Friday, September 22, 2017

Recalling a Bishop and an Archangel's Name

It was exactly 60 years ago today - on Sunday, September 22, 1957 - that I received the sacrament of Confirmation (photo). In theory, Confirmation is the second of the three “sacraments of initiation,” and, then as now, the Catechism always listed Confirmation as the second of the seven sacraments. In reality, however, for me and most of my generation, Confirmation was actually the fourth sacrament (after Baptism, Penance, and First Communion), as it still is for most Latin Rite Catholics to this day. 

The most memorable thing about my Confirmation, I suppose, was the Bishop (photo). He was a Dutch Augustinian, Peter Canisius van Lierde (1907-1995), who at that time held the exalted office of papal sacristan, a post he apparently occupied for 40 years from 1951 through 1991. (A year later, he would be the one to administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction - better known now as “Anointing of the Sick” - to Pope Pius XII, a service he would repeat again in 1963 for Pope Saint John XXIII.) Ordained a priest in 1931, he earned doctorates in both theology and philosophy, and then headed the Augustinian College of Santa Monica in Rome, where he sheltered various refugees, military officers, Jews, and anti-fascist politicians during the war.

(There is actually a YouTube video about him in late life, Pietro Canisio Van Lierde, which despite its Italian title is almost entirely in French: )

In 1957, Bishop Van Lierde was visiting my Bronx, NY, parish of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine to consecrate the finally finished upper church and then celebrate the parish’s Golden Jubilee Mass on September 9 and 10 respectively. (My parish was staffed by Augustinian friars and its patron saint was a 13th-century Augustinian friar and the first Augustinian to be canonized.)  

In more recent years, the optimal age for confirmation has occasioned some debate in at least some circles in the Church. In those days, however, you got confirmed more or less whenever there was a Bishop available to come and do it. I was confirmed at the beginning of 5th grade, but had I not been “skipped” the previous year, I would have been in the 4th grade. 

I have seen my 1st Communion and Confirmation pictures so many times that it is hard to know for sure what is an actual memory. I certainly can remember memorizing beforehand the Catechism answer that “sacred chrism is a mixture of olive oil and balsam blessed by the Bishop on Holy Thursday.” And I remember asking for turkey to be served at the family party afterwards. As for the ceremony itself, what I most vividly remember was carrying a card between my fingers with my confirmation name on it. (I am clearly holding the name card in the photo.) When my turn came to kneel before the Bishop on his faldstool in front of the High Altar, a priest took the card out of my hand and announced my confirmation name to the Bishop (in what I would later learn was the nominative case). The Bishop then addressed me (in what I would later learn was the vocative case): Michaele, Signo te signo crucis; et confirmo te chrismate salutis. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.

The utter blandness of that sacramental formula says a lot about how hard it has been to express Confirmation’s meaning, once the accidents of history had ripped it out of its original initiatory context!

Bland the sacrament may have been, but not my confirmation name, Michael. My father had had a brother named Michael, but he had died young, and I had never known him. I chose the name not because of any relative or family connection but because I was fascinated by the figure of Saint Michael the Archangel - thanks largely to the Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, which we recited in English after all Low Masses, Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle!

That prayer was part of the so-called Leonine Prayers (after Pope Leo XIII who mandated their recitation in 1886) were finally suppressed in 1965. The late 19th-century historical context of the prayers was the Roman Question, created by the Italian conquest of Rome and the Holy See’s loss of its Temporal Power. Following the resolution of the Roman Question in 1929, Pope Pius XI directed that the prayers be said “to permit the tranquility and freedom to profess the faith to be restored to the afflicted people of Russia.”

As I recall, the Leonine Prayers were not particularly popular. There were always some in the congregation who fled from the church as soon as the Last Gospel was done, skipping the prayers altogether. Ironically, the prayers – especially the prayer to Saint Michael – have experienced a recent resurgence of popularity, particularly in more traditionalist circles. I say ironically, because, of course, one of the themes so often invoked by some liturgical traditionalists is an objection to bureaucratic papal tinkering with the liturgy (as opposed to supposedly “organic” development). Whatever their intrinsic merits or devotional appeal, there is just no way the Leonine Prayers can be viewed as anything but bureaucratic papal tinkering from above without any semblance of “organic” development.

Of course, in those days I knew nothing about such issues. In Michael the heroic archangel who led the angelic army to victory over the Devil, a nerdy 9-year old found an appropriately masculine figure to identify with - and do so in a way which also affirmed my religious interests and inclinations. 

While there might be any number of elements in the old liturgy that I might like to see restored - like the Last Gospel, for example, or the old Offertory Prayers - I have absolutely no nostalgia for the Leonine Prayers, if for no other reason than that I have no nostalgia for Low Mass! The Individual components of the Leonine Prayers, however, are another story. I still can recite most of them from memory. The Prayer to Saint Michael still inspires many people today. Given the sorry state of the world, it would certainly seem as relevant today as it was in Leo XIII 's time.

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