Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Quatuor Tempora Septembris

Prior to the late 20th-century's transformation of the traditional Roman calendar, this would have been Ember Week, with Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday designated as the September Ember Days (days of fast and of abstinence from meat - full on Friday, partial on Wednesday and Saturday). For over 1000 years, Ember Days occurred four times each year, corresponding more or less to the four seasons. My grandmother's funeral, which took place on September 22, 1967, was on an Ember Friday. I remember that because, while the Funeral Mass was being celebrated at the main altar in black vestments, I remember constantly being distracted by the side altars where various priests were saying their private Masses in purple (the color of the Ember Day Mass).

All that is long gone now, of course, but it didn't have to happen that way. As serious students of the 20th-century liturgical reform know, that reform did not spring like Athena from the head of Zeus on the day after the Second Vatican Council. On the contrary, it was the fruit of a lengthy process, and many of the changes that came about in the late 1960s had been under consideration for some time and were anticipated in the discussions of the Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy established by Pope Pius XII in 1948. Unlike many of the rubrical and calendrical changes that were to come later, however, the abolition of the Ember Days does not seem to have been envisioned in the pre-conciliar reform agenda. On the contrary, at a meeting of that Commission on February 5, 1952, there appears to have been unanimity that the Ember Days "should be upgraded and that their celebration should be really observed." And, at the Commission's next meeting, on March 11, 1952, there was talk of combining the "Great Litanies" (then celebrated on April 25) with one of the Ember Saturdays. (Cf. The Development of the Liturgical Reform: As Seen by Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli from 1948 to 1970, by Nicola Giampietro, pp.236 and 238. This volume is a veritable treasure for anyone interested in the ups and downs of 20th-century liturgical history!)

Of course, in the chaotic deconstruction of the liturgical calendar that followed after the Council, both the Ember Days and the Litanies would disappear. Presumably, those few communities that use the older Missal on a daily basis and those rare priests that use the pre-conciliar Breviary still celebrate those days, but for the overwhelming majority of us - clergy, religious, and ordinary lay people - the Ember Days have been completely lost.

Does it matter? It is not just a matter of having lost a particular piece of our cultural inheritance, however important that may or may not ultimately be. It also contributes to our contemporary disconnect from the annual rhythm of the natural seasons (at a time in human history when we would do well to strive to re-establish that connection). In the case of the September Ember Days, it also further distances the Church's worship life from any remembrance of the great Jewish festivals, which the Old Testament prescribes to be observed at this seasonal turning point.

In particular, both the Pentecost and September Ember Days explicitly connected the Church's liturgy with the corresponding Jewish seasonal festivals. Our Christian Pentecost corresponds, after all, to the Jewish Pentecost, Shavuot. So it made sense that two of the four "prophecies" at Mass on the Ember Saturday after Pentecost referred to that festival. Likewise, the second reading for the Ember Wednesday of September was Ezra's account of the reading of the law on Rosh Hashanah (which begins a week from tonight at sunset on September 24), while the first two "prophecies" on September's Ember Saturday were from the prescriptions in Leviticus - regarding, first, Yom Kippur, and, second, Sukkot, the holiday the New Testament typically calls the "Feast of the Tabernacles" or the "Feast of Booths." In discarding the Ember Days, Paul VI eliminated a liturgical acknowledgement of the changing seasons and a reminder of our unique spiritual relationship with Judaism - both things we could probably use more of in contemporary religion.

Finally, the dropping of the Ember Days was one more nail in the coffin of fasting and abstinence and the Church's penitential traditions in general. The Saint Joseph Daily Missal which I used until the mid-1960s described Ember Days as days of "repentance for sins, spiritual renewal, and a special preparation for solemn ordinations." Imagine if we still celebrated ordinations - as was once expected - on Ember Saturdays in purple vestments! How much more fitting than the overblown triumphalism that sometimes characterizes such celebrations nowadays. (Of course, ordinations are joyful occasions for the life of the Church and in the life of the individuals involved. In proper proportion, festivity is certainly in order - for example, on the occasion of the newly ordained's First Solemn Mass. In any case, the penitential character of the Ember Saturday liturgy lent a certain distinctive dimension to the celebration of ordination which was both unique and useful.)

One can argue at length about this or that post-1969 liturgical innovation. Such arguments have only limited utility especially when captured by extremists on either side. Already, back in 1969, Cardinal Antonelli lamented "the irascible insistence of the progressives on the one hand, and the blind conservatives on the other. Both of these are the deadly enemies of the authentic liturgical reform" (cf. op. cit., p. 193). 

How sadly true! How different, how much stronger stronger and more effective, the Church might appear today if we had been spared the divisive factionalism of the "liturgy wars"!

We might also have thus been spared such frivolous changes as the loss of Ember Days!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An Inquiry Begins

Yesterday, the President of the Paulist Fathers and the Postulators for the Canonization Cause of our Paulist Founder, Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker, met with the Bishop of the diocese of Knoxville to request that he open a formal inquiry to investigate a possible healing and whether that healing might qualify as a miracle attributable to Fr. Hecker's intercession. The Bishop of Knoxville has responded with a Decree initiating a diocesan inquiry regarding the possible miracle.

Since Hecker died in New York (where he is buried in a monumental tomb in the Paulist “Mother Church” of Saint Paul the Apostle at 60th Street and Columbus Avenue), a diocesan inquiry into his reputation for holiness and heroic virtue has already been initiated there. If that case is judged sufficiently convincing, it will eventually go to the Holy See's Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome for further investigation. Meanwhile, a parallel process of investigation must take place in the diocese in which an alleged miracle may have occurred. If, after a thorough examination of the evidence in both documentary and oral testimony, the case for the miracle is determined to be sufficiently convincing, the judgment of the diocesan inquiry will also go to the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome for a final adjudication. What must be demonstrated in these processes is that the healing in question cannot be adequately explained in any other natural way and that Hecker's intercession was specifically prayed for prior to the healing.

The authentication of a miracle would represent a judgment that invoking Isaac Hecker’s intercession appears pleasing to God, who is the ultimate source of healing. It would thus add further weight to the proposition that Hecker lived a life of heroic sanctity and ought in time to be beatified by the Church. 

At a General Audience on January 13, 1988, Pope Saint John Paul II, spoke eloquently about the significance of miracles in the life of the Church:
The lives of the saints, the history of the Church and, in particular, the processes for the canonization of the Servants of God, constitute a documentation which, when submitted to the most searching examination of historical criticism and of medical science, confirms the existence of the ‘power from on high” which operates in the natural order and surpasses it. It is a question of miraculous “signs” carried out from apostolic times until the present day, and their essential purpose is to indicate that the human person is destined and called to the Kingdom of God. These “signs” therefore confirm in different ages and in the most varied circumstances the truth of the gospel, and demonstrate the saving power of Christ who does not cease to call people (through the Church) on the path of faith. This saving power of the God-man is manifested also when the “miracles-signs” are performed through the intercession of individuals, of saints, devout people – just as the first “sign” at Cana of Galilee was worked through the intercession of the Mother of Christ.”

Monday, September 15, 2014

How Sorrow Seems to Multiply in the Middle East

Recently, the world's attention has rightly been focused on the seemingly unending, yet ever and exponentially increasing story of sorrow that is the modern Middle East. The other day, we had word of yet another beheading by the "Islamic State" - this time of a British captive. Meanwhile, at home (appropriately on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a feast so resonant with associations with the Holy Land), we took up a special collection at Mass for humanitarian assistance to the persecuted Christians in the region. 

The sufferings of those ancient Christian communities have received some attention in the media and were mentioned by the President in last week's speech, but the attention  and the West's response so far have hardly seemed proportional to the crisis they are experiencing. In Sunday's NY Times, Ross Douthat noted some of the factors which may account for this. 

(To read Douthat's account, go to "The Middle East's Friendless Christians" -

It is, of course, the case that there are some Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere who seem to have allied themselves - in spirit if not in action - with Israel's enemies. Christian anti-semitism needs to be named and condemned just like anyone else's anti-semitism, especially when, as now, anti-semitism is on the rise. Israel's right to defend itself against its enemies in the region and among the chattering elites of the world deserves to be acknowledged by all people of good will and, a fortiori, by Christians, who have such a special debt of relationship to the Jewish people. As the Second Vatican Council, following Saint Paul (cf. Romans 11:29), dogmatically taught, th Jewish people remain God's beloved people, for God's gifts and call are irrevocable (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 16), 

That said, the human community should be able to extend its concern to more than one constituency at a time and to care about all persecuted communities being exposed to contemporary ethnic cleansing. 

Today, the Church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Traditionally, May's sorrows have been numbered at seven - Simeon's prophecy, the flight into Egypt, the 12-year old Jesus being lost in Jerusalem, Mary meeting jesus on the way of the cross, the crucifixion, Jesus' being taken down from the cross, and Jesus' burial. As Queen of heaven, Mary can obviously no longer experience sorrow in the strict sense. But she remains involved in and concerned for the sufferings and setbacks of the Body of Christ, the Church, as it continues to journey through this vale of tears. In that symbolic sense, surely, we can speak of the sufferings of contemporary Christian communities in the modern Middle East as having a special place among her sorrows

Sunday, September 14, 2014

In hoc signo

Thirteen years ago today, the Paulist Church in New York (where I was then an associate pastor) was filled to overflowing following the terrorist attack we had experienced just three days before. On that unforgettable September Friday, we were a community in mourning and a city still in shock. But, when we assembled that day for Mass, we did what the Church always does on September 14. We celebrated the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the symbol of our salvation. As Servant of God Isaac Hecker expressed it, The only bridge to heaven is over the cross.  The gates of paradise are only opened with the key of the cross. 

Historically, this feast commemorates the dedication, on September 13, 335, of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem – built by the Roman Emperor Constantine over the traditionally recognized sites of Christ’s crucifixion and of his burial and resurrection. (It has been the Emperor Constantine, of course, who 23 years earlier had supposedly had a vision or dream of the cross in the sky, along with the motto, in hoc signo vinces, “in this sign, you will conquer.” Constantine adopted the emblem and the motto, and the rest, as they say is history.) Anyway, 23 years later, on the day after the dedication of the Jerusalem Basilica, the relic of the True Cross (which had been discovered by Constantine’s mother, the Empress Saint Helena in 320) was publicly venerated in the new basilica. Eventually, September 14 became the feast celebrated today throughout the Universal Church.

On one level, this feast is yet another celebration of Christianity’s triumph over Roman paganism. (The date for the dedication of the Jerusalem Basilica may have been chosen to counteract the anniversary of the dedication of the Temple of Jupiter in Rome - ironically now the site of united Italy’s 1911 monument to King Victor Emmanuel II, a monument to the triumph of modern secularism). Ultimately, however, what we celebrate today is Christ’s triumph over our sad human history of evil and sin – now transformed once and for all through the triumph of Christ’s cross.

Evil and sin do not happen simply by accident – and neither did the cross. It didn’t just happen to Jesus one day, like some inexplicable misfortune – like various sufferings and setbacks, which, when they happen in our own lives, we sometimes all too glibly refer to as “crosses.” Christ’s cross was a direct consequence of his confrontation with evil and sin in the world and became the means by which he overcame evil and sin.

In Jesus, the cross has become our doorway to salvation. A dreaded instrument of disgraceful death, the cross is now, thanks to Jesus, our gateway to freedom and new life, a triumphant sign of glory. And that is why we celebrate the Cross. As Saint Augustine said in a sermon somewhere around the year 400, You’re a Christian, you carry on your forehead the cross of Christ [Sermon 302, 3].

In the familiar story we just heard from the Book of Numbers [21:4b-9], God punished his perpetually complaining people with serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died. But, when Moses interceded on the people’s behalf, he was instructed to make an image of a serpent, mounted on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at it, he lived.

Like the people in the desert, we experience all sorts of sufferings and setbacks and are prone to discouragement and self-pity. But the mystery of the cross invites us to see our situation differently. It invites us to turn away once and for all from our obsessive, dead-end focus on ourselves, and to turn instead to Christ – to delight, as Saint Augustine said in that same sermon, not in the sign of the wood, but in the sign of the one hanging on it. The mystery of the cross invites us to turn away once and for all from our obsessive, dead-end focus on ourselves - and the seemingly endless sufferings and setbacks that continue to break our hearts - and to turn instead to Christ, so that we may journey through the desert of this treacherous life without fear, under the sign of the cross, which alone can conquer in our war-torn terrorized world.

Homily for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 14, 2014.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Cross

Tomorrow, the Church will joyfully celebrate the great feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Not surprisingly, today’s celebration originated in Jerusalem itself. After the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, it became desirable to excavate and build churches on the actual Jerusalem sites traditionally associated with the events of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Eventually, Constantine constructed a great Basilica encompassing the entire area associated traditionally with both the hill of the crucifixion and the nearby tomb where Jesus had been buried and which was therefore seen as the site of his resurrection. The original basilica was consecrated on September 13, 335. On the following day, September 14, the relic of the True Cross, which had been discovered by Constantine’s mother, the Empress Saint Helena, was solemnly venerated. (The basilica was destroyed by the Persians in 614, destroyed again in 1009, and rebuilt by the Crusaders. The present Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, which includes both the original holy sites of the Crucifixion and of the Tomb of Christ, was dedicated in 1149.) With the passage of time, two different feasts in honor of the Holy Cross came to be celebrated in the Church’s calendar – on May 3 the feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross by Saint Helena, and on September 14 the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which commemorated not only the anniversary of the dedication of the original basilica but also the recovery of the True Cross from the Persians by the Byzantine Roman Emperor Heraclius II in 629. Our modern Roman calendar commemorates all these events in the one feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which we continue to celebrate on September 14.
The Roman Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, which is one of the “Seven Pilgrimage Churches” of Rome, was built to house the relics that were brought back to Rome by Saint Helena. It was built originally around a room in the Saint Helena's Sessorian Palace, which she had adapted as a chapel. The basilica’s floor was covered with soil from Jerusalem, hence the title “in Jerusalem.” In the traditional Roman calendar, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is the Pope’s “Stational Church” for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, when the Mass begins with the words Laetare, Jerusalem (“Rejoice, Jerusalem”), and on Good Friday. Until recent times, it was where the Pope would go on Good Friday for the solemn Veneration of the Cross.

On this side of the ocean, one of the more impressive shrines dedicated to the Cross is the famous "Hewit Crucifix" (photo) in the Paulist Fathers' "Mother Church" of Saint Paul the Apostle in New York. According to the familiar account of the Church and its art by the late Father Joseph I. Malloy, CSP, this crucifix, a memorial to Fr. Augustine Hewit (Hecker's close colleague and successor as Superior of the Paulists and Pastor of the New York parish), was presented to the church on December 6, 1897, some five months after Fr. Hewit's death. Of Belgian black granite, the cross stands 13 1/2 feet high, and its bronze corpus measures 6 feet, 2 inches.

Of course, tomorrow’s feast celebrates more than a series of historical events surrounding the relic and images of the Cross and shrines associated with it. Fundamentally, the feast celebrates the Cross of Christ as the means and instrument of our salvation. Thus, the Church prays in the Preface of tomorrow’s Mass: For you placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the Cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth and the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered, through Christ our Lord.