Friday, November 28, 2008

Pick up the Ball and Run!

Taking a Stance on the increasing Sentiment in favor of a
Reform of the Liturgical Reform

Recently I happened across what I presume was a sports shoe commercial for television but of a very surreal sort built around a rugby theme. In the video the ball comes crashing through the front window of a restaurant and the next thing you know the men from the restaurant in business suits are joining in the game on the streets of the busy city outside. The video resembles as much urban warfare as it does a sport. I know rugby has become a genuine “thing” for boys and young men, replacing for our day and time the quest for the “red badge of courage” once to be gained in a forgotten type of warfare that was far from all-out for the civilian population but oftentimes mortal for the flower of a nation’s youth. In watching the video, the thought came to me that much of what goes on in the area of vernacular liturgy, its planning and celebration is not without parallels to the sport of rugby and its ethos. The incongruity of this thought is as shocking to me as watching the video “rugby” chase over cars, down alleys and onward through a bustling business district of town. The ethos of Divine Worship should be another.

Since the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum the calls for a genuine reform of that liturgical reform which we have netted over the past forty years have become more insistent but likewise more eloquent and credible as proponents clarify their positions and line up behind the Holy Father. The contrast to the at times rugby-like status quo presented by the Pope’s gentle hand and his balanced words, notably during his recent visit to France, has led me to draw my little parallel between what has been touted as a reform according to the mind of the Second Vatican Council but which many times over the years and even yet today rather seems to resemble rugby rules for picking up the ball and running with it, that is, if you dare. The liturgical renewal which many of us have experienced in many parts of the Western World is unfortunately tinged with an inclination on the part of the priest celebrants to protagonism and no small amount of bravado being shown by others (let’s point our fingers at some of the pop choirs, musicians and dancers, leaving aside people with feminist and other agendas who also occasionally attempt to highjack what we were taught was the work of all God’s people).

I do not believe I am alone in having witnessed attempts by individuals or groups to steal center stage or at least run as far as they can with the “ball” without being tackled. Today’s Catholic youth and a goodly number of folk on the brink of or even immersed in middle age have known only this situation where what was cautiously and wisely decreed by Sacrosanctum Concilium has been bowled over by the “cavalry charge” initiated by enthusiasts who saw their chance to take the high ground. The fundamental appreciation which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had for the need to set forth the liturgical reforms begun by Pope St. Pius X and Pope Pius XII seems to have been lost in the shuffle or huddle.

The recent announcement of the intention of the Bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in English but ad Orientem on the First Sunday of Advent and on Christmas is clearly motivated by a commendable desire on the part of the bishop to reestablish the continuity of the reform within the tradition, one of the hallmarks of the reform as intended and decreed by the Second Vatican Council. The publication in an Italian liturgical “blog” recently of a very eloquent page taken from a publication penned in 2001 by our present Holy Father dealing with being Christian in the new millennium has given new urgency to my own sense of obligation to take a stand in this “game”. For some strange reason, not wishing to challenge anyone’s good will, it seems evident that vernacular liturgy as celebrated today is not only too open to abuse, but is seemingly distant from what the Council Fathers intended and what could have been accomplished since then if everyone had held to their words of instruction and direction.

Were we (priests and people) ill-advised by the liturgical experts to stop praying in the same direction and start facing each other across the table? We know now that the nearly absolute banishment of Latin from our musical repertoire was an impoverishment, a form of iconoclasm, not dissimilar to that which whitewashed and stripped once pretty little churches of their countless votive offerings: sometimes leaving behind barren places where formerly one had felt at home with God, the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints. Could we not then also have been ill-advised in accepting something without precedent in our history (remember that the advice came from the same people and who evidently didn’t sufficiently understand the history of divine worship or care enough about what the Council Fathers had prescribed)? The negative consequences of this personalizing of worship (face to face) are patent. They place unreal expectations on the priest celebrant who as often as not instead of leading us in prayer seems obliged to seek engagement or even eye contact with the people before or around him.

Sacrosanctum Concilium N. 23 laid down the following principle among others for renewal: “Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” Even in the best celebrations of the reformed liturgy today, one would be hard pressed to show any urgency for celebrating across the altar table as “genuinely and certainly” being required for the good of the Church. Organic growth too is hard to plot in what so many people have experienced as rupture.

When N. 33 of the same conciliar decree urges that the sacred liturgy be instructive it does so reminding us that “… the sacred liturgy is principally the worship of the divine majesty…” The above cited page from Cardinal Ratzinger from 2001 rightly emphasizes that it is of the utmost importance that we reacquire respect for the liturgy and once again recognize that it is not open to manipulation; it is not placed at our discretion to be planned and presented as our talents allow. The present Holy Father called in this article for the reestablishment in a clear and organic way of the connections with past history.

I cannot help but think that the multiplication of celebrations according to the usus antiquior since Summorum Pontificum will be of aid in helping us back to the tradition. A full restoration of things as they were before Sacrosanctum Concilium, however, denies the wholesome analysis and the longing of saintly past Popes and an historic ecumenical council. Pope St. Pius X was right to come to the defense of Gregorian Chant and Pope Pius XII gifted us with a renewal of the Sacred Triduum to reflect the sublime mysteries celebrated therein. Both Popes’ interventions brought genuine change to the liturgy in an atmosphere of profound respect for the sacredness of the words and gestures they were modifying. It was undoubtedly the intention of the Second Vatican Council to set forth this same sort of cautious and organic reform. But, as I say, one has the impression that rugby rules were often applied and more than one stalwart decided to pick up the ball and run for it.

The article I read on the decision of the Bishop of Tulsa contains two great quotes from Bishop Slattery: “I hope that this common posture of the Church at prayer will help you to experience the transcendent truth of the Mass in a new and timeless way… “I pray that this restored practice will help us understand that at Mass we participate in the authentic worship which Christ offers to His Father by being ‘obedient unto death’ (Philippians 2:8)”. A modest wish on my part would be that many more chief shepherds would soon be setting a similar example.

The attraction held by the usus antiquior for young people in particular ought to give pause for thought. The explanation for this phenomenon could be as simple as recalling the God experience of the Prophet Elijah on Mount Sinai: he went to the opening of the cave and covered his face with his cloak at the tiny whispering sound of God passing by. God was not to be found in the storm or tempest. Much of what is propagated as youth liturgy today must certainly be judged at odds with Sacrosanctum Concilium N. 34: “The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity. They should be short, clear, and free from useless repetitions.” Though my life as a child was much quieter and free of external stimulation than is that of my nieces and nephews, I still found respite even as a preschooler in the big, quiet church of Sunday morning, where if it wasn’t High Mass, the silence might be broken only by an organ prelude, by another subdued organ piece during Communion and by the antiphons sung by a single voice from the choir loft on high. The genius of the past and its attraction for people of today comes from being able to perceive the Mass as gift, as withdrawn from the ambit of my discretion or caprice, as something of God, something sacred. Pope Benedict XVI speaks with urgency of our need to reawaken an interior sense of the sacred.

We have something altogether priceless in the renewed liturgical calendar and in the bounty of the lectionary with its three year cycle for Sundays and Solemnities. The introduction of the vernacular to worship certainly responded to an almost desperate hunger outside of the Latin world at least, if not universally within the Church. I would like to believe that the Bishop of Tulsa is on to something when he very simply and humbly moves to reestablish a single orientation for prayer in his cathedral this Advent and Christmas. May his attempt succeed to rescue the Mass from those who would beat it down with personal inventions or change the rules of the game to those of aggression! There’s a time and a place for rugby and not all of us are hearty enough to play such a game.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Jubilee Introduction to St. Paul

Fundraising Brunch
for the Companions of the Transfigured Christ
Sunday, 16 November 2008

St. Paul and the Intentions of the Pauline Year

It is a joy for me to be with you this Sunday morning. I greet the Companions of the Transfigured Christ and all who have come for this morning’s brunch in support of the work of these men. I hope the food and the company agree with you. Don’t hesitate to rethink your offering and put a little something extra in the basket this year. Kyle and Mikkel both assure me they haven’t lost any money on the stock market these days so don’t hesitate. Nothing seems to get cheaper and the need is certainly greater, as you well know from home. Be generous!

By way of an introduction to Father John Theodore’s talk I have been asked to tell you a bit about St. Paul and about the intentions of the Pauline Year we in the Catholic Church world-wide are celebrating to observe the bi-millennium (2000 years) of the approximate birthdate of the Apostle to the Gentiles.

From the point of view of volume, St. Paul is the single most important New Testament author after God who inspired all the writings we find in Holy Scripture, Old and New Testament. If you take your New Testament and count the pages, you’ll find that the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles make up about half the pages, St. Paul a third and everyone else the balance. He may not have written a Gospel, but Paul’s letters are basic to how we are to understand and live the Gospel. What have come down to us from the Church as the Pauline Letters (ro-co-co…), what we may refer to as the Pauline Corpus within the New Testament is the Word of God.

In his letter of October 2007, His Eminence Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, the Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, where St. Paul was buried after his beheading nearby (between 66 and 67 A.D.), lists 7 opportunities which this year dedicated to St. Paul should provide.

His Eminence Cardinal Ivan Dias, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples wrote his own letter at about the same time specifically to the bishops which depend upon his office, namely here in our area all of the bishops of the Antilles Episcopal Conference – AEC. He suggested rather concretely a set of 10 “missionary” projects worth considering for the year.

Even if I only took one of the two Cardinals’ lists and briefly outlined the various points, I’d go over my time limit for this introduction. I am confident that I can leave the big talk for today to Father. Besides, one should try and keep it light at brunch time, right? Too much input might not be good for the digestion! Let me focus then on just one idea mentioned by our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI when he announced officially that there would be a special Jubilee Year dedicated to the Apostle Paul, extending from 28 June 2008 until 29 June 2009, and I quote:
“Dear brothers and sisters, as in early times, today too Christ needs apostles ready to sacrifice themselves. He needs witnesses and martyrs like St. Paul. Paul, a former violent persecutor of Christians, when he fell to the ground dazzled by the divine light on the road to Damascus, did not hesitate to change sides to the Crucified One and followed him without second thoughts. He lived and worked for Christ, for him he suffered and died. How timely his example is today!”
In his letter announcing the Pauline Year, Cardinal Dias elaborates on that central point of the Holy Father’s when he speaks about the relevance of the Pauline Year as a source of inspiration for the missionary effort, as a further encouragement for those who in our day and time strive to do what Paul did, that is, carry the good news of Jesus Christ to the people who have not yet heard of him. The Cardinal in his letter speaks about people today, perhaps right here in the Twin Island Republic, who may speak respectfully of Jesus but who “do not see him as the only Savior of the world, as the one who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life, true God and true man, before whom (and here he quotes St. Paul) “every knee must bend, in the heavens, on the earth and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God the Father” (see Phil 2:10-11).

St. Paul was born approximately 2000 years ago in Tarsus (Ταρσός), a Greek city and a large district, in what today on the map is Mersin Province, on Turkey’s southern coast, 15 km (9 mi) from the city of Mersin and near (40 km) to the city of Adana. In Paul’s time Tarsus was the district capital of Cilicia. Marc Anthony first met Cleopatra in that city. Paul also called Saul was a Jew, evidently from an established family in Tarsus as he had Roman citizenship from birth, hence the privilege of death by beheading i.e. no torture for him. He studied to be a rabbi in Jerusalem under Gamaliel and to support himself as rabbis did then and in many cases do yet today he learned a trade; Paul was a tent maker.

Whether he actually threw stones at the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, is not clear. He was present and approved of the killing, and himself terrorized the early Christian community until Jesus claimed him on the road to Damascus. Paul never met Jesus before Christ’s suffering and death upon the Cross for our salvation; Paul’s vocation to be an apostle, like one of the Twelve, came to him personally from the Risen Christ.

From the Acts of the Apostles and his own letters we can trace four missionary voyages which St. Paul made during his years of ministry. The last one he made in chains from Jerusalem to Rome. The first three took him through what are modern day Turkey, Cyprus and Greece. He traveled by boat and on foot; he spent time with the people to whom he preached; he chose elders and gave the Church in the eastern Mediterranean its initial structure. Most of his letters were written to the communities he had founded, to clarify points of Catholic teaching, to admonish sinners in their midst, to shake them up if need be, to ask them for contributions to support the hard-pressed community of believers in Jerusalem. The rest of his letters were written to individuals, to elders chosen by him: Timothy and Titus, and to Philemon to whom he was sending back his run-away slave, Onesimus, now baptized and a brother in Christ of his former master.

St. Paul not only traveled and wrote letters; he was beaten with rods, whipped, stoned, left for dead, imprisoned, shipwrecked. He was consumed by his love for Jesus and succeeded (with the help of others, naturally) in winning over a good part of the civilized world of his time for Christ. If we reckon from his conversion, to be placed some time between 34 and 36 A.D. (when he was 25 maybe 27 years of age), and when he was beheaded, at the latest in 67 A.D., then we’re talking about 30 years of active ministry.

Sister in school said to us as children that if the Lord knocked us off our high horse like Paul then He could expect wonders from us just as He did from St. Paul. Sister’s logic was that this was the case because of the Lord’s investment in Paul as His chosen instrument, because of the way He had revealed His hand to Paul: the more the Lord invests the more He can expect.

We children took that to mean that since we hadn’t had such a blinding encounter with Christ as St. Paul did on the road to Damascus, we were off the hook in terms of our duties as apostles for today; we could live a normal Christian life. Where do children get such ideas? For that matter, where did sister get off saying that Paul was given more and hence more was to be expected of him? Maybe she was right, but the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 9:7 says concerning Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus: “Meanwhile the men who were traveling with him stood speechless; they heard the voice but could see no one.” Were Paul’s companions any less privileged than he? Perhaps! Maybe Jesus, the Risen One, only wanted one good man. However, it might also be the case that Paul’s companions were not receptive to the grace imparted. God never takes away our freedom, especially when it comes to vocational choices.

Paul’s letters don’t always read so easily. Maybe you know some letter writers that are tougher to follow than others, too, but who nonetheless are well worth reading. Read Paul during this Jubilee Year; read Paul for as long as you have eyes to see. Read him with an open heart and risk an encounter with the Risen Christ in and through the Word of God.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Living Stones

Celebration with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny
of the Birthday of Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey
Sunday, 9 November 2008,

Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran

Ezekiel 47:1-2.8-9.12
(cf. Ps. 45)
I Cor. 3:9-11.16-17
John 2:13-22

I am most pleased that the sisters doing the liturgy planning for the celebration of Blessed Anne Marie’s Birthday and the feast day of Mother Provincial wholeheartedly embraced the Church’s universal calendar and indicated to me that we would be celebrating the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran, the Pope’s Cathedral Church in Rome. I don’t know how many memorable homilies you sisters have been treated to year in and year out for this Provincial celebration, but I’ll do my best in the short time appropriate to a Sunday homily to see what I can do to offer you something at least worthwhile for 2008.

One of the purposes for having the Feast of John Lateran in the universal calendar is to offer every local Church an opportunity to celebrate the dedication of its own cathedral, should there not already be an anniversary date on which that dedication is observed. Cathedral or not, we all are invited at least once a year to raise our thoughts, starting from the earthly temple, to the temple of Christ’s Body from which flows the water which brings life and freshness to all it touches. We are called to reflect on what is truly monumental, namely the community of believers who are one in Christ, the true and lasting temple founded by Jesus on the rock which is Peter.

The Lateran Feast indeed reminds us that the Church’s nature is not summed up in the brick and mortar of a building, no matter how lovely and inspiring; today we are invited to call to mind that at the heart of the ecclesial mystery are the living stones… we, the saints, who make up this edifice of the spirit which is the Church of God. The texts which embellish this feast are truly filled with love from beginning to end and leave no doubt as to what we are celebrating. Interestingly enough for you as religious, their language is also spousal in nature and most appropriate for your annual reflection on your identity as Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, that is to say, in terms of your dignity and place within the Church.

The entrance antiphon assigned for the feast is a great example of the use of this language from matrimony, which is also the language of religious consecration: “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, like a bride adorned in readiness for her husband.”

Worship spaces should be beautiful like a bride and they should be structured to reflect the inspired word of God and the tradition of the Church. These spaces should connect us to the holy city, the New Jerusalem, and reflect in our day and time the way God is worshipped there. More beautiful still than the building should be the face of the bride which reflects the eternal glory shining forth from the face of the Bridegroom. I remember reading the architect’s explanation of why he built the new abbey church at St. John’s, Collegeville, out of unadorned grey concrete. He said that the beauty and color were to be provided by the people who gathered in that space for worship (the argument didn’t convince me as a child and convinces me even less almost 50 years later, but at least it is true that in worship the accent should be on the worshippers). In that sense too, remembering that from liturgy we move into life and vice versa, religious women can be expected to have beautiful faces. Theirs or yours is not necessarily the freshness of healthy youth or the magic of beauty creams or the art of Hollywood’s best plastic surgeons. What renders you attractive is your happiness as a religious, which is rooted in your faithful adherence to the plan of life which you embraced along with Christ, your Spouse, on the day of your religious profession. Your beauty springs from creative faithfulness to the one Spouse worth chasing after, the Christ.

Not long ago in a conversation with a professional woman here in Port of Spain (this is a woman whose acquaintance I had the honor to make early on in my four years now almost here and with whom I have had occasion now and again to exchange ideas), she told me that recently she had suggested to her two nieces that they look into making a retreat and that it might be a good idea if for their future they seriously considered religious life. She told me that she had said this to them out of her own deep conviction concerning what makes for a happy life. From her own religious schooling and closeness to the sisters she told me she had learned some very important lessons. She finds the life of the convent comparable if not superior to many other life choices. Ideally for her, religious life represents the quintessence of the ordered lifestyle. With right order, she tells me and I agree, comes real dignity. The genuine humility and sense of common purpose she observes among religious women also inspire her to this conviction. She illustrates this point more concretely in her own words with this example: she told me that it fills her with admiration, for example, that today’s mother superior could become tomorrow’s motherhouse gardener, sacristan or portress. She told me straight out that, as far as she is concerned, only a life without pretense can be a truly happy life (I swear to you, I am not making this up. I was pleasantly surprised to hear this coming to me unsolicited from a laywoman).

The bottom line on one side of the big bookmark bi-centenary tribute to Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey, which I received from you last year, says as much as what I have been saying: “Anne Marie had the dispositions of an apostle according to Christ: -availability, -hope and confidence, -prayer, interior spirit, -joy in doing God’s work”. That your blessed foundress had these dispositions was certainly great, but even greater is the fact that she shared them with generations of women who have formed and continue to form a genuine edifice of the Spirit. To the extent that you live the life individually you are a gift to the world and to the extent that you witness to these values as a community, you represent the New Jerusalem, the beautiful bride come down out of heaven, ready for her Spouse. Recognize your dignity, or should I say recognize your beauty?

According to the axiom, united we stand and divided we fall, we are talking about a community effort, which nonetheless comes to be thanks to the virtue of the single members. As a young and perhaps naïve priest I accepted almost at face value the assessment that religious communities of the apostolic life, nursing orders and teaching communities in particular, were no longer getting the big numbers of vocations because they had successfully worked themselves out of a job. As I say, I must have been young and naïve because I hadn’t figured out that one generation replaces another and that having, as in your case, promoted one or more generations of Caribbean women doesn’t mean that you have worked yourself out of a job. The older generations die out and new ones take their place; the girls and women who need to be educated and affirmed in their dignity as children of God will never run out. Your work is never done.
I spent over eight years working for the Apostolic Nuncio in Germany, five in Bonn and over three in Berlin. It was my great privilege in those years to accompany my boss as he, the first papal representative since Eugenio Pacelli who had done so between the two world wars, went about visiting extensively the Catholic communities of eastern Germany. The East is not only the land devastated by Communism but from the time of Martin Luther it was virtually off-bounds for us as Catholics. This is the part of Germany which the Protestant Reformation took and sort of kept. Ancient and beautiful church buildings stand there relatively unchanged (forgive me now for a judgment on my part), unchanged because with the Reformation the vital sort of Catholic life which keeps repainting and changing worship spaces to reflect the life and growth of the Church of living stones died. The only reason there is still a Letna (a special type of Rood Screen) in Halberstadt is because faith life stopped still and died there. By comparison, the cathedrals in the Catholic parts of Germany or to keep to our theme for today John Lateran as a building have known the rigors of war and destruction, but more than that Rome’s cathedral church has always experienced expansion, beautification and remodeling at the hands of the popes at the head of a living community of faithful, regardless of ups and downs, regardless of defections and setbacks over the centuries.

Living stones, sisters, the Church is built of living stones and you are an incredibly important part of that edifice of God in the Spirit. From the Temple flows the water which brings freshness and life to all it touches. You are the light of the world, the city set on the mountain top which cannot be hidden, the lamp which has its proper place on the lamp stand.

Sisters, I’m tempted to go through point by point the words on the jubilee bookmark I mentioned before: “Ann Marie had the dispositions of an apostle according to Christ:
-hope and confidence,
-prayer, interior spirit,
-joy in doing God’s work”.

Let’s just take one so as not to prolong the homily too much and tax your patience: -hope and confidence. Why was Anne Marie beatified? Because of a bonified miracle attesting to her reputation of intercessory power most certainly! But also because of her life of heroic virtue! “Hope and confidence”: did Anne Marie have her hope set on what we today can celebrate as two monumental centuries of service by her daughters? You know the answer to that question without much coaxing. Wouldn’t it be better to say of her that she had her hope set on the New Jerusalem and that she had placed her confidence in her Bridegroom?

There’s no telling where hope and confidence might take you yet today. I can’t help but think of one of your elderly sisters of the other province over in Cayenne who got herself a storefront in the poorest, toughest part of town and started an after school care program for students, inviting the wives of the prominent people of town to come help her children with their school lessons, with their homework. They came and so did countless Brazilian grandmothers and others not strong enough in French to help the children with their lessons but eager to support something which could empower their children’s children and offer them the tools they need to succeed. Is sister building something which will ultimately have a monumental brick and mortar structure of its own? I doubt it very much. But for every child who has experienced love after school and has been helped on the road to language proficiency, reading skills, and all the rest, well no doubt Anne Marie has reason to smile and elbow the Blessed Mother or St. Peter and say: “Behold God’s dwelling place among men! Look at my sister!”

Sisters, happy birthday to your mother foundress and happy feast day to mother provincial! Each of you is a wealth of experience and a litany of thanks. Each of you is a beautiful bride prepared for your Spouse. Don’t become keepers of the stones of the past, no matter how lovely they may be! We don’t know at what hour the Bridegroom will show – be ready and watching with your lamps burning bright!