Monday, April 22, 2019

Why a Cathedral Matters

This Easter Monday marks the "octave day" of the terrible Notre Dame fire, which destroyed the Paris cathedral's 13th-century roof and its 19th-century spire. Thankfully, the Crown of Thorns, Saint. Louis IX’s Robe, and the relic of the True Cross were saved by the firefighters' chaplain, while the altar and the its gold Cross still stand (photo).

Reactions to that tragic event have been strongly supportive of the cathedral's reconstruction. The French State (the owner of the cathedral), varied billionaires, and those of much more modest means all seem eager to step up, repair the damage, and restore that great monument of France's historic faith. That is obviously all to the good and something to celebrate. 

President Macron has committed to rebuilding the great cathedral in five years. Meanwhile, however, Paris is bereft of a functioning cathedral. Those who wish to attend Mass at Notre Dame will eventually be able to avail themselves of an "ephemeral cathedral," a wooden substitute church to be built right in front of the damaged cathedral as soon as the site is safe and is reopened to the public.That too is as it should be - because a cathedral, however important it may be as an historical monument (and a tourist attraction) is always first and foremost the seat of the local Church and a sacred place set apart for worship.

Until the wooden substitute is constructed, worshipers will obviously have to use other parish churches. Thus the Archbishop of Parish celebrated Holy Thursday morning's Chrism Mass (attended by Madame Macron and some Government Ministers) at Saint-Sulpice, the city's second largest church, and he celebrated Easter Sunday's morning Mass at Saint-Eustache Church on the right bank of the Seine.). 

I was fortunate to grow up in a city where there was no doubt that the cathedral was the major church. When we went downtown to shop or see the show at Radio City or whatever, we usually made a visit to Saint Patrick's Cathedral. It was just what one did. Cathedrals, of course, are urban structures, and in older European cities are often found at, or close to, the city's center. When Archbishop John Hughes (1797-1864) chose the location for New York's new cathedral in the 1850s, he was criticized and ridiculed for planning to build so far from the city center. More prescient than his critics, Hughes understood the dynamic of urban growth and recognized that the city's imminent expansion would make his chosen site "the heart of the city." When it was dedicated on May 25, 1879, some 7000 people filled all the available space in the not yet fully finished but already grand church.

The urban character of cathedrals reflects the historical fact that Christianity developed and expanded in the Roman Empire as an urban religion. It also reflects the religious reality that, just as cities are central gathering places which unite diverse people, Christianity is a gathering religion which assembles communities in central places, united by their common faith in the Risen Christ in a way which transcends their diverse origins.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

This Is the Day

As many of you may know, this year the Paulist Fathers are celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of our founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker. It was on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1843, a year before he became a Catholic, that the 22-year old Hecker attended a Catholic Mass for the first time. In his Diary, he wrote how he found the experience “impressively affecting.” He was especially struck by how the priest pointed, while he was preaching, to a painting of Christ’s rising from the tomb “with a few touching remarks turning all eyes towards it which made his remarks doubly affective.”

Here too in our church throughout the entire Easter season, along with the Paschal Candle, the ritual reminder of the Risen Christ’s great victory, is displayed is a famous image of the Resurrection, which portrays the Risen Christ standing over the broken gates of hell, lifting up from their coffins Adam and Eve and, through them, the entire human race they symbolize.

It is a wonderful image. But, of course, as we all know, no one actually saw the resurrection. Instead, we are told, on the first day of the week. Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. In the normal course of events, the Sabbath day of rest should have been followed in the morning on the first day of the week by business as usual – both for the living, who would go back to their regular daily work, and even more so for the dead, decaying in their graves, who (then as now) were expected to stay dead. Presumably, those who went to visit Jesus’ tomb also started out with similar expectations. John’s Gospel only mentions Mary Magdalene. The other Gospel writers, however, tell us that Mary was accompanied by other women as well, and that their purpose in visiting the tomb was to anoint Jesus’ dead body. Instead, they found something surprising and unexpected. For that day – and every day since – the world has awakened not to business as usual, but to something totally new.

Easter invites us to put ourselves into the picture with Mary Magdalene, and the other women, and then with Peter, and all those disciples unexpectedly experiencing something surprisingly new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and old. Of all the things that God has ever done, this was the greatest of them all. And so we say today: This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad!

And yet, as we just heard, the first few to be made aware of this momentous news saw nothing but an empty tomb. Which left them maybe more confused than elated: For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.

Nor would we, if that were all we had of the story.

Jesus’ resurrection was the most important event in all of human history – more important even than the latest presidential tweet or the latest person to leave his or her White House job or the latest candidate to compete for our attention. And yet, however hard it may be for us to imagine in this age of social media and 24-hour news, the world hardly noticed the resurrection at first. In a world which seems permanently stuck in the dark, pre-dawn position, the disciples first needed to experience the kind of change that could come only from the Risen Lord’s living presence among them.

And so do we, which is why we are here, where the Risen Lord brings us together as no one else can.

As Pope Francis has recently written [Christus Vivit 124-125]:

Christ is alive! We need to keep reminding ourselves of this, because we can risk seeing Jesus Christ simply as a fine model from the distant past, as a memory... But that would be of no use to us: it would leave us unchanged, it would not set us free. The one who fills us with his grace, the one who liberates us, transforms us, heals and consoles us is someone fully alive. … Alive, he can be present in your life at every moment ... Because he did not only come in the past, but he comes to you today and every day, inviting you to set out towards ever new horizons.

And that is why we are here this morning, peering into the open door of the empty tomb, where nothing is anymore as it seemed before. And that is why we have to keep coming back, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, to be filled in on what happened next and thus experience the effects of the resurrection for ourselves.

That is why every day for the next seven weeks, the Church retells the story of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles - the story of those who first experienced the reality of the resurrection and its power to change the world, starting with changing them.

Really important things are remembered for their long-term impact, not for the short-term noise they make. Although no one actually saw or heard the resurrection, what we do see and hear are the resurrection’s effects – first of all on the disciples, and then on the world, and finally on us.

The resurrection’s effects on the disciples are what we see and hear in the gospel stories of their visits to the empty tomb and then later of the appearances of the risen Lord – and still later in the preaching of Saint Peter and others in the Acts of the Apostles and in the amazing response of those who heard their preaching, and finally in the testimony and letters of Saint Paul, who wasn’t there at all at Easter, but who himself eventually experienced the risen Lord and was forever changed as a result.

Its effects on the world were soon evident in the enthusiastic response of Jews and pagans alike to the amazing story the apostles told. In the long term, its effects have been equally dramatic in how the story has spread and the Church has grown as a result, in the dynamism that is at the heart of the Church’s existence in the world and that has propelled it outward in almost 2000 years of world-transforming activity.

Finally, its effects are evident in us, transformed in mind and changed in heart, by the unique power of this utterly unexpected event, which has glorified the humanity Jesus shares with each of us, and which has brought us together in a way in which nothing else could have, empowering us not so much with new knowledge as with a new hope. 

It is the resurrection’s effects which we actually experience and which bring us here today – as Jesus’ body that lived and died and still forever bears the marks of his passion emerges from the tomb to transform our world, starting right here, right now, with us. So it is no wonder we like to ring all the church bells at Easter! How else will the world hear this story? And hear it the world must, for everyone’s sake! To tell the world that Jesus is really alive is the first and most fundamental task we have been entrusted with. That’s what the Church is for – commissioned to preach to the people and testify (as Peter proclaimed in the reading we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles) that Jesus is really risen from the dead and that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

Now the Church obviously isn’t just myself and the deacon here. The Church is all of us. And obviously we are not all the same. Some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter – Peter, whom Jesus nonetheless chose to be his Church’s principal spokesman. But, whether we are runners or walkers, what matters most, the Gospel story seems to suggest, is that we are here. Whether runners or walkers, we too have come to that tomb that was supposed to stay forever closed and dark, but from which the stone has been removed, in order that we - and the world – may look inside, may see, and believe, and be changed by the experience.

Peter's prominence in the post-resurrection appearance accounts highlights how what was happening there continues to happen in the everyday life of the Church, as the Risen Lord continues to reveal himself to his people through the experience we share by baptism as members of the uniquely new community that is the Church, brought into being and animated by the Risen Lord's parting gift of the Holy Spirit. The promises of Holy Baptism, which we will now solemnly renew are our solemn and collective commitment together to keep living this Easter story, to be excited by it, and to stay excited about it, so that the world can experience that something really new has happened - the new life we share with Christ our Risen Lord.

Homily for Easter Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 21, 2019.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Lord's Supper

I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. So begins tonight’s famous reading from Saint Paul’s 1st letter to the Christians in Corinth [1 Corinthians 11:23-26]. Paul’s was the earliest written account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, a farewell meal that took the place of the Passover feast which Jesus would not live to celebrate and in the process replaced it with something completely new.

By convenient coincidence, the calendar corresponds exactly this year, with the Jewish Passover beginning on Friday night just as it did that year. It is safe to suggest that none of Jesus’ disciples, as they sat down to supper with Jesus on that Thursday evening before the Passover holiday, understood that, by the time Passover began 24 hours later, Jesus would be dead and buried, and that they would all be in hiding. And certainly, none of them yet realized how that otherwise ordinary meal would be dramatically transformed forever by Jesus’ death and resurrection into the Church’s central sacrament.

The New Testament tells us how, from the very beginning, Christian communities devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and prayers [Acts 2:42]. As the Church grew in size and expanded in influence, the Church’s worship, centered on the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper, would in time transform, first, the Roman Empire and, then, the ever wider world – as it still must continue to transform each one of us and the wider world we are all a part of.

By giving his body and blood to be eaten and drunk, Jesus expressed the deepest truth about what he would do on the Cross, as the true paschal lamb who takes away the sins of the world. The Eucharist we celebrate tonight makes really present that very same body once offered on the Cross, then buried in the tomb, and now risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father. The mystery of the Eucharist, which proclaims the death and resurrection of the Lord until he comes again, is at the very heart of the Church’s life. It is, as we say, the sacrament that makes the Church, which comes into being and receives her unity and mission from the Eucharist [cf. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 138].

So, whether amid the splendor of a papal basilica or in the simplicity of a missionary outpost, whether with the Bishop in his cathedral or with friends and neighbors in a local parish church, this same Lord’s Supper has been celebrated generation after generation and treasured by every generation as its precious inheritance – a gift given to us, to experience by living and acting like people who recognize what we have received.

The short passage we just heard, however, was originally part of a longer passage that for most of the Church’s history (until just 50 years ago) was what was read at this Mass. This matters because Saint Paul wrote that earliest written account of what happened at that most memorable meal in all of human history not just to tell us a nice story about something that happened a long time ago. It was its present effect that Paul cared most about, and so Paul was in fact complaining, criticizing the Corinthians’ behavior in the present, telling them that they were missing the main point of the Lord’s Supper – receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood in an unworthy way, doing so to their peril. In giving this instruction, Paul wrote, I do not praise you. Your meetings do more harm than good. I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you. When you meet, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper.
What an indictment! Saint Paul’s more complete account and discussion about the Last Supper was actually a challenge to the Corinthians - as, through them, it is intended to be a challenge now for us. Saint Paul highlighted the Corinthians’ conflicts, dissensions, and factions – in effect, their unfortunate failure to be changed by the Eucharist. Then as now, in 1st-century Corinth among those to whom St. Paul’s account of the Last Supper was originally addressed, all was not well in the Church. The social, economic, and class distinctions, the inequalities, conflicts, dissensions, and factions, endemic in ordinary Roman society were making themselves felt within the Corinthian Church community, so much so that even the celebration of the Lord’s Supper still seemed to mirror those same social, economic, and class distinctions, inequalities, conflicts, dissensions, and factions.
But those things that matter so much to us in the secular world, Paul insists, should have absolutely no significance whatever within the community of Christ’s body, in which Jesus’ death and resurrection have not only transformed our individual relationships with him but must also change our relationships with one another.
Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the world with them - any more than we can, when we come to Mass. That is why what happens here is so important, intended as it is to enable us to leave here different from how we came, to enable us to go beyond our individual self-enclosed limits and so bring something new to the world, something new and different from what we brought here with us from the world. For Jesus’ command to his disciples to do as he did is an invitation to a whole new way of life, made possible for us by what Jesus himself has already done on our behalf.
Back at the Last Supper, in the scene that follows next in John’s Gospel [John 13:27-30], Satan is said to have entered Judas, who, then, after taking a morsel of food from Jesus, left the Supper. How many times has Pope Francis warned us about the danger posed by Satan! The Devil, Pope Francis warned just about a year ago, “poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy, and vice” [Gaudete et Exsultate].

How well might Judas have benefited, had he heeded such a warning! Instead, we are told, he went out into the night – leaving behind Jesus and his disciples, the community that could have been his, in order to commit himself instead to Satan’s cause.

What was that morsel of food Judas had received from Jesus? Was it the Eucharist? What a warning there is for us in that! What a reminder of Saint Paul’s warning words to the Corinthians that we will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord for how we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

So too, for us now, as for Judas at the Lord’s Supper, how we depart from here may matter much more than how we arrive. What have we heard here, and what has happened to us here that has made us different from how we came? What kind of community have we become, thanks to the Lord’s Supper? In the constant competition for our attention and our loyalty, whose cause have we here committed ourselves to? What kind of people are we becoming? What kind of people do we want to become? What will we take with us from here to challenge and change this conflicted and divided world?

Homily for the Mass of the Lord's Supper, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 18, 2019.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Entering Easter

Since Pope Saint Paul VI's post-conciliar revamping of the Roman calendar, Lent ends this afternoon, and the Easter Triduum commemorating Christ's death, burial, and resurrection begins this evening with the Mass of the Lord's Supper. Previously, Lent lasted until the beginning of the Easter Vigil Mass. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday were then called the "Sacred Triduum." Already in 1642, however, Pope Urban VIII had changed the status of this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from holy days to weekdays, a recognition of the changing character of modern society. While vestiges of popular folk customs continue undoubtedly here and there, the secularization of society and its calendar long ago eroded the impact of these sacred days and their special rituals on many people's ordinary daily lives. Until 1955, therefore, the solemn ceremonies celebrated in the morning on each of these days were sparsely attended - as the reform decree Maxima redemptionis nostrae mysteria acknowledged later that year ("solemnes gravesque has sacri tridui liturgicas actiones a clericis peragi solere, ecclesiarum aulis saepe quasi desertis"). That year's reform, which moved the principal services to the evening on Thursday, the afternoon on Friday, and late evening or night on Saturday, did have the immediate effect of somewhat increasing attendance, at least in the short term.

For centuries the observance of these days has seemed to run on two parallel tracks, complementary but definitely different in style and emphasis. The poorly attended but official liturgical ceremonies highlighted the the paschal mystery as a unitary whole. The non-liturgical popular devotions held at more convenient times and typically much better attended, focused more on the historical commemoration and sentimental reenactment of individual events in the Passion story. Some of these popular devotions still survive as a cultural heritage (e.g., Spanish Holy Week processions) and/or as still very valued spiritual exercises of popular piety (e.g., the Stations of the Cross, which in places is still more popular and better attended than the official Liturgy of Good Friday). Meanwhile, the way the official, reformed rites are now celebrated - the times of the services and the replacement often of ancient texts by contemporary sentimental hymns - has significantly highlighted the element of historical commemoration and correspondingly diminished the older, liturgical sense of the unity of the paschal mystery. 

Thus, for example, the ancient Holy Thursday collect (originally borrowed from elsewhere in the week), with its references to Judas and the "Good Thief," has been replaced by a prayer referencing the Last Supper. Meanwhile the reading from Exodus instructing Moses on the observance of the Passover has been moved from its traditional place on Good Friday (in keeping with the liturgy's emphasis on John's image of Jesus as the paschal lamb) to Thursday, reinforcing the popular, but historically dubious, image of the Last Supper as a Passover "seder."

Perhaps it was inevitable that a more popular, vernacular liturgy would take on more of the character and style of some of those more modern, non-liturgical, popular devotions. Humanly speaking, there is something very natural about historical commemoration. It is also obviously the case that, much like the Christmas story, the Passion accounts easily lend themselves to a sort of pious sentimentality that may be inevitable and may in fact be what providentially helps keep the story culturally relevant in our own secularized and sentimental age.

In any case, both the liturgical and non-liturgical ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter are all powerful evocations both of the momentous events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus and of their salvific significance for us. It is a very special time, when, like Mary of Bethany (cf. John 12:1-11), the Church employs all her varied ritual treasures - and invites and encourages all of us to take maximum advantage of what she offers.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Notre Dame de Paris

50 years ago, in the first episode of Kenneth Clark's monumental 1969 TV series Civilisation - - Clark stood on the bank of the Seine River in Paris and asked, “What is civilisation?” Answering his own question, he then said "I can't define it in abstract terms, but I think I can recognize it when I see it.” As he did so, he turned to what was behind him across the River, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, and continued, “I’m looking at it right now.” 

Begun in 1160, it was basically completed by the mid-13th century and has long been recognized as one of the great Gothic masterpieces. It has been inseparably linked with the identity and history of France, "the eldest daughter of the Church." The trials and tribulations of the French Church have been hers. In 1548, Huguenots destroyed some statues. It was more thoroughly desecrated by the French Revolution, which rededicated it to "Reason" in 1793 and then turned it into a warehouse. Napoleon restored its religious, Catholic character and then in 1804 crowned himself Emperor there. General Charles De Gaulle attended a triumphant Te Deum there on August 26, 1944, to give thanks for the liberation of Paris from the Germans (even while sporadic gun shots rang out, both outside and within the great cathedral).

It is no accident that distances within France are marked from kilometre zéro at Notre Dame.

Last night's fire was yet another tragic blow to that sacred place, as well as an incalculable blow to our Western cultural heritage. Our post-modern, secular society aptly expresses its spiritual emptiness and its inhuman ugliness in its soul-destroying inhumane ugly buildings, reflecting the diminished character of contemporary human aspiration. The age of the great cathedrals was limited and imperfect in many ways, but at least it directed human hearts and minds to look upward as opposed to our contemporary preoccupation primarily with our petty selves.

Although the monumental (19th-century) wooden spire completely collapsed, fortunately the familiar bell towers and much of the fabric have survived, a true tribute to the inherent wisdom in gothic architecture. Also the relic of the Crown of Thorns has been saved. There is still a church, however damaged, on that historic site. And, God willing, the world will somehow bestir itself to rebuild this treasure of our past and of our hopes for the future.