necessarily be counted against him.

This historical issue actually leads me to the real theme of this opera… an issue much deeper and more satisfying than the shallow dialectic of “liberty good, Church bad.”  It’s about discernment.  Each character has his or her own “good,” to which he or she is totally committed.  The resulting clashes might easily leave you scratching your head.  “A royal family in discord… this is what I paid $100 to see on stage?  I could’ve stayed home and watched the news.”  That assessment would be fair were it not for Verdi’s music.

Music, much more humanely than mere argument, has the power to present competing “goods” like love, patriotism, faith etc. without the process feeling chaotic.  Just as competing themes in a symphony can be resolved at the piece’s end, so human conflict finds balance as the curtain falls and the audience rises to applaud.  For our part, the orchestra’s work carries singers’ voices, softening hearts not to judge each good, not to take sides, but rather to appreciate each in turn.  When the evening is over, we leave the argument on the theater’s stage, taking home the fruits of our meditation.

In life as in opera, the hardest choices are not between good and evil, but between competing goods.  There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, love, faith, or duty, but when they clash, how are we to proceed.  To make things harder, our lives don’t come with sound tracks.  What’s to carry our soul in discerning between these goods?  I suggest that there are certain musical accompaniments in our lives to help the discernment process.  Friendship is a sweet, patient, nurturing environment where we can work our the knots of our lives.  It’s a melody that carries us, lightening the load until a decision can be made.  Sacramental life (mass, confession, prayer) is the steady drumbeat that drives us ever forward over obstacles, constant in our commitment to the long haul.  Marriage is, perhaps, a beautiful combination of the two.

This Lent, consider a trip to the opera… if you can’t go, consider tuning into the Saturday afternoon live broadcasts from the Met on WETA 90.9 FM.  See what food for thought it may give you and what it can do to aide in your own discernment of spirits.

A Lenten Triptych

A Lenten Triptych

Rev. Vincent J. De Rosa

In the world of medieval art a triptych is usually an altar piece.  It has three panels telling a story… the central panel supported by the details the two side pieces.  Triptychs were useful for their symmetry, but also because they could be closed: the two side panels, swung on hinges to cover the middle  forming a safe portable piece of art.

Yesterday I presented something of a narrative triptych to the brothers of the Little Oratory of St. Philip Neri at St. Thomas Apostle Parish.  The brothers are a neat bunch.  About forty men, young adults to seniors, who draw their spiritual life from the teachings of St. Philip, and then take those graces into the world for evangelization.  The mainstay of this weekly meeting is preaching offered gently and in a style accessible to all.  A brief homily given by a priest is then followed by prayers and a more lengthy witness offered by one of the members, usually over drinks and snacks.  Here are the thoughts I offered

Central Panel: Tensions of Lent – How am I supposed to feel?

In many ways, I grew up with everything.  I was raised by a loving family in a nice neighborhood.  I received an excellent education.  …which is not to say life was perfect.  I was bullied… a lot, I now realize, by classmates.  It set up something of a spiritual tension for me.  How can someone who has everything, feel like a nobody?  Objectively, of course, there was no need for this stress, but subjectively, what can one say but, “kids don’t care about objective reality.”  We’ll come back to that.  There was also a tension of faith.  We were Catholic, but rarely went to church.  I certainly didn’t know my prayers.  All that said, as an Italian-American family we would never be anything other than Catholic.  Again… tension.  Lent often makes me think of tension.  It’s a season of mortification… ordered toward resurrection.  A season of death, and yet just yesterday I saw the first flowering trees of the spring beginning to bloom in Dupont.  What am I supposed to feel?  As I said… tension.

Tensions, and their accompanying anxieties, come when we perceive a deficit that we can’t seem to fill.  The normal course of human life is to pile up distractions.  Sometimes these distractions are for ourselves: various forms of self-medication.  Other times, we don’t try to distract ourselves so much as we do the world.  Again, at the root of it all is a perceived deficit on our part.  In my case, I piled up accolades to my credit, in order to distract the world from what I thought was lacking in myself.  I excelled at school, followed every rule to perfection, learned lessons of culture well beyond most of my cohort.  It was all good, but in many ways it was all a shiny shield to distract the world around me from what I was convinced were my own deficits.

One problem with such typical tactics is that they never address the underlying source of our personal tensions.  And in the case of children/adolescents, though adults are very impressed, classmates don’t particularly care.  They continue to reinforce one’s deficit-perceptions despite the most spirited defense.  A second problem is that our deficits… the holes in our lives… do have some root in reality.  Indeed, as we grow, we discover that we can’t do everything.  Yearn as much as you want, you probably won’t become President of the United States.  The line between our real limits and the false sense of lack -whether imposed on us by the world or by our own imaginations – becomes blurred.

It was over the course of several Lenten seasons, in seminary and then as a priest… several seasons of spiritual tension… that Christ began providing me with the tools… two tools in particular… to become free in all the other parts of my life.

First Side Panel: Poverty of Spirit – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” (Mt 5:3)

What does it mean to be poor in spirit?  Meet any mendicant (Franciscan, Dominican, Missionary of Charity, etc.) and you will realize that despite the best efforts of popular culture to convince us otherwise, spiritual poverty is not about self-punishment or self-hate.  Indeed every mendicant I’ve ever met has been a cheerful, loving person.  In Rome, I met St. Philip Neri who on the one hand is famed as the saint of JOY.  On the other hand, he frequently prayed, “Father do not trust Philip, for I will surely betray you.” What Philip, Francis, Dominic, Teresa and all the others have discovered is that truly, God loves us no matter what.  “He made us, we belong to him.  We are his people, the sheep of his flock.” (Ps. 100:3). He knows that I am a sinner, that I am weak, that I am small, that I am mortal.  Like St. Philip, given the slightest chance I will betray him… and yet, He loves me.  It hit me one night in confession to an old mentor, Msgr. Lyons.  Dutifully, he sat, gentle and ancient, waiting in the confessional each day before Evening Prayer.  Like many, I found myself confessing sins of habit… and while they were in one sense common by their frequency, I was so ashamed of them… as if somehow God was shocked by them each time I confessed.  Msgr. Lyons sat their quiet behind the screen listening to me that night.  With quirky gentility he simply replied, “Well, don’t do that again.” and absolved me.  The same response, the same absolution as every week… but on this night, this particular night I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by a realization.  God’s love for me in my poverty is absolute.  To be ashamed before him is useless.  I needed to love my sinful self as much as he does or I’d never make any real progress.  For the first time, I left confession with a real sense of the mercy that had always been there.

God had given me the riches of the Church: her music, culture, literature, and above all the sacraments not to defend myself, keeping the world at bay… but to fill in my deficits… to say, “Be not afraid, whatever is lacking in you, be it real or imagined, my LOVE can fill in the holes.”  But none of it ever really hit me until I acknowledged and embraced my identity as poor.  More than that, when I began to embrace my poverty and let God fill me, his gifts in me became more desirable to others.  After all, when you use a gift as a defense mechanism, who wants it?  But when the gift loses its martial orientation, then “we console others with the consolation we ourselves have received.” (II Cor 1:4)

“Be not afraid little flock, your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom.” (Lk 12:32) Today I read this verse everyday on the base of my priestly chalice.

Second side panel: Desirous Love – It’s real and it’s wonderful

Another Lenten lesson of several years has been the power of desirous love.  In seminary and afterward it’s been so easy to fall into the trap of comparisons.  Imagine two hundred fifty future Pastors -future leaders- gathered in chapel.  Two hundred fifty alphas.  You could almost hear the silent comparisons emanating, “Lord he looks more prayerful than me.”  “Lord why can’t I give myself as well as him.” The supreme love, agape, is a love of total self-donation that happens when the Lord is truly with us.  And so each time we feel challenged by this love… feel that we haven’t quite satisfied the demands of such love, there is an implicit question, “Has the Lord abandoned me?  Have I become distant from him?”

Father Buonsignore Cacciaguerra, a renaissance spiritual master in Rome and friend of St. Philip Neri offered this image as part of a reflection on Divine Love:

The soul can find no rest because of the absence of her spouse, and desires him the more; then as it were, mad with love, she seeks him day and night, and finds him not, though oft-times he is hidden within her, though she knows it not, to increase within her a yet greater love of him and infinite desire. 

Whether our lack of agape is real or perceived, the desirous love for God on which we fall back is not necessarily a bad thing.  Indeed, as Fr. Cacciaguerra instructs, it is sometimes a tool of the Lord precisely to fan the flames of love in our souls… to grow those souls for ever greater self-gift in the future.

Further… as St. Thomas points out, the existence of an innate desire (e.g. for food, or for air… or for love) confirms the existence of the object of that desire… in this case God, the lover of our souls… even when the object cannot be seen at the moment.

I cannot tell you how often I feel like a terrible priest… nay a terrible person… not because I’m horrible to others, but just because I keep thinking, “I should give more.”  Is that a real aspiration or a temptation to despair… probably a little of both… but I take both comfort and motivation from this truth: that a desirous love for God is always real… that the presence of that desire means God is out there waiting for me to run to him… and that (as Thomas Merton put it so well), my desire to please him does please him.  More often than not, I find that focusing on fanning my desire for God usually leads to somebody from outside affirming that indeed, I have been a good giver.  Don’t knock desirous love.  It’s real and it’s wonderful.