Because the Church Needs a Few Good Men (and Women)

Posted by Frank
Yesterday, as I writing Part 6 in the series on my conversion, I re-read something that Thomas à Kempis wrote that motivated me to become a Catholic Christian. In chapter 25 of The Imitation of Christ he writes:

There is one thing that keeps many from zealously improving their lives, that is, dread of the difficulty, the toil of battle.

I read or hear words like this and the theme music of Onward Christian Soldiers starts playing in my head; and I think to myself, “Where do I go to sign up?!” Thomas continues on with this,

Certainly they who try bravely to overcome the most difficult and unpleasant obstacles far outstrip others in the pursuit of virtue. A man makes the most progress and merits the most grace precisely in those matters wherein he gains the greatest victories over self and mortifies his will. True, each one has his own difficulties to meet and conquer, but a diligent and sincere man will make greater progress even though he have more passions than one who is more even-tempered but less concerned about virtue.

These don’t sound like the words of some namby-pamby cloistered monk, now, do they? His last sentence seems to be a call to arms for guys like me! Monsignor Charles Pope has a piece up over at the Archdiocese of Washington website today entitled “The Priest is a Soldier in the Army of the Lord”. As I wrote once before here, those called to Holy Orders , to my mind anyway, are the Officer Corps of the Church. And as Webster wrote just yesterday, without priests, there is no ball game.

Monsignor Pope says the priests are the soldiers, and I say he’s right, because St. Peter said so too. But we lay Catholics are all called to “the royal priesthood,” as well. Shown here is one of my favorite recruiting posters from the pre–WW II era Marine Corps. The same motto could be used for Catholic Christians and those who are feeling the call to the faith as well. Want Action? Join the Catholic Church!

Not to disrespect any of our female readers (whom we dearly love!), but gentlemen—the Church Militant needs you! Now! You want action, don’t you? Well, what army is worth anything without the grizzled non-commissioned officers, the First Sergeants, the Chief Petty Officers, the very backbone of the organization playing a major role? That army is calling guys like Mike and Ferde, and now Webster and me. I would think that without us, it is something less than it can and should be. Have Catholic men been asleep at our posts?

In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he exhorts all Christians to—

Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.

What’s that you say? You hadn’t noticed we’re at war?

Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day, and having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

See your parish recruiting office today!

For Fourth-Graders Learning the Ten Commandments

Posted by Webster
I was nervous returning to my fourth-grade religious ed class this afternoon after two weeks off for the Christmas holidays. I was afraid I might have lost my connection with the kids, and like other teachers, I did find them more restless than they had been before the break.

As usual, I entered the class with a bare-bones mission: Spend the next two or even three weeks going over the Ten Commandments. These children know so little about their Faith, their Church and its history, I consider it a minor miracle when they can all recite the Hail Mary.

So I hatched a plan. An unauthorized plan neither provided for in our study guide nor sanctioned by the Vatican. But I thought it might be fun. At the beginning of class, I handed out paper and pencil and asked the class to imagine that the twelve of us (five kids were absent) had been stranded on a desert island. “Oh, Mr. Bull! You mean like Lost?!” “Exactly, J. Like Lost.”

Then I asked them to imagine that they had to come up with rules for living together, so that no one would get hurt and everyone would be happy. I asked each child to begin one rule with the word Always and a second rule with the word Never. Then I collected the papers and chose from their answers our class’s very own Ten Commandments:

  1. Always be nice.
  2. Never leave the group.
  3. Always sleep until at least nine o’clock.
  4. Never chew gum.
  5. Never steel [sic] from one another.
  6. Never pick your nose.
  7. Never kill anybody.
  8. Always take a shower with clothes on.
  9. Never go anywhere without a partner.
  10. Never eat the tiny fish.

Say what you will of my method, I had their attention, at least for a few minutes. We talked about how we had come up with these ten laws. We moved to the way our Congress and President create laws. Finally, we moved to God and Moses on the mountain.

We ended with a simple point. The real Ten C’s begin with three rules about God and one rule about our parents. I pointed out that none of the children’s rules mentioned God, mother, or father. Next week, we’ll see what they make of bearing false witness and coveting.

I love teaching this class.

To Be Frank, Part 6, “The Imitation of Christ” II

I left off last time with the first chapter of The Imitation of Christ from my personal library and the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Books and a photograph of a rough-hewn and de-carpeted staircase. In that condition, the staircase served the function of getting from the downstairs to the upstairs, but nothing more than that. Maybe there is a metaphor in that rough-hewn and merely functional staircase.

At the time, though, I wasn’t concerned about metaphors. I knew only that I had waited long enough. I had gathered all the materials, and now it was time to get to work making this a functional and (hopefully) beautiful staircase. One that would be pleasing to my wife (and thus “good enough” for me). Maybe there is a metaphor in this after all!

Reading through these devotions by à Kempis were having an effect on me. And pretty quickly, I stopped fighting this because nothing I was reading raised any warning flags whatsoever. If this is what Catholicism has to offer, what’s the matter? And as I ripped up the old treads on the staircase and started replacing them with new, freshly cut treads, the staircase rehabilitation as metaphor for my own rehabilitation started playing out through the work of my hands and through the work of my heart.And trust me, I get a lump in my throat writing this because guys aren’t supposed to have feelings like this. Not about religion. Least of all coming from some hard-charging Marine! I didn’t think so at the time, anyway, and thankfully, I think differently now. But I had survived a life-changing event that had left me wondering “what now Lord?”

Which really meant “what’s in store for me now Lord?”or more accurately, “What’s in it (life) for me Lord?” And as I worked as a rookie carpenter, I turned to the Bible, Blaise’s Pensées, The Imitation of Christ and prayer. Prayer for direction in my life, prayer for guidance and understanding of why I was spared (when several of my comrades weren’t.) Prayer like what the character Lt. Dan, in the movie Forrest Gump says as he is crying on the floor with no legs: “What am I gonna do now? I had a destiny!”

And then I read the following from the last chapter of the first section of The Imitation. The chapter is entitled Zeal in Amending Our Lives and though Thomas (we’re on a first name basis now) is writing about those who have recently been cloistered, it applied to me just the same:

Be watchful and diligent in God’s service and often think of why you left the world (California)and came here. Was it not that you might live for God and become a spiritual man? Strive earnestly for perfection, then, because in a short time you will receive the reward for your labor, and neither fear nor sorrow shall come upon you at the hour of death.”

Perhaps it was that, too. I had thought it was for better public schools and cheaper housing and all the temporal concerns that go along with that etc., etc. But maybe this was the real reason. Thomas continued,

Labor a little now, and soon you will find great rest, in truth, eternal joy; for if you continue faithful and diligent in doing, God will undoubtedly be faithful and generous in rewarding. Continue to have reasonable hope of salvation, but do not act as though you are certain of it lest you grow indolent and proud.

Next, Thomas segues into a story that might as well have been from “Thoughts from the mind of Frank”:

One day when a certain man who wavered often and anxiously between hope and fear was struck with sadness, he knelt in humble prayer before the altar of a church. While meditating on these things, he said:”Oh if I but knew if I should persevere until the end!” Instantly he heard within the divine answer: “If you knew this, what would you do? Do now what you would do then and you will be quite secure.”

Keep it simple, stupid. And for good measure, Thomas adds,

Remember the purpose you have taken and keep in mind the image of the Crucified. Even though you may have walked many years on the pathway to God, you may well be ashamed if, with the image of Christ before you, you do not try to make yourself still more like Him…Always remember your end and do not forget that lost time never returns.

I had been baptized since I was ten, and my mother had been a great example to me growing up in a Christian household. But what about after I left the nest? “Lost time never returns” really struck a chord with me.

How much time had I lost due to arrogance, spiritual pride and stiff-necked resistance to the Church? Well, I married a nice Catholic girl in 1989 and seeing how it was 2007 when I read this passage, I had basically been spinning my wheels spiritually for at least eighteen (18!) years. Add on eight (8!) more from the time I left “the nest” before I got married and now we’re talking twenty-six (26!) luke-warm years altogether. The accident that took the lives of two of my comrades, and killed my “destiny” of becoming a Marine Officer (and almost killed me too) took place in 2001, so six (6!) of those years of wheel spinning, post-accident, is near incomprehensible!

One of my favorite quotes by a heroic military figure is one attributed to Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson during the heyday of the Royal Navy:

Time is everything; five minutes makes the difference between victory and defeat.

I can’t help thinking of that after the quote above and again as Thomas puts the finishing touch on this chapter with these words:

If you have spent the day profitably, you will always be happy at eventide. Watch over yourself, arouse yourself, warn yourself, and regardless of what becomes of others, do not neglect yourself. The more violence you do to yourself, the more progress you will make.

At this point, as I was putting the finishing touches on my staircase, a voice inside my head, (my voice?), said “haven’t you waited long enough? Waste not one second more!”

Next time: The prodding of both Blaise and Thomas lead me to a modern Cistercian named Father Louis, and to look for a job.

Thanks to Our Ace

Posted by Webster 
A priest is like a pitcher: without him, no ball game. No priest, no Eucharist, no Mass. At St. Mary Star of the Sea, one priest pitches every ball game, and he is an ace. Father Barnes has a wicked curveball (is it OK to accuse a priest of wickedness?) and a blazing fastball. This morning, he threw one of each.

The opening prayer given in the Magnificat for today is a general one: “God, light of all nations, give us the joy of lasting peace . . . ” and so on. I’ve noticed that Father Barnes often opts for another prayer dedicated to a saint or blessed being honored that day. But I was not prepared for a prayer about “Brother André.” Who?! The prayer then referred to Brother A’s “dedication to St. Joseph.” Now he had me! Up until four days before I was received into the Catholic Church, I thought that I would take the name of Thomas More. Then, on March 19, 2008, came the feast of St. Joseph, and I knew there would be a change. I’m going to have to post about St. Joseph, and soon.

But Brother André? Who was he? Another one of those amazing saints (like Jean-Marie Vianney) and underappreciated holy people (like Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection) who started out with a great big L on their foreheads: losers. That’s him in the photograph. Blessed Brother André Bessette (1845–1937). I’m always impressed by those who live long lives—and end up looking like this. Read about Brother André here and especially here. I’m going to study up on this guy. Maybe change my name too.

And the fastball? That’s often in Father Barnes’s homily. Father Barnes is the antithesis of the fire-and-brimstone preacher, the evangelical Bible banger who whips himself into a frenzy so that his congregation will be so whipped up. Father Barnes is almost always matter of fact. His tone is level. He speaks each sentence clearly and with conviction. Each statement is made with just enough emphasis. Why? Because the matters of fact in the Gospel speak for themselves. A miracle presented as fact is somehow even more miraculous.

The Gospel today is the aftermath of the loaves and fishes (Mark 6:45–52). Here, as he often does, Father Barnes hit upon a detail that often may be overlooked. After Jesus walked on the water—

He got into the boat with them and the wind died down. They were completely astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened.

Think about that fact: The Apostles had no problem with the Jesus miracle that is so often explained away, walking on water. They had a problem with “the incident of the loaves.” They had not understood it. In fact, their hearts had been hardened.

Father Barnes said that when our faith fails, it is usually a “Eucharistic problem.” Our problem is that Jesus Christ is not a real presence in our lives. This is precisely the point of the quotations from our Pope and Father Giussani in my post earlier today about CL:

. . . how could we ever accept ourselves and others in the name of a discourse? We cannot sustain love for ourselves unless Christ is a presence, as a mother is a presence for her child. Unless Christ is a presence now—now!—I cannot love myself now and I cannot love you now.

Jesus as a series of Gospel stories, a “discourse,” is not enough. Scripture, the Book, is not enough. The only thing that suffices is to experience Him as a real presence. Which we Catholics can do every day at Mass.

Thanks to CL

Posted by Webster
There are many beautiful aspects to Communion & Liberation, a movement founded in Italy in 1954 by Fr. Luigi Giussani, which I have been blessed to take part in. Two of these aspects are illustrated here: the monthly CL magazine, “Traces,” and the poster that graces this month’s cover. CL has a tradition of these posters, one for Christmas, one for Easter each year, and they often feature quotations from Giussani and our Pope.

Here are the quotations from this year’s Christmas poster:

Why does faith still have any chance at all? . . . Because it corresponds to the nature of man. . . . Man possesses an inextinguishable aspiration, full of nostalgia, for an infinite. None of the attempted answers will do; only the God who himself became finite in order to tear open our finitude and lead us into the wide spaces of his infinity, only he corresponds to the question of our being. That is why, even today, Christian faith will come to seek out man again.—Joseph Ratzinger

Now, with our failing muscles, with our exhaustion, with our propensity for melancholy, with this strange masochism that life tends to favor nowadays, or with this indifference and cynicism that life produces nowadays as a way of avoiding the suffering of an excessive and unwanted fatigue, how could we ever accept ourselves and others in the name of a discourse? We cannot sustain love for ourselves unless Christ is a presence, as a mother is a presence for her child. Unless Christ is a presence now—now!—I cannot love myself now and I cannot love you now.—Luigi Giussani

YIMC Book Club — The Nominations are In

We have received some excellent suggestions for the next book in the YIM Catholic Book Club. We narrowed these down to four nominations and have posted these in the column to the right. Please vote now and help us choose a book. We will begin reading the new book on Friday, January 15.

For the Journey Home

Posted by Webster 
Every time I watch “The Journey Home” on EWTN, I learn more reasons why I did not become Catholic. Which is to say, I realize more deeply how quirky and individual my own journey has been. And I gain renewed respect for the intellectual and spiritual depth of other Catholic converts, who frankly had better reasons than I did.

Last night was no exception. Marcus Grodi’s two-part show (the second part to be shown next week) featured interviews with three American Catholic priests who had converted as married Anglican clergymen: Frs. Eric Bergman, Dwight Longenecker, and Ray Ryland. The occasion for this show was the Vatican’s recent opening to the Anglican communion.

It is one thing to have converted, as I did, through the intercession of movies, angels, Popes, musicals, rosaries, pastors, a loving wife, a grandmother named Mary, mentors, amazing women, books, saints, other miscellaneous fragments of Christian culture, and the enduring love of God. (Can you spell personal-history linkathon?)

But these guys—Fathers Eric, Dwight, and Ray—they have deeply considered reasons for having converted, complex ideas they had to struggle to come to terms with as highly educated and passionately committed Anglicans. What an impressive trio! I am proud to be considered one of their company as a fellow convert, though I am not worthy to wash their theological feet.

The idea that came like a revelation to me last night—you’ll laugh at my ignorance—is that these three priests converted, bottom line, because each came to realize that in the Anglican or Episcopal Church, there is no ultimate authority. No Pope, no Catechism. So we are left with the sad spectacle of the entire Anglican experiment in America (called Episcopalian after the Revolution to distinguish it from the British experiment) splintering likc kindling under the axe of Paul Bunyan.

If I were still an Episcopalian today, as I was over 40 years ago, I don’t know what I would do.

Because of “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”

Posted by Webster 
A column today at The Catholic Thing about Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” calls it “the best TV miniseries ever.” You can debate that—easily—but here’s something I’ll take to the bank: “Jesus of Nazareth” is not even Zeffirelli’s best religious work. That would be “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” his 1972 film about Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi.

I have seen “BSSM” about two dozen times, although I have to admit there were mitigating circumstances.

In 1976, I was one of a group that bought a movie theater in Beverly, Massachusetts. It’s still in operation today, although I am no longer actively involved. Our strategy was to show double features of “Films Worth Seeing More than Once”—back in the long-forgotten days before widespread cable use, videos, and DVDs. With another fellow, I was responsible for booking the film program and, being two young romantics, we thought it might be nice to begin by showing Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1968). Yes, that was the year I turned 17.

But what movie to pair with “R&J;”? We cast around and finally landed on a title neither of us had ever heard of, and only because it was also by Zeffirelli and, from the publicity, seemed to be a compatible romance. Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker? Probably another pair of performers like Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey of “R&J;” playing young people in love—and to music by hippie folk minstrel Donovan! Sure, book it, why not?

And so, because the “feature” always played last in our double billings, our theatrical adventure on Cabot Street began officially with a film about young people in love—with God, with Jesus Christ. Lo and behold, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” became one of our most popular offerings, long after we had stopped playing “Romeo & Juliet”!

It’s not stretching things to say that, as I watched this film over and again—sometimes from the back of the auditorium where I welcomed guests, sometimes from the front row where my daughters Martha and Marian sat for every film, sometimes from the projection booth where my license hung framed on the wall—a calling to the Catholic faith was repeated over and over.

I think what stunned me about the film was that it captured the blessedness of poverty, as lived by Francis and, to a lesser extent in the film, Clare. The clip below is one of my favorite scenes, showing Francis, after the Christ of San Damiano has told him to “rebuild my church,” together with one of his old carousing buddies, Bernardo, on the cusp of his own conversion. The characters who are shown helping—some dimwitted, some handicapped, some aged beyond any apparent usefulness—are worth the price of admission. And the eyes of Francis (Faulkner) as he turns to greet Bernardo? It would be contradictory and also completely sincere to say that, every time I watched the film, I coveted that gaze.

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Because We’re All on the Same Train (Music for Mondays)

Posted by Webster 
I had the honor of serving at my second funeral this morning. As I learned in the theater, the second “performance” is always harder than opening night. The first time, you’re working on adrenaline and the Holy Spirit. The second time, it’s all on the Holy Spirit, and doesn’t he like to humble you? So there were a few minor goofs, noticed only by Father Barnes, I’m sure, and he’s too polite to say anything.

After my posts yesterday on the Second Coming, this one and this one, Father Barnes was back circling the subject in his homily, citing a Negro Spiritual called “Same Train.” The train that took our ancestors, our grandparents, our parents—that train is coming at us too.

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The communion hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” sung at the funeral by a wonderful soprano (name unknown) to the accompaniment of organmaster Fred MacArthur, is another beautiful tune, from an entirely different tradition. Recently, someone posted or sent me this clip.  It’s still pretty bleak around here (big snow in Boston over the weekend), but we can take hope from this message.

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Comments of the Week

We’ve been having fun discussing GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in the YIM Catholic Book Club. (And if you want to help choose the next book we read, click here.)

Two of the week’s best comments were attached to the post for Chesterton, Chapter 7, “The Eternal Revolution.”

EPG wrote, beginning with a quote from the Chesterton chapter:

“For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

I also loved this passage, and it reminded me of the two quotes C.S. Lewis placed at the beginning of “The Scewtape Letters.”

The first, admittedly, may not be the most popular guy to quote on a Catholic website: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Martin Luther.

The second, Webster will appreciate: “The devill, the prowde spirite . . . cannot endure to be mocked.” Thomas More.

These two, and Lewis, and Chesterton, are all reminding us that the foundation of all sins, our pride, weighs us down more than any chain anyone could devise for us. The ability to laugh, without malice, keeps us light on our feet, light in our minds, and open to little flashes of joy with which we are from time to time blessed.

Which, somehow, reminds me of the apocryphal story about the great actor who was lying on his deathbed. Asked if dying was hard, he replied, yes, but not as hard as farce.

The second quote is from Warren Jewell, one of our most faithful and (to judge by his mug shot and comments) most joyous readers. Warren writes:

Let us not forget that, like a self-entertaining child, GKC loved the idea of seeing the world upside-down while on his head. The man was full of mirthful notions, and could take nothing earthbound very “seriously.” He found that he needed the supernatural to round out his smiles with the joy of serious regard for eternal salvation in Christ and religion with His Church.

Marriage is an earthly version of the only bondage that matters — life bondage to beloved here that mirrors the eternal bondage to Christ. Even Christ saw Himself as Bridegroom to His Church, His disciples. (And, I suggest, bridesmaid ladies, keeping a religious 55-gallon drum of oil available for lighting His way to His beloved. Though, I have to think that this parable incorporated Christ’s sense of humor, imagining me in a bridesmaid dress. (“Whatchuguys laughin’ at? See, I got my lamp!”)

Yet, marriage and discipleship are both two-way bonds. They are unities that take both parties coming together and assenting to unite. If I in my persistent sins turn my back on Christ, as I have done too many times, He ‘can’t get there from here’ because I chose to attempt to be out of His sight and off His path.

(I know, I know – “Is he done yet? Save some com-box space for the rest of us, fella.”)

Ah, Warren, keep the comments and laughs coming! Thanks to all for joining the YIMC caravan as we careen through the joys of being Catholic.