Saturday, August 14, 2010

In the Beauty of His Fragrance

Vigil Mass of the Solemnity of the Assumption

I Chronicles 15:3-4, 15, 16: 16:1-2
I Corinthians 15:54-57
Luke 11:27-28 

            The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven and the ascent to Jerusalem of the Ark of the Covenant: the Old Testament Book of Chronicles offers also to the New Testament words to explain the great mystery of Mary’s body not seeing corruption, she being taken up body and soul to be with her Son in Glory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the Mystery of Mary’s Assumption this way:
            “966 Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians…” (CCC)
We cannot compare ourselves with the Mother of God, but the bottom-line of the message to be gleaned from the readings for the Vigil Mass of her feast is certainly one which gives us encouragement and hope.
            “…blest are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”
            From among the Latin Fathers of the Church, the Abbot St. Bruno explains this dynamic between Mary and the faithful Christian with these words from his commentary on this same passage from St. Luke’s Gospel:
            “This is as if He had said: Blessed indeed is My Mother, and blessed the womb that bore Me. But not for this is She blessed: because She is My Mother. Neither is the womb blessed because it bore Me. But both are blessed because She heard the word of God, and hearing it, believed; and believing, She safeguarded it. For had She not done this, She would neither be blessed, nor My Mother.
            Turning then to the Lord Our God, the Father Almighty, let us as best we can give thanks with all our hearts; beseeching Him that in His Goodness He will graciously hear our prayers, and by His Power drive evil from our thoughts and actions, increase our faith, guide our minds, grant us His holy inspirations, and bring us to everlasting joy, through His Son Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.” {The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, vol. 2, Ignatius Press, page 98}
            Somehow vacation time this year, which normally provides lots of opportunities for good reading, has gotten away from me without the usual number of titles being polished off. I can’t say as I am disappointed because I did begin one of Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s major works, something I’ve toyed with doing for years and only now begun. I’ll look forward to picking up that thread a year from now and hopefully plowing through enough hundreds of pages to be able to find words to express my own insight gleaned from one of the greats into the beauty of God which draws us as surely as it drew Mary, she being sinless and therefore most well-disposed, and we by grace and baptism armed for the struggle against the Devil and sin in our own lives, and Jesus the Lord drawing us on like the Bridegroom He is in all His splendor.
            St. Augustine has a powerful passage about this attraction, but my Assumption Vigil reflection has more to do with Mary’s sanctity from the first moment of her being which disposed her to respond fully to God’s will leaving her untethered to be carried, to fly really, to her Son’s side when her earthly sojourn had ended. Would that we would be so inspired to “…hear the word of God and keep it”! Would that we were so inspired to cast off sin and run lightly after her beloved Son, in imitation of the Virgin Mother.
“Turning then to the Lord Our God, the Father Almighty, let us as best we can give thanks with all our hearts; beseeching Him that in His Goodness He will graciously hear our prayers, and by His Power drive evil from our thoughts and actions, increase our faith, guide our minds, grant us His holy inspirations, and bring us to everlasting joy, through His Son Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

Noble Aims and Liturgical Realism

The Luminous as Eucharistic Mysteries
The Wedding Feast at Cana and Summorum Pontificum

Earlier this year His Eminence Cardinal Levada wrote to all of the Papal Representatives to ask help in soliciting from the bishops of the world their personal observations on the status of the question at three years distance from the promulgation of the Holy Father’s Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum (7 July 2007). The Cardinal directed proposing an open-ended invitation to each bishop to share his thoughts with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, albeit indirectly, relative to his experience in his own diocese.
My own read on the region entrusted to my care was confirmed as not even half of my bishops responded and those who did had little or no experience with requests for celebration of the usus antiquior. The occasional Requiem or Priestly Golden Jubilee request for a semblance of a return to “the way we were” is about as far as it went. I am hoping that Cardinal Levada’s report to the Holy Father will be published at some point. It would be good to know how the bishops of the rest of the world expressed themselves.
This experience came back to me again the other day as I saw notice of the upcoming publication of a canonical commentary on Summorum Pontificum. There is an existing web page, which formed the basis for the book; therein I found a succinct statement of the three objectives for which the Motu Proprio was promulgated: a) as a response to the so-called signs of the times and a return to normalcy; b) for the sake of the mutual enrichment of the Roman Missals from both 1962 and 1970; c) to bring about reconciliation within the Catholic Church (“a) Antwort auf die Zeichen der Zeit und Rückkehr zur Normalität; b) gegenseitige Befruchtung der Missalia Romana von 1962 und 1970; c) „innere Versöhnung in der Kirche“. Gero P. Weishaupt, PÄPSTLICHE WEICHENSTELLUNGEN, Das Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum Benedikts XVI. und der Begleitbrief. Ein kirchenrechtlicher Kommentar).
Three years after the Publication of Summorum Pontificum, has the liturgical situation in the Western Church improved? How much and what kind of exposure to the usus antiquior will bring about the achievement of these goals? Does Weishaupt’s formulation of these three objectives do sufficient justice to the same objectives as set out in the Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops on the occasion of the publication of the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum on the use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the reform of 1970? The defense of truth and the promotion of justice, as well as respect for the continuity which should exist within the Church’s tradition in matters liturgical, seem to me to better surface as more evident priorities from reading the Holy Father’s letter itself. No doubt the book when published will contain a more ample analysis of the Pope’s letter than is to be found on the web page, the strictures of a canonical commentary notwithstanding. I guess I want to discourage anyone from succumbing to the temptation of settling for a quick read of the Internet commentary in hopes the book will be better. Moreover let me encourage a re-reading of the Holy Father’s letter of 2007, available on the Vatican web site:
What Weishaupt means by his first objective is certainly in accord with the Pope’s words, but he comes up short of the Holy Father’s expression: more than talk about the signs of the times there should be a clear reference to correcting liturgical abuse. Talk of a return to normalcy seems to miss the point, depending on whose normalcy you may be seeking. It goes without saying that reconciliation (objective c) is founded on a profound mutual respect, but there is more to it than that.
More than the terse expression “mutual enrichment”, I think we need to quote the Holy Father’s words at length concerning the abuses and general malaise which in the de facto celebration of the ordinary form have over the past forty years too often hindered worship in spirit and in truth and been a source of confusion and discouragement for good Catholics. I’d like to underline especially the expression of hope for the renewed liturgy as formulated by the Pope:
“The most sure guarantee that the Missal of Paul VI can unite parish communities and be loved by them consists in its being celebrated with great reverence in harmony with the liturgical directives. This will bring out the spiritual richness and the theological depth of this Missal.”
Pope Benedict XVI clearly wills to unbind the shackles which have restrained the usage of the 1962 Missal over the better part of four decades and save the 1970 Missal from those who have held contemporary worship hostage for much of that same period. He means ultimately to correctly implement the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council.
            Summorum Pontificum is certainly a landmark in the struggle for full and proper liturgical expression in the Church. It might best be described as a form of gentle persuasion through acquaintance or principled encounter. It cannot stand alone as a vehicle for reform, because truth also demands a continued and persistent effort to expose liturgical abuse as it continues to stymie vernacular worship in its full and proper expression. Only a return to the usus antiquior as the ordinary form of worship could eliminate abuse in one fell swoop, but that was not the intention of the Holy Father. Pope Benedict XVI has not excused his brother bishops from vigilance in their reform efforts; he has not excused priests from teaching their people how to celebrate; he is urging musicians and artists to conscientious efforts to restore the links with the tradition in which we must stand.
             Divine worship is more than a prayer meeting, much more than a spiritual exercise. The parameters of Heavenly worship and the tradition which comes to us from the Apostles dictate the sublime character, the gravity which belongs to the Eucharist Sacrifice and all which flows from it. Nevertheless such seems many times even less evident than the expectation that Catholic institutions of higher learning faithfully teach the faith (20 years and still struggling for the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae!). Much needs to be done to open hearts and minds.
            The thought came to me in meditation yesterday on the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary that they are in ways very Eucharistic Mysteries or could be treated so for purposes of meditation. The Wedding Feast at Cana in particular spoke to me about the application of Summorum Pontificum and the whole question of seeking to reform the vernacular liturgy. Only the servants who drew the water knew what was going on and yet the Gospel marks the changing of water into wine by Our Lord at the instance of His Blessed Mother as His first public sign.
            I am resolved to continue the humble work of filling the jars with water; I will do so by offering good example as a celebrant and most especially through worship ad Orientem. May the Lord grant to all those who work for well-ordered and devout worship the possibility of changing hearts and minds. The usus antiquior continues to win over young hearts and minds just as the sometimes banal and showy performance of the ordinary form drives others to despair. We owe the best to Our Lord and also to His children within the Church, for the sake of the salvation of the world.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Devout Life

Where or Who is Closer to the Truth?
            These days, on and off, I’m reading Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. I picked it up again as a Kindle book some months back. Despite other’s criticism of the book’s botany and biology errors, there can be no question that it is a treasure trove of insights into the Christian life.
Looking beyond the Saint’s oftentimes odd descriptions of how bees work or of why the lioness does what she does out of deference to the king of beasts… the spiritual classic not only does not disappoint, but it enlightens me and challenges me again and again to revisit some of the a priori conclusions which I reached as a young man and have somewhat thoughtlessly continued to hold up to the present, youthful conclusions which are the under-developed fruit perhaps of some sort of osmosis as opposed to teaching learned, thoughtful analysis or research.
             I’ll give you just one example regarding the reception of Holy Communion. St. Francis de Sales makes daily Communion dependent on the instructions the communicant receives from his or her spiritual guide. Even at age 60, I have known nothing in my life other than the general acceptability of daily Holy Communion for all those who are in the state of grace, that is, who are not guilty of mortal sin. Granted, as a child I was aware that most adults, especially men, probably only went to Communion once a month on a Sunday morning, after Saturday evening confession. I have fond memories of going along with Dad for Holy Name Society devotions, which included a nice breakfast in the church basement after early Mass and Communion for the men on Sunday morning. For me the issue is not why and how that all changed so rapidly after the Council, but rather one of coming to an accurate appreciation of the former usage such that, birds and bees aside, I can come to an appreciation of where St. Francis de Sales is coming from and of what a wealth of counsel he continues to provide for the average lay person, when it comes to living life in union with Christ in His Church.
            The world of St. Francis de Sales is one which took into account the scruples of Catholic people who would be scandalized if they saw you going to Communion too often. It is indeed another world. The difference came home to me yesterday as I was distributing Holy Communion. After giving Communion to an older sister, herself maybe only having made her First Holy Communion this year, I was confronted by a little girl, all alone, who was not interested in a blessing and would not move on after I blessed her, she stood her ground, determined, extending both hands partially and sort of cupped. When I asked if she had made her First Communion, she answered truthfully “no” while still standing her ground. I gently turned her aside with a hand to the shoulder and continued distributing to those who followed. I am sure no one even noticed. Indeed, ours is a very different world from that of St. Francis de Sales: nobody seems to notice or to care who presents himself or herself for Holy Communion.
            There is no nostalgia whatever in my approach to this question. I do not and will not pine after days gone by. Somebody might wish to hold the position that only those among his contemporaries who read his book had the advantage of the advice of St. Francis de Sales on how to receive Holy Communion worthily and on how to make progress in the devout life. My guess is that this great saint did not limit himself to writing books for privileged correspondents, that he didn’t miss any opportunity to teach; he was popular not only because he was friendly and kind, but also because he was a wise and effective teacher. He directed his people from the pulpit and no doubt in less formal encounters as well.
When was the last time you heard a homily on how to worthily prepare to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion? Could it be that priests think that once prepared for First Confession and First Holy Communion, then always prepared? I surely hope that seminarians today learn these simple lessons from St. Francis de Sales about Confession and Communion; I know that nobody on the faculties of the seminaries I frequented in the 1960’s and 1970’s ever spoke to me about such or gave wise pointers like his on how to confess venial sins and faults. The shyness or reticence to speak about these most important things is indeed one of the tragedies of our day and time.
            Today’s saint, St. Eusebius of Vercelli, is one of those great bishops who never shirked in professing the fullness of Catholic Faith. His fight was with Arianism, which had the political world on its side and sought to bend the Church to accept a creed of convenience depriving Jesus of His Divinity. I sometimes wonder today if every priest and bishop, if every parent, is cognizant of the implications not only of our silence concerning how to worthily prepare and receive Holy Communion, but also concerning the informal approach to Sunday worship and church space, which has lots of men, in particular, dressed down with shorts and flip-flops. How is a child supposed to know that the Son of God, made Man, is really and truly present without our good example, without our showing the next generation in lots of different and small ways a much greater measure of attentiveness before His Throne?