Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Leaping for Joy

The Visitation of of the newly pregnant Virgin Mother of God to her also pregnant, but older relative Elizabeth has long been an event of singular fascination. Luke's account highlights Elizabeth's uniqueness in having already been let in on Mary's secret in time for Mary's arrival, thus making them at that moment the only two people on the entire planet aware of what a wonder God was doing in the world. That gave their meeting a unique intimacy - as suggested, for example, by the beautiful statue (photo) at the supposed site of the Visitation in the ancient village of Ein Karem, which is now a neighborhood in modern Jerusalem.

A feast of medieval origin, the Visitation was happily celebrated for centuries on July 2 (to connect it closely with the feast of Saint John the Baptist), until the Paul VI calendar transferred it to today. German Catholics, however, continue to celebrate the Visitation on its traditional date - as do Anglicans and Lutherans.

The Visitation is also the 2nd Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. It invites us to meditate on Mary's rapid response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in her readiness to offer direct personal assistance to her relative in need. But there is also another dimension highlighted by the feast - the sanctifying action of divine grace in the (as yet unborn) John the Baptist, whose "leap for joy" then graces his mother, making possible her greeting of Mary. In the intimate interaction of the two pregnant mothers, their sons are already at work - Mary's Son bringing grace, Elizabeth's announcing it. And their mothers - alone at that moment among the human race - respond with some of the most famously eloquent words of prayer and praise ever uttered, prayers repeated daily in the piety of people and in the liturgy of the Church.

Thus, the Venerable Bede called it "an excellent and fruitful custom of holy Church that we should sing Mary's hymn at the time of evening prayer." In our over-familiarity with the sacred words, we routinely recite the Magnificat (and even more so the Hail Mary), almost unmoved by the mystery at work in what is being recalled. Such routinization is inevitably inherent in our familiarity with the sacred. 

But such familiarity is in another sense what the Incarnation intends to accomplish. The encounter between Mary and Elizabeth and the spiritual energy it generated actually highlights how mystery penetrates the mundane - and challenges us to be alert to respond to it in the ongoing Ordinary Time of daily life.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

Many of us are old enough to remember Memorial Day's original name - Decoration Day. The holiday began as the day to honor the dead from the Civil War by decorating their graves. Eventually, it became the day to honor the graves of all veterans, but for a long time the emphasis remained on visiting and honoring the their graves. Even today, when Memorial Day has become just another day for shopping, sporting, and picnicking, volunteers still visit cemeteries to put flags on veterans’ graves – a reminder of the importance of remembering and of the special places of memory we call cemeteries.

In Italian, the word for cemetery is campo santo – literally, “holy field,” or, as we would say in common English, “holy ground.” Cemeteries are special places for us – special not just because they are blessed by the Church and marked by beautiful monuments. They are special places because this is where we remember those who have died, who have gone before us in life, our cherished past to whom we owe our present. Remembering is one of the things that especially makes us human. To remember those who have died, as our nation does today and as we do whenever we visit a cemetery, is to acknowledge the importance of their lives - and the common humanity, which we share with them in life and in death. Remembering is also one of the things that especially makes us Christian. To remember those who have gone before us in faith, as we do especially here today but every day at every Mass, is to celebrate the multitude of ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them in life - and the hope we still share with them in death.

So it is good that we gather together today, to remember and pray for our brothers and sisters whose bodies lie here in this holy ground. It is, as the author of the book of Maccabees has reminded us, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be purified from their sins and welcomed among the saints, as we too hope someday to be welcomed with them forever.

Homily, Memorial Day Mass, Calvary Cemetery, Knoxville, TN, May 30, 2016.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

An Ordination in the City

Once upon a time, ordinations were commonly celebrated on Ember Days - penitential days that occurred (until 1969) four times each year. In Rome in those early centuries, the Ember Saturday in December seems to have been the major ordination date. The Ember Days are a mere memory now, of course, and the ordination rite has lost any trace of its onetime connection with penitential liturgy. Ordinations are now festive occasions par excellence. It is almost as if, as the number of ordinands diminishes, we all appreciate them all that much more! One consequence is certainly the large number of priests who turn out for ordinations nowadays, which makes the ceremony longer, but that much more moving!

Saturday, I went home to New York for the ordination of a former Saint Paul's parishioner, a veteran of the parish Young Adult Ministry in the 2000s, who was ordained for the Archdiocese of New York - one of 14 ordained by Cardinal Dolan in a truly festive celebration. It was actually the first of three ordinations I will be attending on consecutive Saturdays. This coming week will see the ordination of a new priest for the Diocese of Knoxville, followed the following week by the ordination of some 24 new permanent deacons, one of them a parishioner at Immaculate Conception.

It was hot in New York and crowded, and I was truly tired out by the end of the day. But it was a beautiful and joyful celebration not just of the sacred priesthood but of the Risen Christ's continued presence in his Church - a sign (notwithstanding everything to the contrary) of a future for he Church full of promise!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Corpus Christi

In the calendar of the Universal Church today is Corpus Christi, the Church's annual recollection of the joyful side of Holy Thursday and a celebration of the ongoing centrality of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Church's daily life. Like Epiphany and Ascension earlier in the year, Corpus Christi is postponed in the United States until next Sunday. But today is its proper day. And in Rome the Pope will celebrate it in suitable splendor with Mass at the Piazza San Giovanni Laterano followed by an outdoor eucharistic procession to Santa Maria Maggiore for Benediction (See photo above from 2015). 

The symbolism of Thursday for this feast is obvious, which is why it has historically been assigned to this Thursday after Trinity Sunday (until 1969 the first Thursday after the Easter season). The historic (pre-Paul VI) liturgy for this feast was ostensibly composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas in 1264. Pius Parsch famously called it "a perfect work of art," in which "we constantly uncover new evidences of structural grandeur." A prime example of such grandeur if, of course, the magnificent sequence Lauda Sion.

At the contemporary papal liturgy and traditionally throughout Christendom, Corpus Christi's distinctive characteristic has been the eucharistic procession. The procession is a public witness of the Church’s belief in and popular devotion to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Here in the United States, such processions are a relative rarity, though they do occur here and there. 

The most magnificent such Corpus Christi procession that I ever saw took place in Montreal, Quebec, in 1984, where we followed the Blessed Sacrament through the narrow streets of the Old City to the historic basilica of Notre Dame. But perhaps the most impressive, certainly the most moving outdoor eucharistc procession I’ve ever attended was not on Corpus Chrsti but the one that takes place every summer afternoon at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France. After being exposed all day under a tent, the Blessed Sacrament is carried at the end of a procession of sick pilgrims and their caregivers to the massive underground basilica. Empty, the basilica (the only structure large enough to contain the vast number of pilgrims present on any given day) resembles an ugly underground parking lot. Crowded to capacity for afternoon Benediction, however, the experience is – as my British friends would say – “brilliant.”

A more traditional word might be”awesome” – a word which really used to mean something before it became a contemporary synonym for “nice.” Thus, we used to start the Mass for the Consecration of a Church with the words of the Patriarch jacob in Genesis: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God [Genesis 28:17].

But back to 1984. That summer, as a seminarian stationed in Toronto, I was assigned to visit Catholic patients in the local hospital. (It was a dreadful old place, that has since been torn down) One day, as I was doing my regular hospital visit, I found myself trying to communicate with an elderly, totally non-English-speaking, Hungarian woman, whose name was on my list, but who clearly had no notion who I was or why I was visiting her.

Such experiences, of course, contribute to feeling inadequate, which, in turn, further fosters frustration. And frustrated was exactly how I felt. Frustrated and impatient with the whole situation, all I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible.  But I was also – or at least wanted to be - conscientious about my duties, one of which was to bring Holy Communion to the sick. So, I took out a Host and held it up for her to see. Suddenly, her confusion about who I was and what I was doing there no longer seemed to matter. I no longer mattered. The sight of the Host resulted in instant recognition. She made the Sign of the Cross - and began to pray.

In all these intervening years, I have never forgotten my meeting with that devout old woman in that otherwise depressing place - and what that experience impressed on me about the power and importance of the Eucharist, whose minister it is now my privilege to be as a priest.  Experiencing her response to the Real Presence of the Risen Christ – the real, body-and-blood presence of our living and loving Lord, present and active in his Church - impressed on me the meaning of those familiar and seemingly simple words of St. Paul: The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? [1 Corinthians 10:16].

In both good times and bad, in sickness and in health, Christ is present in the Eucharist, and we in turn experience his presence and share in the new life he offers the world through his Church.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Increasingly Alone and At Risk

This week and next, the daily reading in the Divine Office is from the book of Job. It is a challenging book, which is supposed somehow to say something about the problem of suffering, but which for many may leave as questions unanswered. I confess I have sometimes found myself sympathizing with one of Job's friends, Bildad the Shuhite, when he challenges Job for we are but of yesterday, and we know nothing, for our days on earth are but a shadow (Job 8:9).

I think Thomas Merton got it right, when he wrote in his Journal (September 3, 1949): "the Book of Job does not solve the problem of suffering, in the abstract. It shows us that one man, Job, received a concrete answer to the problem, and that answer was found in God Himself. If we are to have Job’s answer, we must have Job’s vision of God.” 

But, back to Job's friends. I find it intriguing that Satan was able to strip job of almost everything we value in life - family, possessions, health - but that he still had friends. His friends didn't really have much to contribute to resolving Job's theological conundrum. But at least they were there. They cared enough to come. And what a blessing that had to have been!  No one would want to be Job, of course, But, if everything is falling down around you, it helps to know that at least somebody cares. Even modestly stressful situations seem that much more livable when shared with someone else! As Aristotle wisely noted, "without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods ...  And in poverty and in other misfortunes men think friends are the only refuge." (Nicomachean Ethics, 8).

Which brings us to the terrible plight of those who increasingly find themselves going through life alone. As the family and other traditional social institutions deteriorate due to the corrosive forces of modernity and post-modernity, as the constraints that bound us together with one another in mutual networks of common concern continue to decline, more and more people find themselves left alone with fewer resources and hardly anyone else to rely on. And "social media," which in theory ought to be linking us together more and more, may be doing precisely the opposite 0 isolating people from one another, cheating people of the fundamental humane experience of direct inter-personal encounter.

Is it any wonder, in this world of increasingly friendless isolation, that our politics is such a mess?