Because the First Shall Be Last

Those who attack the Pope and the Vatican, thinking that this might bring down the Catholic Church, will never succeed. They are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. They are beating the donkey on his rear end instead of on his head; a donkey only moves faster when you beat its tail. The Catholic Church is not the Pope and cardinals. The Catholic Church is us.

For the Church to die, my faith will have to die, and yours. Our hope, grounded in faith, will have to be destroyed. Our charitable works, moved by faith, will have to end. And critics will have to chastise and ultimately destroy not Benedict XVI, who (horrible to think) might have had knowledge of abuse in Germany while he was a prelate there. They will have to destroy you and me.

They will have to silence people like my friend Z, who ministers to dying people as a physician in the OR of a leading Boston hospital. Or J, who selflessly tends our rectory garden, utterly pro bono, all summer long, even while Finbar, the zany rectory dog, uproots anything planted. Or F and C, who take communion to the old and enfeebled of our parish, though they are quite old themselves. They stop to say a rosary at each rest home.

Critics will have to bring down famous Catholics, too—not famous like BXVI or JPII, but famous like Mother Teresa, like Francis of Assisi, or like Jesus of Nazareth, who still lives in each of these beautiful human beings.

This line of thinking occurred to me this morning after I did two things. (1) Read a New York Times op-ed piece about the history of abuse in Germany, called “Benedict’s Fragile Church.” (2) Read my daily gospel chapter, in this case, Matthew 3, the story of Jesus’s baptism by John.

It struck me as remarkable that Jesus’s public life began by submitting to baptism at the hands of a wild-eyed prophet in the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. The wild-eyed one asks, whatever for? You should be baptizing me! Jesus answers, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” And bows down and is submerged in the waters of the Jordan.

On Maundy Thursday, one of the most beautiful days in the Christian calendar, our priest, Father Barnes, will wash the feet of twelve parishioners, recalling Jesus and the apostles on the evening of the Last Supper. Jesus bowing down again, and again water. Two thousand years later, His Church rolls on like the Jordan.

For Chants Such as These (Music for Mondays)

It’s Monday, and looking very gloomy in my neck of the woods. Pop music? Not interested. Blues? I feel them, but no. I need something a lot more holy than that today. Spring may have sprung, but it still felt like I was in hibernation this morning. Here are a few selections that fit the bill for my frame of mind.

First, the Regina Caelorum (the Marian antiphon from the Presentation of the Lord until Good Friday). Here is an English translation:

Hail, O Queen of Heaven enthroned.
Hail, by angels mistress owned.
Root of Jesse, Gate of Morn

Whence the world’s true light was born:
Glorious Virgin, Joy to thee,
Loveliest whom in heaven they see;
Fairest thou, where all are fair,
Plead with Christ our souls to spare.

V. Vouchsafe that I may praise thee, O sacred Virgin.
R. Give me strength against thine enemies.

Let us pray: We beseech thee, O Lord, mercifully to assist our infirmity: that like as we do now commemorate Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, Mother of God; so by the help of her intercession we may die to our former sins and rise again to newness of life. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Remember the Gospel reading yesterday when Jesus brought Lazarus back to life? Rejoice O Bethany. And the rest of these are in English, so I can follow along.

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And now for a couple more that are in English (whew!). First, the Polyeleos. The citation from Wikipedia reads:

The word “polyeleos” also refers to a large chandelier used in some Orthodox churches, particularly in monasteries. It is in the form of a very large circle (also called a corona or horos) with many candles on it, and is often adorned with icons of numerous saints. The polyeleos is suspended by a chain from the ceiling. During the chanting of the Polyeleos psalms (134 and 135), all of the candles are lit and it is pushed with a rod so that it turns back and forth during the singing, adding to the joy of the service. This practice is still seen in the monasteries of Mount Athos and in other traditional Orthodox monasteries throughout the world.

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This one reminds me of St. Romanus singing of the unapproachable light: Now Christ, Thou Sun of Justice

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Because Soccer Doesn’t Matter

Guest post by Allison Salerno 
Yesterday afternoon, our ten-year-old recorded nine saves during his two quarters as goalie, helping lead his traveling soccer team to a 4-0 victory over the U-10 team a few towns over. I watched intently from the sidelines and felt oddly indifferent to it all. My lack of reaction was so apparent that parents sitting next to me were saying things like, “Did you miss it? Your son just made a really great save.”

I’d like to think it’s a sign of spiritual maturity that the farther into my faith journey I walk, the less attached I feel to my son’s God-given talents. I now also cherish the parts of his life where our son struggles, because I have come to see challenges as gifts, too. I feel content to know that the talents and the struggles are all part of God’s plan for my little boy.

Our 10-year-old acquired the nickname “Lucky” a few years ago because his Little League team deemed it lucky when he was playing. The boy was gifted with athletic abilities. He never crawled; he started walking at nine months, the same age he started throwing and catching balls.

At one time, I was emeshed in his athletic successes. When he was seven, he made the regional swim championships as a summer swimmer competing against boys who already were swimming yearround. “This is our big moment,” I said out loud as one of Lucky’s races was about to begin. A wise acquaintence next to me said gently, ‘No Allison, this is his big moment, not yours.”

One of my midlife epiphanies is that God created humans to worship. If we don’t worship God, we end up worshipping something else. In the case of many of us middle-class parents in the United States, we worship our children.

We build our lives around their schedules and end up treating them like little gods. Our son plays on two travel teams: summer baseball and spring-and-fall soccer. I estimate we’ve logged thousands of miles in the family van, shuttling him across Central New Jersey for games. I’ve stood on the sidelines of soccer fields, swimming pools, and baseball fields, cheering Lucky on in all kinds of weather, acting as if my destiny depended on how well he played that day.

As I have grown older and, I hope, wiser, my husband and I have brought our own family’s internal rhythm in sync with the Church’s. The great drama playing out is not the ref’s latest call, but our own ability to grow in holiness and faith. The challenge before us is to help our sons mature in all their dimensions, to ensure that they treat themselves and others with the exquisite care that God has demonstrated for them.

I have also come to cherish my son’s challenges as much as, if not more than, his talents. Lucky is a bright boy who struggles with school. Speaking came with difficulty; by age four my husband and I could understand only about five percent of what he was saying. His older brother understood him and served as a translater for us and everyone else.

Lucky has worked hard to speak, to read, and to write. He doesn’t expect anything to come easily to him. Neither my husband nor I know anyone who works harder than Lucky does on whatever task lies before him. The kid has grit.

Sure, I like the fact that my son’s good at sports. It gives him the chance to have fun and use his talents to help whatever team he’s playing for.

What really matters, however, is what we do with the multitude of gifts God gives us, including our hardships. This might sound blasphemous in some circles, but at the end of our days, soccer is irrelevant

Because of Vespers

Guest Post by Allison Salerno
We Roman Catholics have nearly forgotten the tradition of Vespers. A parishioner approached my priest last week after Sunday Vespers, wondering why we have started to incorporate “Anglican traditions” into our own. Thanks to some dedicated parishioners,  our sons get to grow up knowing Vespers is very much a “Catholic thing.”

To be fair, I never heard of Vespers growing up Catholic in the 1970s, except for the Evensong services offered by the Episcopal church across town. I didn’t realize until recently that Vespers are evening prayer services whose roots go all the way back to the Apostles, who followed the Jewish practice of praying certain prayers at certain times of the day.

Vespers are part of the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office. This is the official set of daily prayers that clergy and religious have been praying for centuries. Since the sixth century, the prayers have been virtually unchanged. Thanks to Vatican II, members of the laity are encouraged to pray them as well.

Two of our newer parishioners  have urged our pastor to restore this ancient tradition of Vespers (at our parish). We are fortunate that our pastor has been not only receptive, but most enthusiastic. To quote the Second Vatican Council:

Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.—Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, § 100  

About twenty parishioners have been gathering for Vespers every Sunday in Lent. The service is sacred and simple. On Sunday, the service began after our pastor entered the sanctuary in his resplendent purple cope. Then three members of our Chant Club chanted in Latin Audi, Benigne Conditor (Merciful Creator, Hear!) under the direction of a retired choir director who leapt at the opportunity to restore an ancient form. This chant is used at all Sunday Vespers during Lent. The Vespers, which include Scripture readings, prayers and psalms, took no more than 20 minutes.

So, why Vespers?  As the Council was at pains to point out, we do these things for “the sanctification of men and the praise of God.” That’s good enough reason for anyone.

How powerful to consider that throughout the world, for centuries, the faithful have been praying and chanting these very same prayers and chants. What a privilege to be able to gather with my parish family to end Sundays this way.

Because It Allows Me to See Everything Differently, Even “Avatar” in IMAX 3-D

Saturday was a day of contrasts. I ate lunch in Boston’s North End with Z and other friends from Communion and Liberation (CL). Over pasta with salmon, we discussed CL and its “main instrument,” the School of Community. In the evening, I had a dinner date with my sweetheart: a vegetarian meal on Long Wharf followed by Avatar in IMAX 3-D at the Boston Aquarium. I came home exhausted.

First, about the exhaustion. I had left Z’s North End home invigorated, ambling up Prince Street to my car with renewed appreciation for the charism offered by Father Giussani, founder of CL. Fr. James Martin, in his book My Life with the Saints, so instrumental in my conversion, notes that Ignatius of Loyola became a priest because of contrasts: He realized that when he read accounts of war, he felt sapped, but when he read Scripture or the lives of the saints, he felt renewed. And so was I renewed, weaving through the Saturday afternoon crowd on Prince Street while looking around for an Italian mother leaning out a second-floor window shouting, “Anthony!”

After the full-metal barrage of the 162-minute Avatar, by contrast, it was all I could do to drive safely home—over the Tobin Bridge, up Route 1, and out onto 128, thinking all the while about the film, trying to “judge my experience,” in the parlance of CL. This is the beautiful thing about Catholicism in general and CL in particular: Together (especially together) they are an invitation to see life through new eyes, though not exactly eyes of the Na’vi. (For the three of you in America who have not seen the film: refer to poster.)

I had a snap reaction to the film: It offers nature worship and romantic love as the highest values, while reveling in technology (those special effects!). Avatar’s idea of crucifixion is being confined to a wheelchair, like the main human character. Its idea of resurrection is for a paralyzed man to lie down in a tomb-like bed of electrodes and come back to life in the body of an ersatz Na’vi, by some sort of electronic mind transfer. Avatar posits an Earth that is dying and a distant planet, Pandora, where there is some sort of vague hope, although in the end that hope comes true for one and only one character, the protagonist. Director James Cameron (“The Terminator,” “Titanic”) does not exactly espouse a Catholic world view.

And yet . . . In an effort to “judge” the film, which boils down to looking for the presence of Christ in it, I realized that, for all its pantheism and enthrallment to technology, Avatar’s main character, the protagonist, is motivated by an unquenchable desire. At first, paralyzed from the waist down, he wants only to walk, and a hard-ass army officer has promised him the needed operation if he agrees to use his ersatz Na’vi figure as a sort of undercover elf. (The three of you who haven’t seen the film—are you getting confused yet?) But Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) discovers a deeper desire once he encounters the Na’vi people, and it is that desire that drives the narrative. Without that desire, no story, no humanity—just a lot of special effects and the inevitable climactic megamilitary blow-out, complete with hard-ass officer making like The Terminator for one last showdown.

It is the desire in our hearts for the divine that drives our narrative, that is the most indelible feature of our human nature. That desire is finally satisfied only in one place—not on another planet or through any kind of science-driven “resurrection”—but in Jesus Christ. That’s my take on Avatar—and why I found it not only sense-numbing and exhausting but also compelling.

My friend Z is always full of surprises. Having already worked out this post in my mind, I sent him an e-mail about having seen Avatar. His “judgment” was much more basic and beautiful. Z wrote:

Wonderful Avatar . . . However I just prefer the old movie style where the American army are the good people.

Because I Am Still But God’s Child

Guest post by Warren Jewell 
You might call this an old man’s prayer, or my prayer on realizing that my mortality is just around the corner. In effect, on my pilgrimage, I may not make the next crossroad, or fork in the road. This prayer is less a pledge of allegiance than an acknowledgment that I am still but God’s child: at times wrong, at times sanctified, but never less than His. 
My Lord God,

As Thou Art, I am. 
I am here only as Thou Art everywhere.

And, Father, Son and Spirit, as I grow to know Thee more and yet more, I have found in Thy graces that to know Thee is to love Thee. Even so, 
I am but Thy poorest disciple, 
O, Thou, Who lovest me from before Thy first thought of me made Thee smile.

I must act as Thou hast acted, in goodness and love. I must serve as Thou servest, in sacrifice and suffering. And, as Thou, my Savior, died to Thyself at Thy Father’s will, I surrender my life to my Father’s will as all accomplishment for what is left of my earthly time.

I cling to Thee always as Thou Art always mine, and there for me that I am always Thine.

I am Thy nothing as Thou Art my All.

Thou makest of the nothing of me Thy glorious masterpiece, and in that is my eternal joy.

In the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Because of Passiontide

Guest post by Allison 
When I walked into our church one afternoon this week for choir rehearsal, I immediately noticed the purple cloths draped over the statues of Madonna and Child, St. Therese of Liseux, St. Joseph, St. Paul, and St. Anthony of Padua. Draped too, behind the ambo, was the sculpted stone depiction of the four Gospels. Thursday morning, two elderly male parishioners stood on a stepladder to cover the large crucifix above the altar in purple cloth, too.

One of the things I love about the Catholic Church is it recognizes that we express our love of God and His Son, not only with our minds, but also with our bodies. These holy images, visible symbols of our belief, are covered now because we are entering the final two weeks of Lent before Easter, a time the Church once called Passiontide. The hope is that we will focus ever more intently on the Lord’s Sacrifice. The crucifix will not be unveiled until Good Friday. The other holy images will be covered until Easter Vigil.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Dominican theologian, first articulated the insight that we come to knowledge through our bodies’ five senses. Because we believe God became incarnate in Christ, we Catholics have a sacramental approach to creation.

What’s his insight got to do with purple cloth? We Catholics, of course, don’t worship the statues, the crucifixes or the stained-glass windows in our churches. But they are, as my priest puts it, “a means for us to recall visually those events of our redemption, inspiring us to cooperate with the grace of God for conversion to become God’s holy people in the glory of heaven for eternity.”

I’ve forever loved the way the Catholic Mass speaks to all my senses: the feel of Holy Water on my forehead, the fragrance of incense, the sound of chant, and the sight of stained glass-windows and statues. All this draws our attention to the Lord and His Sacrifice and reminds us that when we enter a sanctuary, we are in the presence of the Eternal God. At Mass, we taste bread and wine transformed into Christ’s body, blood, soul, and divinity.

Prior to Vatican II, Passiontide marked the final two weeks before Easter and churches worldwide followed the practice of covering statues. With a 1970 revision of the liturgical calendar, Passiontide no longer existed and the veiling of statues was forbidden in the United States. Instead, Passion Sunday became the Fifth Sunday of Lent and Palm Sunday became Passion (Palm) Sunday, leading off Holy Week. Not until 2002 did U.S. Bishops once again allow parishes to veil statues and crucifixes during this season.

Some are saying that Pope Benedict XVI might revive the medieval practice of requiring churches to veil all statues and crucifixes beginning on Ash Wednesday. I would welcome this change. Lent is a serious spiritual discipline. The drama of seeing familiar objects in my church home hidden from view underlines for me that this time is distinct from all others. The story of our own salvation is a drama too, isn’t it? The veiling of holy images also builds anticipation for the glories of the Feast of Easter.

While learning a bit about Passiontide online, I found a beautiful meditation by Brother André Marie M.I.C.M. It made me look forward to tomorrow’s Gospel reading:

“During this Passiontide, let each one of us look in the mirror of this Gospel and see if we are really hearing the word of God. Let us not ignore the rebukes our consciences give us. That’s the word of God in ourselves telling us what to do. Let us make the words of today’s Offertory our own: ‘I will keep thy words.’”

For Your Lenten Friday Night at the Movies V

This is your co-pilot once again.  It is a beautiful afternoon up here in the cockpit.  Cruising now at only 10,000 feet.  We’re safe from small arms fire, but still within range of SAM’s (Surface to Air missles). Oh I don’t want to alarm you or anything, but as we get closer to the end of Lent, the cross-country flight will draw to a close and we’ll be back to flying sorties over enemy territory. Close Air Support, etc. Ten thousand feet is getting down to where Webster and I usually live. We’ll cruise at this altitude next Friday too.

Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, so Webster has ordered Surf and Turf for this evening’s dinner. Yep, New York Strip grilled to order (don’t ask how we pulled that off) and grilled gumbo shrimp to boot. That will go well behind that Cheeseburger and Cherry Coke lunch we had up here in the cockpit. Caesar salad and your favorite beverages will be on the side.

And for our in-flight entertainment? Becket starring Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton in this fully restored masterpiece. Ever had a buddy who was an enabler, you know, aided and abetted your carousing, etc? If you were King of England, wouldn’t it be cool to appoint your pal the Archbishop of Canterbury? Think of the wacky stunts you could pull if your confessor was your best buddy! That’s what Henry II thought when he appointed Becket as Archbishop. A stunning story of “be careful what you wish for” from both sides of the friendship spectrum.

Enjoy the show, and thanks again for flying with us!

P.S. I Think you can watch the whole thing at You Tube.

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Because I Don’t Have to Eat Fish Today

Our esteemed guest poster Allison Salerno has a nose for news. Thanks to which, I’m having steak for dinner! What, no fish on Friday during Lent?! Not thanks to my patron saint, Joseph, whose solemnity we celebrate today. I say it’s just another good reason to cultivate a devotion to the husband of the Virgin Mary and the Custodian of our Redeemer. Thanks, St. Joe! Here’s the word from the Archdiocese of Chicago, forwarded by Allison:

Since the Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19th, falls on a Friday this year, the question arises regarding the requirement of  abstinence from meat. Since St. Joseph’s day holds the rank of a solemnity and the character of a solemnity is one of rejoicing, penitential practices like abstinence from meat are not required. People may choose voluntarily to abstain from meat on March 19, but it is not required. Hence, Catholics can participate in a St. Joseph’s table without worrying about breaking the penitential  discipline of Lent.

See Canon 1251: “Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Sharpen your steak knives, Catholic! And get out the A-1!

For the Love of St. Joseph: A Novena (Day 9 and His Feast Day)

Two years ago today, I realized that I didn’t want to take Thomas (More) as my confirmation name, I wanted to take Joseph. Taking “A Man for All Seasons” as my patron was aiming too high, I thought: statesman, writer, martyr. Joseph was more my speed: husband, father, worker. It was a fortuitous choice. Three days later was the Easter Vigil, and my father drove up from Connecticut to witness my reception into the Catholic Church. Three months later, Dad was dying of melanoma. I did not know at the time that St. Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death.

All summer long I said prayers for my father before the statue of St. Joseph that stands at the front of our church at the head of the right aisle. That St. Joseph stands watch over this post too. Dad died six months to the day from Easter, a happy man who had a happy death, or so I like to think.

Our late great Pope John Paul II gets a final word in this series of nine posts about St. Joseph, a novena that culminates today. His Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer) was written on the hundredth anniversary of Leo XIII’s encyclical Quamquam Pluries. As I wrote yesterday, Leo’s encyclical began a process of frequent “upgrades” of St. Joseph in the eyes of the Church. Redemptoris Custos summarizes a century of Papal teaching.

It’s late and you don’t need a lecture from me about it, so I’ll just give you the link here. Read it in your spare time. Say a prayer to St. Joseph. And listen to the closing words of a homily to him by Karl Rahner, SJ:

We have a good patron, who is suitable for everyone. For he is a patron of the poor, a patron of workers, a patron of exiles, a model for worshipers, an exemplar of the pure discipline of the heart, a prototype of fathers who protect in their children the Son of the Father. Joseph, who himself experienced death, is also the patron of the dying, standing at our bedside. We have inherited from our Father a good patron. But the question put to us is whether we remain worthy of this inheritance, whether we preserve and increase the mysterious rapport between us and our heavenly intercessor.

Joseph lives. He may seem far away from us, but he is not. For the communion of saints is near and the seeming distance is only appearance. The saints may seem eclipsed by the dazzling brightness of the eternal God, into which they have entered, like those who have vanished into the distance of lost centuries. God, however, is not a God of the dead, but of the living. He is the God of those who live forever in heaven, where they reap the fruits of their life on earth, the life that only seems to be past, over and done with forever. Their earthly life bore eternal fruit, and they have planted that fruit in the true soil of life, out of which all generations live.

And so Joseph lives. He is our patron. We, however, will experience the blessing of his protection if we, with God’s grace, open our heart and our life to his spirit and the quiet power of his intercession.

Blessed St. Joseph, patron of the dying, stand by us now and at the hour of our death!