Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday

22 years ago I spent my summer studying in Israel (at the Tantur Theological Institute in Jerusalem, just this side of the border from Bethlehem). On what was only my second day there, my former novice director (who was then the Institute’s director) took me to a village in Samaria for the 1st Mass of a newly ordained local priest. We all gathered at the village boundary around an arch of palm branches and balloons and waited there for the new priest’s entry into his hometown. As he arrived and the procession began, all the villagers started shouting and waving palms in the air, and my host smiled and said: now you see what Palm Sunday looked like!

The Gospel [Mark 11:1-10] which was read before the Procession a short while ago tells us about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday and his triumphal entry – full of messianic and royal symbolism – into the Holy City.  We have commemorated that event today with our own triumphal palm procession (thankfully minus the balloons), singing that wonderful 9th-century hymn that Theodulph, the Bishop of Orleans, composed for this very occasion around the year 810.

The rest of the story, which we have also now just heard [Mark 14:1-15:47], reveals the next phase of that journey – to the cross and to the tomb.

The cross is now the central symbol of Christianity because the cross is precisely where we meet God in our world, just as the tomb – the eventually empty tomb – shows where he is taking us.  Just as we follow him in procession to Jerusalem, we must also follow him to the Cross and to the tomb, there to watch and wait with Mary Magdalene and the other disciples.

In his Passion, Jesus confronted once and for all the power of evil in the world. Having done so, he invites us this week to accompany him to the cross and to the tomb – because, thanks to the cross of Christ, death no longer has the final word in our world. 

Homily for Palm Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 29, 2015.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Those Popular Palms

I breathed a serious sigh of relief last Monday morning when our annual parish order of palms arrived at the parish office door. They always do arrive, of course. I've never anywhere experienced the horror of Palm Sunday Mass without palms, but that fear that they won't arrive in time continues to nag every year. An unreasonable fear, I suppose - unless, of course, some tragic day it actually happens!

Everyone wants his or her palms on Palm Sunday, which does make it one of the better attended Sundays of the year. Even so some may manage to get palms without having to attend Mass. Palms are given out at the beginning. If one leaves before or during the Mass, one still has his or her palm. And, in one parish where I once served, we had a beautiful decorative display of palms in the entranceway, which some people apparently helped themselves to between Masses! Moral of the story: palms sure are popular!

Of course, just grabbing oneself a palm and not staying for the Mass that follows suggests a serious case of really missing the point of it all. The Palm Sunday liturgy (the palms plus the Mass) is not just a great introduction to Holy Week but is actually in a sense a kind of compendium of it, since it includes the proclamation of the Lord's Passion, which tells virtually the whole Holy Week story. So someone who pays attention on Palm Sunday hears the Holy Thursday and Good Friday stories too.

It is, however, undoubtedly the palms that will always remain the day's biggest attraction. I remember how my mother used to carefully weave crosses of palm to be reverently attached to the crucifix and other sacred images in our Bronx apartment. I can also remember in the first year of  Pius XII's reform of Holy Week - Palm Sunday 1956 - how a neighbor got all upset because he went to an early Mass and got no palms because none would be blessed until the Solemn Mass. That would soon be "corrected" to allow an anticipatory palm blessing for early Mass goers. But it did capture one of the aims of that reform, which was to de-Gallicanize the Palm Sunday liturgy and return it to an older Roman emphasis on the Passion. This was reflected even in the new title the reformed Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae assigned to Palm Sunday - Dominica II Passionis seu in Palmis ("The Second Sunday of the Passion, or also Palm Sunday").

An American liturgist was once quoted as saying that, in the Roman liturgy, “all the fun things came from Gaul” - a reference to the influence of the medieval “Gallican” rites on the ancient Roman rite. (In fact, the traditional Roman Rite, prior to the 1960s, was in many respects really a hybrid of the ancient Roman and the medieval “Gallican” rites.)
One of those “fun things,” that we can thank the “Gallican” rites for, is the Palm Sunday procession - originally, a feature of the 4th-century Jerusalem liturgy which had migrated from there to medieval Europe. The standard Palm Sunday processional hymn, Gloria, laus, et honor (“All Glory, Laud, and Honor”) composed by Theodulph of Orleans early in the 9th century is one vestige of that elaborate medieval ceremony. Its length (originally 39 verses) attests to how elaborate the medieval Palm Sunday once was! It took time, however, for this emphasis on the palms to catch on in Rome. There, the last Sunday of Lent had been focused primarily on Christ’s passion, its distinctive feature not the palms but the chanting of the Passion according to Matthew. Eventually, a missa sicca (i.e., a duplicate liturgy of the word with Matthew’s Palm Gospel), followed by an elaborate blessing of palms and procession, came to precede the Mass at which the Passion was solemnly sung. .Pope Pius XII’s reform of Holy Week radically simplified this, putting the official (if not the popular) emphasis back on the Passion, a development further affirmed in the post-conciliar Roman Missal now in use. 
Like so much of such bureaucratic liturgical antiquarianism, however, the attempted change has never really caught on outside the formal rubrics. Hardly anyone (except liturgists) refers to the day by its current official title, "Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord." The rest of us are quite content to stick with its historical and traditional name, "Palm Sunday." And what seems to excite people - to the extent that anything liturgical excites people anymore - is still the palms. As for the long Passion reading, I sometimes wonder whether many perhaps perceive it as yet one more final lenten penance! Seldom anymore do many people get to hear the Passion proclaimed as it should be in its unique and dramatic traditional chant, sung by three deacons at three different speeds and pitch levels. Nowadays, many must settle for  a monotonic minimalist reading, relieved only by the brief pause when everyone gets to kneel at the equivalent of the traditional Emisit spiritum. That pause also qualifies as one of those great Gallican liturgical “fun things,” a monastic practice whose diffusion is attributed to Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious (778-840).

One of the prayers for the Blessing of the palms in the old (pre-1955) liturgy asked that all who received the palm may obtain protection of soul and body (ut, quicumque ex ea receperint, accipiant sibi protectionem animae et corporis). Another prayed that those who dwell where the palms are brought may obtain blessing and protection from all adversity (in quemcumque locum introducti fuerint, tuam benedictionem habitatores loci illius consequantur et omni adversitate effugata, dextera tua protegat). Sadly, there are no such expressions in the minimalist, post-1969 Palm Sunday prayers. Even so, the sentiment safely seems to have survived in the popular devotion that surrounds receiving the palms, taking them home, and keeping them there throughout the year. Perhaps, in the spirit of the "new evangelization," we would do well to re-emphasize such popular practices as those surrounding the palms, beginning with how we name and refer to the day!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Mater Dolorosa

Alone among the Lenten weekdays, today's Mass for this last Friday of Lent provides a choice of two alternate collects. This is a vestige - the only visible vestige - of the old Feast of the Seven Dolors which used to be kept on this Friday, before being reduced to a Commemoration in last pre-conciliar liturgical reform in 1960. A duplicate feast, that of the Seven Sorrows on September 15, survived the reforms, although downgraded in rank and now renamed Our Lady of Sorrows, thus eliminating any reference to the number seven. Still, whenever I think of Our lady of Sorrows, I unfailingly recall the many popular portrayals of Mary pierced with seven swords! I remember too a beautiful church I once visited in a crowded urban neighborhood which had a statue of Mary pierced with seven swords atop its golden dome.

The illustrious 20th-century liturgist Pius Parsch, reflecting the antiquarian attitudes so prevalent in the pre-conciliar liturgical movement, contrasted "the older and more austere Lenten Mass" and the "newer, more spirited one devoted to Our lady's Seven Sorrows." Actually, his comparative analysis of the two liturgical tendencies reflected in the older liturgical tradition for this Friday is, as he himself wrote, "instructive for anyone who desires to penetrate more deeply into the spirit of the Church's liturgy." He argued that, whereas the traditional ferial Mass presents Christ's passion prophetically, figuratively, and historically, in the festive Marian Mass "sentiment and emotion is strong." 

Such distinctions and discussions all seem so obsolete now in the light of the liturgical reform's abrupt about-face in the post-conciliar period, when so much of the historic heritage and spirituality of the Roman Rite was abandoned for a contemporary sentimentality that would make the supposed sentimentality that pre-conciliar liturgists discerned in the old feast of the Seven Dolors appear austere in retrospect!

That the reformed Missal retains a Marian collect today is, therefore, especially admirable. In actual fact, however, the tradition of identifying with Mary in contemplating her Son's Passion, to which that collect refers, really occurs for most people, if at all, in such devotional contexts as the praying of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross, where traditional texts for the Stations (e.g., the familiar meditations and prayers composed by Saint Alphonsus Liguori) highlight the contemplation of the Passion through the experience of Mary at the 4th and 13th stations. The many portrayals of the Pieta in Christian art testify to the enduring popularity of the image of the Sorrowful Mother in popular devotion - a devotion which renders the human dimension of the Passion story especially accessible.

Literarily, the highlight of the old Feast of the Seven Dolors (and the still observed other feast of Our Lady of Sorrows in September) is, of course, the (now optional) Sequence of the Mass, the great Stabat Mater, which Parsch acknowledged as "certainly one of the finest religious poems from the Middle Ages." Fortunately for the Stabat Mater - and thus for us - that Sequence has long served as the most common and popular processional music for the Stations of the Cross. And so it has survived in popular awareness and devotion, despite the adverse musical tendencies of the past five decades.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Richard Re-Buried

“Today, we recognize a king who lived through turbulent times and whose Christian faith sustained him in life and death.” With those precisely chosen words, Queen Elizabeth II acknowledged both the significance and the ambivalence about the re-burial of one of her more notorious predecessors, King Richard III (1452-1485), who, having usurped the throne from the rightful King Edward V (whose sister Elizabeth eventually became the current Queen's ancestor), has historically been blamed for the subsequent disappearance (and presumed murder) of Edward and his brother Richard, the famous "princes in the tower."

We will probably never know the full story of the "princes in the tower," whose presumed murder was considered inordinately wicked even by the standards of that troubled time, famously known as "the Wars of the Roses." It was Richard's defeat and death that brought those wars to an end and made possible the restoration of domestic peace in England under Henry VII and his tudor dynasty. (Of course, that also set in motion the tragic events that led to the English Reformation under Henry VIII.)

On the other hand, Richard has long had his defenders. His short reign was considered a relatively just one. Had circumstances been different and his accession more legitimate, he might well have been one of England's better medieval kings. As it was, he was the last English king to die in battle. (The last British king to die in battle would be Scotland's James IV, who died at the battle of Flodden in 1513, defeated by the army of English his brother-in-law, Henry VIII).

In laying Richard to rest today, giving him the honorable burial political circumstances denied him in 1485, his medieval subjects' modern descendants have been able to revisit and reflect upon that critical juncture in the political (and religious) history of the English speaking world and the abiding significance of that history for us all. In the process, the fundamental Christian duty to pray for the dead was also fulfIlled. 

It was in one sense perfectly reasonable that the current incarnation of the English Church (represented by Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby) should perform the final interment. But it was even more appropriate that the representative of the historic and universal Church of which Richard himself and all his subjects were then members also participated, offering a Requiem Mass for the king earlier in the week. Wearing vestments from King Richard III's era, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Cardinal Nichols, celebrated Mass at a local Dominican Priory. There he spoke pointedly and eloquently of the true purpose of this or any Christian funeral:

The prayer we offer for him this evening is the best prayer there is: the offering of the holy Mass, the prayer of Jesus himself, made complete in the oblation of his body and blood on the altar of the cross, present here for us on this altar. This is the summit of all prayer, for it is made in and through the one Person, the eternal Word, through whom all created beings have life. It is a prayer that arises from the very core of creation, the cry of the Word returning to the Father and carrying within it the totality of that creation, marred and broken in its history, yet still longing for the completion for which it has been created. It is, therefore, such an important Catholic tradition to seek the celebration of Mass for the repose of the souls of those who have died, especially for each of our loved ones whose passing we mourn. Let us not forget or neglect this great gift.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Today is my 67th birthday. In itself, I suppose, that doesn't stand out as a very significant age marker. On the other hand, it is two-thirds of a century. So, if nothing else, being 67 means that I'm already almost certainly well past the two-thirds mark in my earthly life-span. 

Needless to say, at this particular point, there is no way to anticipate how much actual time on earth I may have left. Recognizing that sobering fact has inevitably made each year, even each day, seem so much more precious.

Paulist Fr. Jim Young, who was the Director of Formation when I was in seminary (and who sadly died way before his time) began a prayer he composed with these words: O my God, I am grateful that you have given me another day. Perhaps I may not have many left, and I treasure each one. (The Paulist Prayer Book, p. 395). I recite that prayer often, and its opening words are a sentiment that readily resonates in the inevitable twilight of life's long day.

At this age, a birthday is certainly a sobering occasion, a reminder of time passing by, another notification of one's mortality. But perhaps that makes it all the more imperative to celebrate. Life has its ups and downs, to be sure, and not every year is as wonderful as one might wish. But every year, every day, brings its own blessings to be treasured gratefully.

On this day, especially, I am grateful for - and to - my parents, grandmother, sisters, family, friends, and colleagues - all the people who over these 67 years have made a difference in my life, who have loved me or cared for me in some way, or who have taught me something that made me a better person, or that better equipped me to navigate my way through life's twists and turns. At the age I am now, many of those have already long-since been called from this life - among them, my father, my grandmother, my younger sister, all my aunts and uncles, many of my teachers, as well as various friends, acquaintances, and fellow Paulists. I will gratefully remember them all together in my birthday Mass at the Memento of the Dead. Others, still happily among the living, who have in whatever way enriched my life in the past or who continue in some way to enrich my life now, I will remember as well, at the Memento of the Living.

After the people, I guess I remain most grateful for my vocation, the great grace of the priesthood. Fittingly, I spent the last two evenings and will spend this evening hearing lenten confessions, good priestly activity. Of course, there are many worthwhile paths through life, but for me there is no other path I would rather have taken than the one which brought me to the priesthood. Despite delays and obstacles, the course has been so obviously the right one for me.

Nor has that road reached its end yet. Experience teaches us to presume little and to be acutely conscious of our limits. We go to war, Donald Rumsfeld is famously supposed to have said, with the army we have. In an analogous way, I guess, we go through life with the personality we have, with whatever defects and deficits biology and history have saddled us with. But the point is that we still do go through life, whoever we are and with whatever we have. We do things with what little or much we have to work with. What happens, in spite of everything, is grace making the most of what nature has to offer. And, while nature may inevitably be limited, grace keeps increasing. Appreciating that is surely one unmistakable plus about getting old!

That, after all, has to be the goal of a life well lived - to borrow a phrase from a worthy 17th-century Jesuit spiritual guide, Louis Lallemant - 
that grace may enliven what art and nature have formed!