What’s the Deal

Starting this week, check the “Weekly Reflections Page” (above) for ongoing columns about basics of parish life… Each column will present answers to commonly asked questions from parishioners.  Enjoy!

A few thoughts on Quirks of Holy Week

Thoughts today on three “quirks” of holy week people have recently asked me about:

epa04170481 Pope Francis as he performs the traditional washing of the feet at the Don Carlo Gnocchi Foundation in Rome, Italy, 17 April 2014, during the "In Coena Domini" Mass with the people hosted in the center and their families. EPA/OSSERVATORE ROMANO / HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Foot Washing 101: who gets washed?

Before the Last Supper, Jesus gave us a beautiful example of servant leadership by washing the feet of his Apostles and giving the command (“mandatum”) that we follow his example (Jn 13:1-17).  On Holy Thursday, most parishes recall this event in the rite of the washing of the feet, in which the Pastor of the parish washes the feet of 12 people.  There’s been no shortage of comment on this rite over the last fifty-or-so years, mainly about whose feet ought to be washed.  Until recently, liturgical law said that twelve men (viri, as opposed to homines “people”) were to have their feet washed.  Pope Francis, in a beautiful exercise of his Petrine Office has adjusted procedure so that a group of twelve people representative of the People of God should be called forward.  This brings the letter of the law in line with the practice already widely in use throughout the Church in Europe and the Americas.  I’ve heard some hail this tweak as a “triumph of the modern” (yes, the person actually used that phrase)… or a “real win for women.”  Both claims betray a lack of knowledge about the true history of this rite and a very western mindset.  What Pope Francis has done is to tap into a much more ancient tradition of this lovely rite.

For most of the Church’s history, the washing of the feet was a rite carried out separate from Mass and only in religious communities (of men and of women).  At some point on Holy Thursday, the Abbot of a monastery or the Mother Superior of a convent would, usually in the chapter hall, not the chapel, wash the feet of the other monks/nuns in the community.  The rite never occurred in parishes or cathedrals.  It wasn’t until the twentieth century that Pope Pius XII gave the option of joining this rite to the mass.  Aware that this link to the Lord’s Supper Mass  would suggest those being washed were “apostles,” the Pope specified that men be chosen.

This year’s adjustment maintains the linking of the rite to the mass as an option, and likewise gives Pastors the option to invite whomever they think represents the community.  Cardinal Sarah, Pope Francis’ chief assistant in matters of worship, and the author of his decree clarified these options aware that the Church has many cultural expressions.  The renewed policy needs to be flexible enough to respect them all.

As with so many beautiful parts of our Catholic Tradition, Pope Francis’ adjustment to the rite is a dusting off of ancient practice adjusted to meet contemporary needs.  In any given parish, no matter whose feet are washed, in whatever context the rite may take place, our focus should never be on lording participation in this rite over anyone (cf Mt 20:25).  Rather we should focus on the suffering servant Lord whose quiet humility is an example to us all (cf Is 42:1-4).

Do we have to go to all of triduum (Thur., Fri., Sat.)?  Yes… here’s why:

The celebration of the Sacred Triduum (From the Latin Tri-diem, “Three Days”) is the height of the Church’s year.  Note however, it’s in the singular… one celebration, not three.  I’m not just speaking collectively… it is actually one mega-mass!  We begin “In the name of the father…” on Holy Thursday… but there’s no final blessing at the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  On Friday we enter the Church in silence and pick right back up again with an opening prayer… but note, the priest doesn’t even say “Let us pray” … we already did that on Thursday.  Only on Easter Vigil crossing the threshold of Easter itself do we finally have a concluding prayer and blessing!  Be sure to come to all three portions  of the one celebration of the Triduum… it’ll be a soul-moving life-changing experience.

Why so much?

Holy Week is extravagant, no doubt about it.  It is, literally, the epitome of Catholic worship for from these events spring the whole of our religious practice.  A parishioner asked me once, “Why so much? Aren’t there more practical ways to spend our time, talent and treasure?”  At Bethany (Jn 12:1-11), Mary was so overjoyed by Jesus’ love (which had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead) that as a ‘thank you’ she poured a year’s worth of costly oil over his feet to anoint them, drying them with her hair.  This extravagance, this total self-gift, expressed bodily in action… this is the only fitting human response to God’s love.  It doesn’t negate our obligations to the practicalities of life (i.e. maintaining our physical plant or serving the poor), but rather it crowns them.  As Catholics our practical works should only ever spring from our worship and then find fulfillment in our worship.  If they don’t we have to ask ourselves why we’re engaged in them.

The Fruits of Enlightenment: Joy and Perseverance

Raphael, "Transfiguration"
Raphael, “Transfiguration”

This past week offered opportunities to reflect on the Lenten Grace of Enlightenment (see posts below and weekly reflections page).  This week, we continue something of that theme, reflecting on some of the fruits of enlightenment: joy and perseverance/obedience.

This Sunday’s Gospel recounts the story of the Transfiguration (Lk. 9:28-36).  It’s a moment of enlightenment, whose fruits are certainly joy and perseverance.  If we back up just a bit, we find that before taking Peter, James and John up Mt. Tabor to pray, Jesus reveals to the twelve that: (a) he will have to die in Jerusalem, and (b) that they will have to one day take up their own crosses if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven (Lk. 9:22-28).  The Apostles who have “left everything” to follow Christ were – naturally – upset and anxious at this news.  Jesus takes Peter James and John up the mountain and reveals a fuller picture of himself… Transfigured, he enlightens them with the vision of his divine nature.  The experience gives them the joy they need to keep going, to persevere in obedience to their call.

Abraham, likewise, receives a message from the Lord, not to be afraid of his new mission because one day God would make his descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky (Gen. 15:5-18).  This is the encouragement he needs to break away from this native country and lead his people across uncharted deserts to the Promised Land.  Joy leads to perseverance.

The two concepts are linked in a necessary sort of way.  “Obedience,” from he latin, “ab audire” means, “it flows from the hearing.”  If we would obey our call, we need to hear all sides of it first.  We need to hear the command, “do good not evil,”  but we also need to hear the delight of our Father saying to us first, “I love you.”  “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  The practice of faith and virtue (see Ash Wednesday post below), at first a rote sort of a thing becomes enlivened by joy over the Father’s love.  Faith and virtue are warmed by enlightenment, maturing from rote exercise into a habit of loving self-gift.

St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

In this regard, our great example is St. Agnes.  Agnes was a Roman virgin who loved Christ.  She was completely animated by the idea of being espoused to Jesus and Jesus alone in heaven.  It made her into a joyous Christian, a young woman of grace and virtue.  Arrested for her faith, Agnes was martyred in the last of the Roman Imperial persecutions in 304.  She heard the voice of Jesus affirming her as beloved.  She rejoiced and practiced her faith… and that joy allowed her to persevere in the faith until she offered the ultimate witness, the ultimate self-gift for the sake of faith, her own death.

As we enter the second week of Lent, we might ask, “What kinds of enlightenment has the Lord given me?”  “What are my transfiguration moments?”  “How have they moved me with joy?”  “Do I connect them with my self-giving? …and if I have not, how can I do so this Lent?”

On the airwaves with “Morning Glory”

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Dear Readers – Check out the following link    ewtnmorningglory.com 

For a great new morning radio show, “Morning Glory” on the EWTN global radio network.

For those who don’t know, EWTN is the Eternal Word Television Network, begun by Mother Angelica, a Catholic Nun.  The Network had humble beginnings but has grown by leaps and bounds to bring eyes and ears of faith to the airwaves.  By way of witness: I wasn’t always a fan of EWTN.  As a kid I thought “Church TV” was about as lame as you could get.  Over time though, my own tastes, my own media needs, and the quality of the programming all grew.  I’m a big fan of the contribution that this great team of people are making to faith-filled culture.  I hope  you’ll consider checking out this  Friday’s (9/11/15) radio show using the link above and tune in regularly for all the good material they’re broadcasting from right here in Washington, DC!

The Golden Calf… it keeps coming back

A favorite of mine from "Farside"
A favorite of mine from “Farside”

When Moses came down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments he was surprised to discover his people worshipping God in the form of a golden calf.  They weren’t worshipping a false god (lower case “g”).  Traditional readings of this scene tell us that the Jewish people had not abandoned the Lord… but they were in a hard place and had a hard time conceiving of how they could relate to their  shapeless God.  So the people, in an act of desperation, in the shaking of their faith made a golden calf, a containable image of God.  At its best this was the people’s attempt to more easily perceive the living God.  At its worst, this was the people making the living God into something they could manipulate. In all cases, God “contained” in a human creation is an oxymoron.  Compassion for the people’s situation doesn’t change this reality.

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In a recent letter (12 June 2015) on the nature of Catholic worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah (Prefect of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Sacraments a.k.a. protector and promoter of the Church’s worship practices) raised a concern about contemporary worship: “We run the real risk of leaving no room for God in our celebrations, falling into the temptation of the Israelites in the desert.  They sought to create a cult of worship limited to their own measure and reach…”  Hence, all too often, the criteria for our public worship is, “Wouldn’t that be nice?”  or “Wouldn’t it be popular if…?”  or “People would like mass more if…”

NOTE: This post is NOT about liturgy, but Cardinal Sarah’s comments and the experience of the Jews teaches us an important lesson about life with the living God – It’s not always easy, and earthly comfort is not the primary goal.

Speaking with someone today about the jailing of Kim Davis I was told, quite firmly, that the Supreme Court’s recent rulings about same-sex marriage represented the definitive end of all conversation and Ms. Davis should’ve quit her job rather than disobey in protest of the law… End of discussion.  The truth was to be neatly boxed in a space just large enough for the comfort of society at this particular moment in history… A new golden calf.  But Truth… and Truth’s author, the living God cannot be contained like that, not even by the highest court of the Land.  The Court once ruled that “separate, but equal” was legal.  Did that make it true?  The Constitution once determined, by popular vote of the Convention no less, that slavery was (a) legal and (b) that slaves = 3/5 of a person.  Did the legality of those laws make them True?  No.  The truth cannot be manipulated by human beings… only discerned and appreciated.  Furthermore that discernment is something that should be always ongoing.  For even the most certain truths will only be known fully in heaven.  Indeed, the great philosopher Josef Pieper described the virtue of hope precisely as the constant state of our lives as “in via,” always on the way, never content to stop and settle for where we’re at.  One could saythen that to abandon the discernment of truth, to box up God is to limit or even smother hope.

Such ongoing discernment necessitates a degree of discomfort… call it our sacrifice in honor of the Truth.  It also necessitates ongoing, open, honest, and NON-violent dialog.  Such discourse shows respect for everyone on all sides… and above all shows our mutual respect for Truth… but it’s not easy and its rarely comfortable.  A great book on this subject is Ratzinger’s Truth and Tolerance   I highly recommend it.  I also recommend a re-reading of the St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and of course, the Catechism.    Interestingly, the Church does not command the faithful to unflinchingly assent to all her teachings… Rather she invites Catholics to an ongoing exploration of Truth marked by the humility of simply saying, “I might not know everything at this point in my life.”

Building the golden calf was all too easy… Living in a dynamic, developing relationship with our Father is tougher… but ultimately more satisfying.  Let’s keep the conversation going.  Peace.

Screen on the Green and a Little Elegance

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Talking with some parishioners after mass yesterday, I learned about several “Screens on the Green” – outdoor film initiatives here in DC (for more info, check out this LINK).  What really excited me was not the possibility of strolling over to Lincoln Park to see Casino Royale (July 16)… No what really enthralled me about this young couple was   their excitement about going to see the film together… and with a touch of elegance.  They were planning out their picnic, looking forward to selecting some meats, cheeses and maybe even a little vino to compliment the evening.  It reminded me of a line from Hello Dolly, “We’ve got elegance.  If you aint’ got elegance, you can never hope to carry it off.”

Elegance has very little to do with living in a ritzy manner, per se.  It’s more about acting on our best impulses.  The concept goes back to the Greek understanding of beauty, “kalon.”  For the Athenians, the beauty of nature was characterized by kalon or “elegant order.”  So when human beings live elegantly, it means that we bring a certain degree of purposeful order to bear upon a given activity.  Put another way – as St. Thomas Aquinas might say – “virtue is in the action… the living-out of the idea.”

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These two young adults, planning their movie-night were so excited to DO something about their love for each other… their commitment became manifest in a plan that they are actually going to carry out and live… and that dear friends, is very elegant.  It’s not so much about whether you’re buying a bottle of wine or a six-pack of diet coke… It’s about carrying out our desires to live as the best version of ourselves.

If we take our meditation a step (maybe a small leap) farther, we find that this concept of the elegant even touches on the sacraments.  Christ left us things to do and to do beautifully as the most clear living-out of his life among us.  Thats why parishes where sacraments are well celebrated are so much more satisfying than places where they are not… because the community sees itself doing something about realizing its highest aspirations.  Just as a girl might reasonably question a boy, “If you love me so much why didn’t you bring me flowers?  Why didn’t you do something about it?”  Christ will ask us, “Did you care for my little ones?  [c.f. Mt 25] Did  you celebrate the sacraments I left you when I said, ‘Do this in memory of me.’?  And did you do it in a slipshod or an elegant manner?” [c.f. Mk 14:15]  …just something to consider.

What does it take?

Moving into a new parish, lots of people want to tell you lots of things.  Happily, here at St. Peter’s the vast majority of things have been so positive my head spins more from euphoria than confusion!  Another angle to all this is that I’ve begun to get my very first questions.  I’ve only been on the ground two days, but already someone called to ask, “Should I give 10% of my income to God before or after earthly expenses?”  I don’t know who the parishioner is – I received the question via voicemail from the secretary – but what a neat first question to get!  I started thinking about it… Classically, Biblically, we are invited to give 10% off the top… before expenses… With the caveat that God desires no one to abandon their natural obligations to the support of children, spouses etc.  So please do feed your family and then give to the collection on Sunday.

Corollary to this, particularly here on the Hill where our young adult population is booming, it got me thinking, what should a young adult be giving.  It’s hard starting out in life, especially in a city as expensive as DC.  Many more ‘veteran’ parishioners (not just here but in any parish) will comment “Young people today don’t give…”  I’m not sure that’s entirely true… but in any event, I did a little number crunching after prayers this morning.

Average individual income in DC is about $80k.  Divide that by 52 weeks/year and  you get about $1,500/week.  10% of that is $150 dollars per week.  If everyone in the Church gave that amount regardless of their salary we’d have so much money to serve the community we wouldn’t know where to start!  That said, it’s REALLY hard to figure out how your average  young adult could sacrifice that much per week without cutting into essential expenses… So, I thought to myself… “What would it take to give 5% of an average income each Sunday?”  Here’s one quick calculation of things your average young adult in DC could give up  easily to put $75/week in the collection:

1 Cocktail on a date or out with friends (including tax/tip) = $20
3 Starbucks coffee based drinks (latte, frappe. etc) = $15
1 Sixpack of beer (Budweiser from Walmart in DC ) = $7
1 Pack of cigarettes (in DC approx.) = $7
1 iTunes video rental of a new release = $6
Various midday snacks / munchies  = $20

Even this was a challenging number to arrive at, but here’s a few encouraging thoughts.  First, I can tell you from experience that my prayer life and my life walking out on the streets is infinitely better when I’m actively tithing.  I contribute to the parish and to the poor right at the beginning of the month so the money isn’t there for me to spend and somehow God makes it all work!  Second, it’s ALWAYS been hard, even in Biblical times.  For a first century shepherd in Judea to send his first 10% to the Temple was a tremendous sacrifice on his part… but here’s the key: He sent it “as a sacrifice to the temple.”  It was an investment… a gift to the Almighty for which God was sure to reward him with grace.  Here in Washington the funds our parishioners give end up building up beautiful parish communities where the poor are served, the sick are cured, and the whole of the community can rejoice to see each other in worship and  fellowship… In short, we manifest the Kingdom of God by our giving. When you put all of that together, the sacrifices necessary to give up the list above gets put in perspective.  Finally, even taking all that into account, I know… all your priests know… it’s hard.  We’re in it with you.  God our Father calls us to “heroic virtue,”  and believe me when I tell you that I look at the generous fidelity of our parishioners as truly heroic!  Peace!

Urban Trek Part II

By the time I finished marveling at St. Joan of Arc and the amazing vista from Meridian Hill Park, it was about time for a mid-morning break. Leaving the park I trekked down 16th St in search of sustenance.

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Henderson Castle

16th Street, NW has an amazing history, bits and pieces of which are preserved in it today.  Originating at the White House, it’s sometimes still known as the “Avenue of Presidents.”  Just across from Meridian Hill Park, one can still see the retaining walls and foundations of the Henderson “Castle,” (ca. 1899)  home to Sen. John Henderson, who drafted the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  The Senator’s wife was convinced that 16th street should forever be a palatial entrance to Washington.  At a time when US expansion, and technological advancement seemed limitless, one can understand Mrs. Henderson’s enthusiasm.  The concept never fully took root… too much at odds with American democratic sensibilities… but to this day, embassies and NGO’s occupy some stunning French and Italianate palazzi all along this stretch of 16th.

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Coming to U Street, I initially thought to stop at the local Starbucks (U and New Hampshire), but thought better of it.  Nothing against Starbucks, but there had to be a more “local” establishment.  And there was!  The Three Fifty Coffee Bar and Bakery is an ideal stop for a midmorning riposo.  Located on 17th St, just south of U, the ambiance is charming, the espresso excellent and the croissants are freshly home made.  See my earlier posting on “Espresso and Aspirations,” for more on the virtues of local coffee shops.

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New Hampshire, near the S Street Dog Park
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an ornamental tree in Dupont buds with new growth

Trekking south on New Hampshire, U Street gave way to Dupont.  The neighborhood is one of Washington’s nicest, to be sure.  Initially, the architecture may conjure thoughts of Paris, or Mayfair in London… but there’s an element of restraint one doesn’t find in those cities.  Dupont, like most of Washington is actually rather humble as capital neighborhoods go.  Even at the peak of its 19th century growth, American wealth didn’t (generally) match the scale of European grandeur.  Consequently Dupont is marked by a certain simple elegance, or noble simplicity that makes it equally inspiring and endearing to visitors.  Too many people speed through the area, even on foot… on their way, I’m sure, to important jobs… but what a shame to miss the little gardens, ornamental statues and other unique touches that typify this part of DC.  Note to self – slow down in life and pray for patience.

Georgetown marked the end of my trek.  I met a dear friend for lunch there.  The frontier between Georgetown and Dupont is marked out by Rock Creek and one of my favorite DC monuments: the Buffalo Bridge.

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Standing sentry to this uniquely curving bridge are 4 massive bronze buffalos.  They’re odd creatures, when you get close to them… See them live, by the way, at the nearby National Zoo… While their disproportionate and bulbous forms impose a degree of humility on these once masters of the American prairie, Buffalos harbor a quiet strength and confidence.  They’re shapes are ideal for surviving freezing winters and ploughing through snow drifts.  Getting a buffalo mad at you (I’m told by friends from the prairie states) is a very bad idea.  Humble hardworking majesty… There’s something very ecclesial in that.
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It was a great trek… the first of many, I hope, this season.  Each time I get out for a long walk in our city the inspirations and aspirations I receive renew me.  What a blessing to see Washington through eyes of faith!

Reading Recommendations for the End of Lent

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Father Romano Guardini

 

“It is not the faith of cheerful fables that is demanded in these times, but rather a hard faith, for the softening and accommodating enchantment is falling away from all things, and everywhere the contradictions collide roughly with one another.” -Romano Guardini

By way of some recommended reading for the end of Lent and the beginning of Easter, two suggestions from one of the great fathers of late-twentieth century Catholic theology: Romano Guardini.

“Meditations Before Mass”  and “Meditations on the Christ Model of All Holiness”  both volumes are published by Sophia Press and make for great bite size reading before mass, on the metro commute or sitting with your espresso in the early morning (as I am now).

Guardini was born to an Italian family but grew up and studied in Germany.  I like to think of him as a mutant, an “X-Man” among theologians combing all the beauty of Italian aesthetic theology with the undeniable power of German logic.  His thought, joining together the best of our mystical and practical traditions, became a foundation for the Second Vatican Council… and consequently for the current New Evangelization ethic of the Church.  Happy Reading!