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.

 

The Music of Pentecost: the original Spiritual

Yearning is a big part of our religious existence… ultimately yearning for God, but by extension yearning for all the good things of this world.  I’ve written before about the positive power of yearning, about the eros-dimension of our love for God.  Yearning is front and center in the life of the Church as we “groan in expectation” (Rm 8:19) of what God promises, and never more so than on Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.  At Christmas we await his coming in the fullness of time.  At Easter, even though we know how the story ends, who can help but watch, wait and wonder with the Apostles on Holy Saturday, “What happens next?”  And at Pentecost we cry out, Veni creator Spiritus.  And Veni sancte Spiritus!  Come Creator Spirit!  Come Holy Spirit!  

The yearning of Pentecost is associated with it a particularly venerable musical tradition, enshrined in two hymns Veni Sancte Spiritus and Veni Creator Spiritus.  Their music comes from the middle ages (9th and 11th centuries), but their texts and their sentiment call forth memories of a more distant antiquity.  

As the Apostles prayed following the Ascension, we know that they awaited the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit promised by Christ.  Huddled in the Upper Room they would’ve chanted the psalms together, as the Jews still do today at the Western Wall and in their synagogues, a musical expression of the heart’s deepest yearning.

We know that immediately following Pentecost the Church’s musical tradition began.  There are, in fact, many texts within the Gospels and writings of the Apostles that were most likely musical lyrics before they were ever enshrined as Scripture.  Indeed, in an oral tradition, music makes it much easier to remember and hand on information across generations.  The Magnificat is a great example of this, as is the Canticle of Zechariah.  

Both Christian and pagan imperial records tell us that during the Roman persecutions, Christians were famed for singing under torture, and in the arenas as they prepared for death in the mouths of beasts, or on the cross after the fashion of our Lord.  This music was particularly powerful: It witnessed to tens of thousands of onlookers the power of the Holy Spirit whose gifts of hope and fortitude filled the dying Christians.  That witness turned the dynamic of the arenas on its head so that the very events meant to crush the Church spread her message of hope to vast crowds.  By their musical witness, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church.  

Through the dark ages, the droning chant of the monks preserved civilization like a low flame supported by the power of the Spirit flowing from their altars… I could go on and on… but I should fast forward through time and space to America and a dark chapter in our own history.  What was it that sustained enslaved peoples here in the US if not their nascent Christian faith expressed through… spirituals… This beautiful genre of music witnessed hope not only to successive generations of enslaved individuals, but also to those who would become their greatest advocates, the abolitionists.  Their work and prayer finally sent the Grand Army of the Republic marching to the Battle Hymn of the Republic to end slavery and preserve the union.  

One of the great things about Pentecost is that its gifts go on unchanged.  The gift of the Incarnation at Christmas ultimately ascends to the Father out of human sight.  The gift of the Resurrection happened once.  But the descent of the Holy Spirit continues unchanged to this day, if only you and I can see it with eyes of faith.  And the music of the Spirit is our great helper in that effort. 

Recommended Listening: Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony – based on the Veni Creator Spiritus 

The Beauty of Ascension Thursday

 

Baldassare Franceschini, Ascension – in the National Gallery of Art, DC

We’re in a season of really beauty… it’s not just the Washington is ablaze with roses, irises, and peonies.  It’s not just the broad smiles and easy laughter of college grads moving on to great things… It’s also a holy season.  We’ve just concluded the great cycle that began way back at the beginning of December with the first Sunday of Advent.  That flowed into Christmas, Epiphanytide, the preparation for Lent, Easter, and now finally, Ascension and Pentecost.  And these last two really do shine to match the natural beauty of the world around us.

I propose three ways in which the Ascension may be called beautiful: superficially, philosophically and theologically…

At Ascension Jesus rises Body and Soul into the glory of heaven, finally returning to the Father… and bringing with him something new, our humanity.  On the face of it, we may well say, “Wow, bright light, clouds, angels, how beautiful!” And we’d be right.  But there’s more!

Ascension participates in the classical philosophical definition of things objectively beautiful.  It is marked by three classical categories: Integrity, Consonance, and Clarity.  Integrity – Ascension is the fulfillment of all Jesus prepared us for.  He had to leave to complete his mission.  He alludes to this in the Last Supper discourses in John (ch. 14 and 15), and said as much overtly to Mary Magdalene: Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn 20:17).  Consonance – Jesus Ascension works not only within itself, but also in conjunction with all that came before and after it.  The Ascension fulfills Prophecy and corresponds with everything the the Apostolic age that followed.  It is a harmonious or consonant part of salvation history.  Finally, the Ascension is marked by clarity… by which we mean it is radiant, warming us and calling us to change are selves for its sake.  You see, the Ascension of Jesus finally means that the Church is his remaining Mystical Body on earth.  The Church is now called on to live his ministry: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)

The Ascension’s beauty is also seen in what it accomplishes as part of theology.  The event marks a very real beginning to what theologians call “recapitulation,” that process by which Jesus presents redeemed Creation to the Father… and the first thing to be presented is our humanity, restored by his divine presence.  It’s the beginning of him presenting the Church, Christ’s bride, to the Father as St. Paul suggests in Ephesians (5:27): that [the Lord] might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  A fallen world restored and presented to its Creator as worthy once more of heaven… Beautiful.

Up next…  a few thoughts on the beauty of Pentecost and the divine music it initiates.

The Easter Candle Tells Us Who We Are

Each year, one of the most striking moments of the Easter Vigil is the presentation of the Paschal Candle and the Exultet the Easter Proclamation.  It speaks to us not only of the candle itself, but also about us, about who we are. Lifting the light up onto the paschal candlestick, its light is multiplied, divided yet undimmed, among us, each of our lights representing our baptism, our new identity given to us in Christ the very first time we received the light so long ago.  During the Easter season, admiring that light, that pillar of fire, what can it tell us about ourselves and who we are called to be?

To begin with, as the proclamation reminds, the candle is “the work of bees”… many bees.  Thousands of little instruments of earthly nature came together to make the wax of this candle.  Likewise, we are – each of us – the product of a multi-generational effort.  All that came before us worked together to make us who we are.  We should give thanks and pray daily for those who went before us, not only in our family lines, but in the lineage of the Church.  We are the inheritors of their efforts.

But the our identity doesn’t stop with the natural.  If that were the case, life would be meaningless, colored and condemned by the inevitability of death.  All those generations that came before us knew this… and so, well aware of our mortality, we were – like the Easter candle – raised up to the glory of God, “hallowed to the honor of His name.” Scored with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, the candle shows an awareness of our beginnings, but also of the divine end in store for those who live out their baptismal identity.  Never lose track of that orientation, lest you should fall back into mortality and its consequences.

The candle, made by nature, lifted to the glory of God is by its nature made to be shared.  It’s light spreads, not only on its own within the limits of the church building.  In us, that light spreads into the whole world.  It’s sanctifying power is meant to, “dispel wickedness, wash faults away, restore innocence to the fallen and joy to mourners.”  If we keep all that locked up in a building, or even with the polite confines of our immediate family, we deny the candle’s identity and our own.  Be joyful and share that light in whatever way you can each day.

So often we come up with excuses to put off our sharing of the light.  Like the Italians we say, “domani, domani, e dopo domani.”  “Tomorrow, tomorrow and after tomorrow.”  Have we forgotten the very first words of Lent, “Now is a very acceptable time.  Now is the day of salvation.” (II Cor. 6:2) The candle is marked by the year, “2-0-1-8.”  It was built and consecrated for this time, no other; likewise each of us.  “I am too young and inexperienced.” The Lord says otherwise (Jer. 1:7).  “I don’t know what to say.”  Neither did Moses (Ex. 6:30), and God made him leader of his people.  I am too old, too infirmed.  God doesn’t accept sacrifice only from the young and the able… He asks us each to give our all whatever that may be!  Be an evangelist, share the light now, like the candle, in 2018!

Finally, as Holy Week reminded us so well, the candle, like our lives, is marked by the cross.  It suffers as the cross is carved into its base… but it is not defeated by that mark.  Indeed, the contrast of the cross’ wounds and the prevailing light gives the light so much more credibility.  Like Jesus with the Apostles in the Upper Room, show the world your wounds.  It’s not a matter of taking pride in our battle scars, but rather of reminding our brothers and sisters that vulnerability is not the end of us… that the limits of our flesh are not the limits of our being.  Its worthy to note that the nails we insert into the candle contain a grain of incense in each of them… a reminder that each wound is a completely offered gift to God.  Through that gift the wound is transformed.

This Easter season pay special attention each time you see the Paschal Candle burning in church.  It’s an eloquent reminder and inspiration for us to be who we are meant to be, a people of the Light.  -Amen

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.

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.