Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Paul E. Sigmund (1929-2014)

Late last night, I learned of the death of one of my academic mentors, Princeton Professor Paul E. Sigmund. Paul was the Director of graduate Studies in the Politics Department when I arrived at Princeton in 1972 as an idealistic graduate student. In fact, he was the first faculty member I met, when I took the bus there one summer day in 1972 to get a better sense of what exactly I was getting myself into that fall. He was a great professor, a helpful adviser, and in time a good friend. I last saw him about 10 years ago, when I visited the University shortly before his retirement.
By the time our paths crossed in those tumultuous early 1970s, Paul had already been living an interesting and accomplished life. Born in Philadelphia, he had been an undergraduate at Georgetown, then studied for a year the University of Durham on a Fulbright, before going to graduate school at Harvard, where he got his Ph.D. His doctoral dissertation was published as Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought. Meanwhile, in the 1950s, he had also served as a political analyst for the Air Force at Wiesbaden, Germany. He started teaching at Princeton in 1963. He was married to Barbara Boggs, daughter of Democratic Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana (who died tragically during my first semester at Princeton) and his wife Lindy, who replaced him in Congress and eventually served as Ambassador to the Holy See. Paul and Barbara were a wonderful couple, who contributed greatly to the life of the Princeton community, where Barbara was mayor from 1984 until her death (at only 51) in 1990.
Academically, Paul had two main areas of expertise - political philosophy (particularly medieval political thought) and Latin American politics. He was the author of The Ideologies of the Developing Nations (1963), Natural Law in Political Thought (1971), The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile, 1974-1976 (1977), and Liberation Theology at the Crossroads (1990). He also edited the Norton Critical Edition St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics (1987).

Paul was a very down-to-earth academic and an easily approachable person. In March 1974, a group of us graduate students invited him to dinner at the Graduate College to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the death of Thomas Aquinas. I remember we bought Chilean wine for the occasion! When I passed my General Examination that May, some classmates held an impromptu party in a friend's apartment on Nassau Street, which Barbara Sigmund showed up at. Paul encouraged me to teach and was instrumental in my getting interviewed for my first (and only) full-time academic job at Marquette University in 1977. 

Paul was a life-long devout Catholic, whose career corresponded chronologically to the multiple stresses and challenges which faced the Catholic Church in the second half of the 20th century. His academic work in medieval political thought and in the contemporary politics of Latin America  well equipped him to understand and navigate through those stresses and challenges. Regrettably, I will be unable to get to Princeton for his funeral Mass this Friday. But I will certainly be remembering him at Mass here.

Requiescat in pace!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

"It is the Saints who give direction and growth to the Church"

After all the anticipation and the gathering of pilgrims from all over the world (including a group from our own Knoxville Diocese), after the singing of the Litany of the Saints and the Veni Creator, the Final Petition was made to the Pope: Most Holy Father, Holy Church, trusting in the Lord's promise to send upon her the Spirit of Truth, who in every age keeps the Supreme Magisterium immune from error, most earnestly beseeches Your Holiness to enroll these, her elect, among the saints. To this final petition, the Holy Father responded, exercising his infallible magisterium: For the honor of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother Bishops, we declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II to be Saints and we enroll them among the Saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Now the Church rejoices in two more saints, two saints who were unusually influential in the life of the Church and in the affairs of the world, two saints who together helped define the Church and its relation to the world in the second half of the 20th century - Saint John XXIII who convoked the Second Vatican Council and Saint John Paul II who guided the Church in interpreting and implementing the Council as it entered - as a truly world Church - into Christianity's 2rd millennium.

In his homily, Pope Francis reminded us "that it is the saints who give direction and growth to the Church." The Pope connected the charisms of these two great 20th-century popes with today's feast of Divine Mercy and its gospel account of Jesus revealing his wounds to Thomas. "They were priests, and bishops and popes of the twentieth century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful - faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history; the mercy of God, shown by those five wounds, was more powerful; and more powerful too was the closeness of Mary our Mother."

Calling Saint John XXIII the pope of openness to the Holy Spirit and Saint John Paul II the pope of the family, Pope Francis concluded his homily by looking ahead to the forthcoming Synod on the Family. "May these two new saints and shepherds of God's people intercede for the Church, so that during this two-year journey toward the Synod she may be open to the Holy Spirit in pastoral service to the family. May both of  them teach us not to be scandalized by the wounds of Christ and to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of divine mercy, which always hopes and always forgives, because it always loves."

Saint John XXIII, pray for us!

Saint John Paul II, pray for us!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Saints and Miracles

When talking about the canonization process, I have often called it the most democratic thing in the Church - in the sense that no one is going to get canonized in the absence of authentic popular devotion. If there were any doubt about the authenticity and widespread character of popular devotion to soon-to-be Saints John Paul II and John XXIII (photo), the amazing assemblage of pilgrims now gathering in Rome should certainly be sufficient to dispel any such doubts. It is obvious where the People of God are on this issue!

Admittedly there has been some grumbling.  Some grumbling concerns the way in which Blessed John Paul's cause seems to have been "fast-tracked." Of course, in the past other saints have been "fast-tracked" too. Saint Francis of Assisi was canonized just 2 years after his death. Saint Thomas Becket was canonized within 3 years of his death. Both were examples of figures who generated a medieval equivalent of 2005's "santo subito" - the popular demand to see John Paul canonized soon. In fact, I can remember a TV commentator at the time of John XXIII's funeral describing the popular reaction as similar to "canonization by acclamation," as it might have happened in the earliest centuries of the Church's history. The point is not popular acclaim, per se, but the special witness of a particular person's holy life (or martyrdom) which generates that popular acclaim that matters and that needs to be examined, tested, and verified.

In this regard, it is the requirement of proven miracles that, I think, can best serve as a corrective to haste. A reputation for heroic sanctity may reflect the  short-term tastes and fashions of a particular historical period. What the test of the miracle requirement contributes to the process is subjecting a legacy of popular acclaim and a reputation for heroic sanctity to some external validation that is the closest we can come on earth to an expression of divine approval of a Servant of God's cause. 

There are arguments being advanced that would favor further reducing the requirement for miracles not just on occasion but in general. Obviously, there have been cases where the miracle requirement has been dispensed with. Pope Francis has dispensed with the requirement of a second (post-beatification) miracle in the case of John XXIII. And he has also already employed the alterantive of "equivalent canonization" in several recent cases - among them, the early Jesuit St. Peter Faber. Of course, there are circumstances which warrant such special action. But I would hope not to see momentum develop in favor of further reducing the number of required miracles as a general rule. 

That said, it certainly is, I think, a very good thing that the overall process has evolved so as to facilitate many more canonizations than in the past. After all, the Church is a lot larger than in centuries past, and so many more saints are correspondingly needed to dramatize the power of God's transforming grace at work in the lives of diverse types of people in all segments of this world-wide Church.

Two New Saints

On Sunday, at Saint Peter’s in Rome, Pope Francis will celebrate the much awaited canonization of two great contemporary popes – John XXIII (Pope 1958-1963) and John Paul II (Pope 1978-2005), henceforth Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II.

I was only 10 when John XXIII (photo) became pope – and all of 15 when he died. Yet I can remember his pontificate well and the transforming impact it had, with consequences continuing into the present. I think, however, that one of the best ways really to get to know Saint John XXIII and appreciate his spirituality is to read his famous (and still in print) Journal of a Soul, a collection of spiritual notes and reflections written by him over the course of his life, beginning in 1895, when he was in the seminary at Bergamo in northern Italy, through 1962. “My soul is in these pages,” Pope John said to his secretary, when he gave him these journals for future publication. For the grand sweep of the events of his actively busy life and his role on the world stage, one must look elsewhere – to the various biographies already written and others which will undoubtedly come out in the future. But Journal of a Soul reveals the future pope’s inner life, the heart of the saint. It is steeped – as Saint John XXIII was all his life – in an intensely lived traditional Catholic piety, which may make reading it somewhat challenging to today’s tastes, which are so different from his, but it is well worth the effort. In his final journal entry, written mere months before his death, Saint John summarized the “great graces bestowed on a man who has a low esteem of himself but receives good inspirations and humbly and trustfully proceeds to put them into practice.” One of those graces was “To have been able to accept as simple and capable of being immediately put into effect certain ideas which were not in the least complex in themselves, indeed perfectly simple, but far-reaching in their effects and full of responsibilities for the future.” His success in doing this, he wrote, “goes to show that one must accept the good inspirations that come from the Lord, simply and confidently.”

Saint John Paul II had a much longer reign, during which he was able to exercise a very direct impact on many different areas of the Church’s life. From a geopolitical standpoint, he will always be remembered as the first non-Italian pope in centuries and the only Pope from behind the Iron Curtain. His pontificate will likewise be remembered for its effect in Eastern Europe and for the providential part it may have played in the collapse of communism. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, which had so strongly stressed the ministry of bishops, the election of someone who had made his mark mainly as a diocesan bishop (and in communist Poland, no less) signified the Church’s ready response to the need to implement the Council’s teachings in the day-to-day reality of local Church life and to confront forcefully the new challenges being thrown at the Church by radically new political, social, and cultural changes of the 20th century. At the Mass at which he formally inaugurated his ministry as pope, Saint John Paul famously challenged the modern world: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.” That remains the Church’s mandate in this new 21st century, the first century of Christianity’s 3rd millennium, into which soon-to-be Saint John Paul led us and in which we must now continue.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

On earth as it is in heaven

This afternoon, I went to the movies and saw Heaven Is for Real, a film about the a 4-year old's "near death" experience of heaven and its impact on his family and his local Church community. The film is based on a book about an actual case. I know nothing about such "near death" experiences. I have read none of the literature. (Nor have I read the book on which the movie is based.)

In my ignorance, I may be wrong; but my uneducated guess is that such phenomena represent in a secularized society something like what mystics and other visionaries have historically experienced in their purported visions of heaven (and/or hell). The special experiences of mystics and visionaries occur in a context of faith - that of the visionary and that of the community to which the visions are communicated. Contemporary claims of "near death" experiences may be less explicitly rooted in faith and are being shared with a much more skeptical society. So their meaning and function may be more varied and more open to diverse interpretations.

The story is that Reverend Todd Burpo's son, Colton, while near death and being operated on for a ruptured appendix, has an experience of heaven in which he meets Jesus and some relatives he'd never met (his great-grandfather, and also his miscarried sister, whose existence he had never before been aware of). The movie explores the impact of the boy's revelations on his father, his mother, and their local Church community. Whatever else may be said on the subject, the film is certainly well made, and the acting is superb - especially Connor Corum as young Colton Burpo, who does a fantastic job of playing an otherwise ordinary, normal kid, who has an extraordinary experience, but somehow still remains "normal."

What I found especially striking about the film is how it portrays the surface ordinariness of people's lives. (Of course, as in most ordinary lives, there is the burden of pain and suffering just below the surface - an earlier miscarriage in the case of the Burpos, a Marine son's death in the case of Church member and friend Nancy Rawlings). Apparently Todd is a popular pastor, but he is underpaid as a minister. Like Saint Paul, he has to make his own living in his rural, small-town Nebraska community, and he is having a hard time of it. In addition to multiple jobs, he is also very involved in the life of his community - not just as a pastor but as a volunteer fireman, for example. The movie goes on for quite a while before Colton's illness,  portraying the joys and stresses of the Burpo family's ordinary activities and the events that go on in their small-town, rural community. These include getting injured in a local softball game and a case of kidney stones - all before the son's sudden sickness.

After Colton's recovery, ordinary life appears to resume. Only gradually does Colton reveal the details of his experience. There is something very authentic in the almost matter-of-fact, un-strategized way Colton mentions first one detail, then another. He is, of course, only four; and the innocent, unassuming way he shares his revelations certainly adds to their credibility.

Of course, everyone - including Todd himself - is troubled by the revelations and would at first prefer some other explanation for what has happened. The story seems less about how first Colton's parents, then others, come to believe, than it is about the effect that their encounter with Colton's experience has on them. 

What is being presented is less a story of an extraordinary vision than it is an account of how the extraordinary can penetrate the ordinary, and how the painful wounds which burden ordinary life can be healed by the extraordinary's intrusion into the ordinary. It is not so much about getting a glimpse of heaven as it is about allowing the reality of heaven to make a difference in daily life.

What a powerful message for Easter time! 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"What are we to do, my brothers/"

Easter Tuesday: Mass at the school, parish staff meeting, etc. In other words, back to work! Proclaiming the resurrection to middle schoolers at 8:00 in the morning may be as good a metaphor as any for getting back to business after the exhilaration of the Easter Triduum! And today's Gospel of Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18) may be as good a place as any to start!

For centuries, this Gospel story was read on Easter Thursday. Whatever motivated its being moved up to Tuesday (and all the other similar shifting of Gospels on these days of Easter week) is unclear, to say the least. But, however that may be, the story of the Risen Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene works well on any day!

I have always been struck by the way Mary - naturally enough - seems to want to embrace Jesus, but Jesus instead tells her not to hold onto him but to go back to tell the others. To me, this particular scene has always been about mission, as if Jesus were saying to Mary: yes, this is great, but it's not finished yet; there is work still to be done; so go get started on it! 

That strikes me as a very useful way to read this part of the story. In his 2011 Holy Week book, however, Pope Benedict went in a different direction, which I also find very attractive. Benedict begins with our natural surprise at what Jesus says, how obviously opposite his instruction is from what we would expect would make sense under the circumstances. "We would have thought that now, while he is standing before her, she can indeed touch him and hold him. When he has ascended to the Father, this will no longer be possible." Benedict stresses the obvious point that the old way of being, humanly speaking, with Jesus on earth is now over. That leads him to stress how the Risen Jesus must now be accessible in some new way. "This new accessibility presupposes a newness on our part as well." According to Benedict, "If we enter fully into the essence of our Christian life, then we really do touch the Risen Lord."

Developing that further in terms of the Eater season's ongoing Lucan theme of the Risen Christ's presence and action in the Church, it seems to me that one further sense to take form this episode is that the former human way of being with Jesus, which Mary and the other disciples enjoyed during the time of his active ministry, has now been replaced - not just for them but for the far wider world to whom he is now accessible - by life in the Church and his resurrected presence to, with, and in the Church.

Today's reading from Acts (2:36-41) contains the people's famous question to Peter and the 11: "What are we to do, my brothers?" The fact that the people could already address Peter and the 11 as "brothers" even before being baptized highlights the expansiveness of the Risen Christ's action, drawing people to himself and into his Church.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Monday

After the solemnity and grandeur of Easter Sunday, Easter Monday seems somewhat of a let-down. Even more so for me this year, as my local Superior flies to Rome today to be part of a pilgrimage group celebrating the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II next Sunday. Meanwhile, our Paulist novice who has been with us since just before Lent returns to Washington today to continue his novitiate experience. So our house really feels empty!

Easter Monday (Pasquetta, "Little Easter," in Italian) isn't meant to seem like a let-down, of course It is still a legal holiday in some countries - a sort of socio-civic prolongation of the great Easter festivity before everyone resumes the routine of the regular work week.  In past centuries, Easter Monday was also widely observed in the Church as a holyday of obligation. Its ancient importance is suggested by the assignment of St. Peter's Basilica as the stational church for today. In the traditional (pre-1970) Roman liturgy, today was one of the days (together with tomorrow and Saturday) when the Paschal Candle was supposed to be lit this week.

The station at Saint Peter's accounts for Peter's prominence in the traditional liturgy for today. In that tradition, the 1st reading was Peter's proclamation of Christ's Resurrection in the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:37-43, now read in the reformed rite on Easter Sunday itself). The Gospel was the familiar account of the two disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35, postponed in the new lectionary until Wednesday). It ends with the 11 disciples responding to the news brought by the two with the further news that the Lord had truly been raised and had appeared to Peter. The intrinsic excellence and artistry of that account, speaking as it does so directly to the Church's situation, make it one of the most powerful and popular of the post-resurrection appearance narratives.

As I said yesterday, Peter's prominence in these post-resurrection appearance accounts highlights how what was happening then and there continues to happen now in the everyday life of the Church, as the Risen Lord continues to reveal himself to his people through the experience they 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.

This past Holy Week, I took advantage of my bits and pieces of free time to re-read Pope Benedict XVI's wonderful Holy Week book, Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two: Holy Week From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (2011). This morning, with much greater leisure, I re-read on chapter 9, "Jesus' Resurrection from the Dead." 

It's sort of obvious at Easter, but it's something that needs to be emphasized all year round that the Resurrection really is the core Christian conviction. If Jesus' body were still in the tomb, if it had long ago decomposed as dead bodies are supposed to do, then there would never have been - there could never have been - a Christian faith and a Christian community professing that faith. "Only if Jesus is risen," Benedict reminds us, "has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind. Then he becomes the criterion on which we can rely. For then God has truly revealed himself."

These 50 days of Easter are about our taking that seriously and letting that revelation become effective in our lives. 

One of the great dynamics of the Easter story is the mysteriously gentle way (as Benedict says) in which God "gradually builds up his history within the great history of mankind." Though God incarnate, he "can be overlooked by his contemporaries and by the decisive forces within  history." Risen from the dead, he comes to us "only through the faith of the disciples to whom he reveals himself, " and "continues to knock gently at the doors of our hearts and slowly opens out eyes if we open our doors to him."

To me, the unique liturgical structure of the Easter season ritualizes for us this ongoing, life-long challenge of discipleship and mission - to recognize the Risen Christ in his Church (as the disciples did) and to open doors for others to do the same.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ringing the Resurrection

One of my all-time favorite scenes in literature features the hopeless, despairing Faust (the scholar who famously sold his soul to the Devil) who is about to drink the poison with which he plans to end his pointless life, when suddenly he hears the sound of the Easter church bells:

What deep humming [Faust exclaims] what a clarion tone,
Draws from my lips the glass with mighty power!
You deep-toned bells. Make you ready
The Easter feast's first solemn hour?
Though Faust’s faith is weak and his hope is all but gone, even so just the sound of the Easter bells brings him back from the brink of death, for, wonted to this strain from infancy, Faust says, back now to life again it calls me.

Like Faust, we too have all heard the Easter bells, as year after year they continue to announce their glorious news. Back in the Bronx in the 1950s, the sound of the Easter bells set in motion an important annual ritual in our apartment. In those days, of course, the Easter Vigil service was celebrated in the early hours of Saturday morning, when hardly anyone was in church to hear the bells ring at the Gloria. But then, promptly at noon, when Lent ended and Easter officially began, churches all over the world let loose a cacophony of bells. At that moment, my grandmother would sit us all down at the kitchen table and tune the radio to the Italian station, where we could hear the best bells of all – the bells of Rome’s several hundred churches (recorded 6 hours earlier at noon Roman time) – all peeling gloriously, as we, obedient to my grandmother’s command, cracked open our Easter eggs, which we quickly consumed in eager anticipation of the next course – our Easter chocolate!

And it was good chocolate too! We had our standard-issue milk-chocolate Easter Bunnies, of course, but that was for later. For Saturday noon’s first Easter chocolate, however, there was only the best, solid, dark, Italian chocolate!

Now many of us here today may also be looking forward to some Easter chocolate. But back to those bells! Even now, after all these years, the ringing of the bells still remains my favorite part of the Easter Vigil Mass, when, having heard again the ancient story of how God saved his People in the past - its full meaning now unlocked for us by Jesus’ triumph over death - the Church simply cannot contain her joy. Sadly silent the previous two days, the bells now ring again with all the clamor and clangor they can muster in an outburst of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year, and beyond.

Just as God once led his People through the threatening sea and the frightening desert by the light of a pillar of fire, so he continues to lead his Church today through the dangerous darkness of our world by the amazing brightness of the Risen Christ.

So it is no wonder we ring bells at Easter! How else will the world hear this story? And hear it the world must, for everyone’s sake! 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, in the Church, we’re 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. But what matters most, the Gospel story seems to suggest, is that we are here. Whether we are runners or walkers, we too have come like those first disciples 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 believe.

Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of those disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something surprisingly new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and old.  And that is why we have to come back, Sunday after Sunday, to be filled in on what happens next. That is why every day for the next 7 weeks, the Church retells the story of the first Christian communities 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,

The story of those first disciples and those first communities of Christians invites us to live in the here and now with the assurance - as Pope Francis has written - that “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world” [EG 276]

Peter's prominence in these 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 they 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 solemnly renew in another few minutes are our solemn and collective commitment to keep those Easter bells ringing loudly, in our lives and in our world - in our hearts and in our minds, in our thoughts and in our actions, at home and at work, among friends and among strangers.

May those bells that called Faust back to live again live on in us. May everything we do ring with Easter joy, so 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 20, 2014.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Follow the Light

As I listened to our deacon sing the stirring words of the ancient Easter Proclamation (commonly called the Exsultet from its opening word in Latin), I thought back 26 years to my first experience of proclaiming it as a deacon. That year, I prepared myself to sing it by listening to a recording of it every day of Lent, listening and repeating it until I somehow had every note and every up-and-down of the melody memorized so as to fulfill that challenging chore – as the celebrant says to the deacon when blessing him beforehand – to proclaim his paschal praise worthily and well. How well I actually did I won’t venture to guess, but I think our own deacon did a much better job here tonight!

Thomas Merton once called the Exsultet "the key to the whole business.” The year it fell to him, as a deacon, to sing it, he wrote, “I am going to sing the whole of theology. It is marvelous. … And the people who hear it are learning all theology, and the Holy Ghost, Who operates what is signified, throws light in darkness upon the whole meaning of Christianity …” [April 6, 1947, and April 15, 1949]

Merton wasn’t alone in his praise. The great Pius Parsch once called the Exsultet "a hymn that never ceases to touch the heart and mind." It does so, by bringing us back to the heart of the ancient Passover story, which we recall tonight with this Vigil, just as the Jewish People have for so many centuries celebrated the Passover night’s annual return each spring. In the Book of Exodus we are told: This was a night of vigil for the Lord, as he led them out of the land of Egypt; so on this same night all the Israelites must keep a vigil for the Lord throughout their generations. That they have done, and so must we on this our annual Christian Passover night. On this night, when once God led Israel from slavery and brought them safely through the waters of the Red Sea, we too tonight follow the pillar of fire, our own Easter Candle marked with 5 grains of incense to signify the holy and glorious wounds of Christ’s passion, to relive that night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.

Tonight, having heard again the ancient story - its full meaning now unlocked for us by Jesus’ triumph over death - the Church simply cannot contain her joy. Sadly silent these past two days, the bells now ring again with all the clamor and clangor they can muster. As some of you know, the ringing of the bells has always been my favorite part of the Easter Vigil – the part I most look forward to, a moment of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year, and beyond.

I’ll talk more about the bells tomorrow morning. Tonight, however, I’ll stick with the Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, and the strange way we began this Vigil, walking in the dark behind the light of the Easter Candle. The Exsultet waxes eloquently (no pun intended) in praise of the Easter Candle - this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for its fed by melting wax drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious. … Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle, hallowed to the honor of your name, may persevere undimmed, to overcome the darkness of this night.

Now a candle – even a big and beautiful one such as this – is still just a candle. The night outside is still dark, despite all our efforts to the contrary. Life is like that. We go through life more or less in the dark – or, as Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess of Grantham would say, trying to overcome problem after problem, one after another. And we’re going to be better off if we stick together, like our little procession tonight, following the way led by that single candle - relying on one another and supporting one another in this community created by that candle’s glowing fired ignited for the honor of God. Just as God once led his Chosen People through the threatening sea and the frightening desert by the light of a pillar of fire, so he continues to lead his Church today through the dangerous darkness of our world by the amazing brightness of the Risen Christ.

So no wonder we ring bells tonight. How else will the world hear this story? And hear it the world must, for everyone’s sake! So our job, having huddled together in the dark and followed the light into this Church is now to spread it around, with the assurance, as Pope Francis has written, that “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world” [EG 276]

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus told the women on Easter morning. Do not be afraid. Go tell the others! And that’s what they then went and did.

And, as they did then, so now must we.

Homily for the Easter Vigil, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 19, 2014

"He descended into hell"

A good number of people – including young families with children - turned out this morning for the traditional Blessing of Easter Food. I do it every year immediately after the morning Office of Holy Saturday. It says something about the importance of food in people’s lives – and the still surviving appeal of this traditional custom – that so many would be willing even to sit through the Office of Tenebrae just for a 5-minute Blessing of Easter Food at the end! That’s one of the reasons I do the Blessing then – precisely to encourage more people to attend Holy Saturday morning’s Tenebrae, an Office which contemplates Christ's descent among the dead (photo), which we routinely and probably unreflectively profess in the Apostles' Creed. It is an Office which (even in its modern form) I especially love, but which I would be the first to acknowledge is certainly an acquired taste!

In The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote of Holy Saturday Tenebrae: "The Night Office of this day is bewildering. The confusion of sorrow and joy is so complex that you never know where you are. The responsories might have been composed by James Joyce. All the associations of terms and symbols are thrown into confusion. One responsory starts out with Jerusalem ... and you are all set to be glad, and you are told to mourn. Then in the end, speculatively, you find that you are saved. This is the product of the historical circumstances through which the Holy Saturday liturgy has passed"

Writing on April 15, 1949, Merton was obviously referring to the then still unreformed Holy Saturday liturgy. Of that peculiar state of affairs, Philip J. Goddard (himself no great fan of our contemporary Holy Week liturgy) has written: "Over the course of time the most important liturgical function of the entire year had become, so far as the faithful were concerned, merely a series of arcane and largely incomprehensible rites carried out very early in the morning by the clergy in churches empty of all except the odd liturgical enthusiast. It also involved the anomaly of celebrating the first Mass of Easter before the formal conclusion of Lent at midday. It is something of a wonder that this indefensible state of affairs was allowed to continue for so many centuries before the celebration of the Vigil was restored to its proper time." (Festa Paschalia: A History of the Holy Week Liturgy in the Roman Rite, 2011, p. 278).
It may have been an "indefensible state of affairs," but it has certainly left its mark on the character of Holy Saturday. Pius XII's 1955 reform aimed at setting that all right again, but of course, human behavior is hard to change. The new rubrics were dutifully observed, and more people attended the restored Vigil than had in the past (and probably more than do so now). But the idea of Holy Saturday as an "aliturgical" day never really caught on. The Easter Vigil, which was theoretically supposed to end with a Mass starting at about midnight, was widely anticipated at the earliest legally allowable hour (as early as 6:30 in one cathedral in the 1960s). This was especially convenient for those reluctant to be out late at night (even in an era when people were still flocking in great numbers to Christmas Mass at midnight). Also it meant that decorating churches with elaborate Easter floral arrangements could be done late Saturday evening instead of sometime after midnight.But it created the idea - or rather reinforced the existing older idea - that the Easter Vigil was a liturgy of Saturday rather than the first liturgy of Easter Sunday.

It is quite clear in the current (post-1969) rite that Holy Saturday is the second day of the "Easter Triduum," and that the Easter Vigil is part of Easter Sunday, the third day of the Triduum. But that too seems to be a well-kept secret for many. And it hardly helps that, in the current, now twice-reformed rite, the Vigil has really become somewhat vestigial, and the ceremony appears to all intents and purposes as just an extra-long Saturday evening Mass. Meanwhile, even among the devoutly observant, Holy Saturday - far from being the day of prayer and fasting, focused on Christ's burial and descent among the dead, that the Roman Missal enjoins - has become a day of feverish activity in anticipation of Easter. By rights, the church should remain bare until the Gloria, when the bells are rung and the statues uncovered. In fact, however, in most places the statues have been uncovered and the church festooned with flowers since sometime Saturday morning. It was eminently understandable, of course, back when the Lenten fast was taken so much more seriously, that people were eager to anticipate Easter a day early. And, despite the effective abandonment of authentic Lenten fasting, that same mindset still seems to survive even to today.
So this morning - after dutifully celebrating the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer in the church, at which we heard the wonderful ancient homily depicting Christ's descent to the domain of the dead - I immediately shifted gear and joined my dedicated parish volunteers in a morning of festive decorating, complete with cookies and coffee.

It is, as I said in this space last year, a very strange day indeed - but wonderful in its own way!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Via Dolorosa at Market Square

At Gethsemane, in the Garden where Jesus’ passion began, modern pilgrims are sometimes told to imagine what a tale those olive trees could tell if they could only talk to us. Pilgrims in Israel typically aspire not just to walk the Way of the Cross but to visit as many as possible of the places sanctified by Christ’s presence and actions. Making his own pilgrimage there in the 1870s, the founder of my community, Isaac Hecker said: “after having been in the localities where the great mysteries which they express took place, one is impressed in a wonderful manner with their actuality. The truths of our holy faith seem to saturate one’s blood, enter into one’s flesh, and penetrate even to the marrow of one’s bones.” 

Whenever we walk the Way of the Cross, wherever we do so, we all become pilgrims sharing in that special experience.

Jesus’ prayer in the Garden reminds us of that other Garden, where the human race first said NO to God’s will, and which Jesus’ prayer in this Garden is intended to undo. For here Jesus accepts his Father’s will. His YES resets the course of human history, and invites us to come along with him.
Jesus’ command to his inattentive disciples, “remain here, and watch,” was no accident. The disciples’ sleepiness signifies letting one’s guard down – dangerously allowing easy access to the power of evil and sin, always at work in the world. The disciples’ sleeping foreshadows their running away in the next scene, but meanwhile it means they’re miss out on God’s power at work in Jesus’ prayer - Jesus resisting and defeating the power of evil at the very moment when it seems to be winning. Jesus’ prayer resists the tempter and decisively defeats the devil - by being obedient to his Father’s will for the salvation of the world. Jesus’ admonition, “remain here, and watch,” is addressed to us too – challenging us to stay awake with him, and so to share in his victory – healed and forgiven for ever in his Father’s kingdom.

Meditation on "The Agony in the Garden," Ecumenical Way of the Cross, Market Square, Knoxville, TN, Good Friday, April 18, 2014.

The Pope's Holy Thursday

As has become contemporary papal practice, Pope Francis celebrated both of the prescribed Holy Thursday liturgies yesterday. In the morning he celebrated the Mass of the Chrism in the splendid setting of Saint Peter's Basilica, attended by some 10,000 people, among them a host of concelebrating cardinals, bishops, and priests. Then, in the evening, he began the Easter Triduum with the traditional Mass of the Lord's Supper, celebrated in the somewhat untraditional setting of a center for elderly and disable people somewhat outside the City's historic center.

Of course, the site of the traditional stational church for the Mass of the Lord's Supper, the Lateran Basilica, was originally itself at some distance from the city's center. In the 4th century, Rome's center was still dominated by pagan temples and civic structures. Emperor Constantine gave the upstart Christians a proper cathedral, but it was located at the edge of the city. So, perhaps, the Pope's choice of venue for the Mass of the Lord's Supper at the margin of society was not so untraditional after all!
The purpose of the Chrism Mass is the blessing of the oil of the sick and the oil of catechumens and the consecration of the sacred chrism for use in the coming year in the various sacraments of the Church. But, the reformed Chrism Mass (itself a reform of something revived relatively recently in 1955) has since acquired a specific focus on the priesthood. It has become the prime ocasion for celebrating the priesthood, the institution of which is, of course, one of the themes of Holy Thursday. Fittingly, therefore, the Holy Father's homily at yesterday's Chrism Mass  was addressed to his "Dear Brother Priests" and focused entirely on the meaning of the priesthood. Perhaps appropriately for a Pope whose defining document thus far has been about "the Joy of the Gospel," Pope Francis spoke eloquently about "the joy of being a priest .. not only for the priest himself but for the entire faithful people of God."
In good Jesuit fashion, he enumerated "three significant features of our priestly joy." It is, first, "a joy which anoints us" - something that "has penetrated deep within our hearts," shaping us and strengthening us. It is "an imperishable joy." In one of his especially felicitous images, one with which we priests should find ready resonance, the Pope says: It can lie dormant, or be clogged by sin or by life's troubles, yet deep down it remains intact, like the embers of a burnt log beneath the ashes, and it can always be renewed." Thirdly, it is "a missionary joy," which "springs up when the shepherd is in the midst of his flock." Priests in properly pastoral ministry settings will especially resonate with that!
He then followed that with another trilogy - somewhat analogous to the three evangelical counsels - identifying priestly joy with poverty, fidelity, and obedience. The application to poverty is particularly powerful. Being "poor," the priest "has to seek his joy from the Lord and form God's faithful people. " Priestly identity, the Pope stresses, presupposes "an active and unwavering sense of belonging to God's faithful people." So, instead of "soul-searching and introspection," the Pope recommends getting out of oneself: "exit from yourself, exit to seek God in adoration, go out and give your people what was entrusted to you."
The homily concludes with the Pope's personal prayer  for priests - for new priests, for veteran priests, and for elderly priests.
Beautiful as was his homily, equally beautiful was the evening Mass, which in so many ways seemed to serve as an example of priestly joy experienced in putting into practice the principles articulated in his homily. Of course, the media's fixation with whose feet he was washing - specifically their sex - can only get in the way of appreciating all that.
There is, in fact, nothing novel about both sexes getting their feet washed. For centuries (before 1955, when Pius XII inserted the foot-washing as an optional rite in  the Mass of the Lord's Supper) bishops, abbots, and kings regularly performed the mandatum ritual apart from Mass, washing the feet of fellow clerics or poor men, while abbesses and queens similarly washed the feet of women. What presumably didn't happen in the past was men washing women's feet (or women washing men's feet). Such behavior would likely have been seen as scandalously inappropriate in most eras - and may still be so seen today in many parts of the world. In contemporary Western societies, however, the cultural presuppositions underlying male-female interactions have dramatically changed - with the result that in many places the idea of a priest washing the feet of women along with men no longer seems inappropriate. In fact, given contemporary conceptions of inclusion and equality, including members of both sexes seems increasingly appropriate to many. Since the foot-washing is now a very public part of a very public Mass and no longer the semi-public or even private rite it once was, this has become a major preoccupation for many on both sides of the issue.
Clearly, the mandatum may lend itself to multiple meanings and multiple symbolisms. One may see the mandatum ritual  as a kind of pantomime re-enactment of the Last Supper, in which case one may well wish to restrict the foot-washing - not just to men but to clerics. In terms of priestly spirituality and the bishop's special relationship with his priests, there may be merit to a bishop performing the ritual on his priests, deacons, and seminarians, for example. But the mandatum is not exclusively about any of that. It is not primarily about priesthood, per se. Rather, it is about imitating Jesus in his messianic self-abasement and thus offering the world an alternative model of relationships - something which all Christians are called upon to exemplify. That is something those more marginal Christian sects which have historically incorporated foot-washing into their regular worship practices have recognized. More to the point, it is something Pope Francis clearly recognizes and wishes to model for today's Church. Along with the morning's Chrism Mass and the Pope's superb homily about priesthood, the very moving, intimate celebration of the Mass of the Lord's Supper at a local residence for elderly and disabled people seemed to me to hit just the right note for Holy Thursday this year.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Living the Lord's Supper

This day we call Holy Thursday uniquely straddles the border between Lent and Easter. Earlier today our Bishop celebrated the last of our Lenten Penance services – echoing the ancient Roman practice of an end-of-Lent Thursday morning Mass at which were reconciled those who had done public penance during Lent.  The elaborate ritual for that Reconciliation of Public Penitents could still be found in our liturgical books up until the 1960s, even though by then it hadn’t been used for over 1000 years. 

A second, centuries-old Holy Thursday custom is the blessing of the holy oils, which we formally received at the beginning of Mass and which will be used to signify healing, strengthening, and consecration throughout the coming year in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, holy orders, and anointing of the sick and for the consecration of churches and altars. 

Finally, with the setting of the sun, the Church crosses the threshold from Lent into Easter with this evening’s remembrance of the Last Supper, at which the various themes so long connected with this day all come together in the Eucharist we celebrate at this altar. For tonight we don’t just remember the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, as some interesting thing that happened a long time ago. Rather we celebrate how Jesus’ Last Supper continues in the Church as the Lord’s Supper.

With this festive celebration this evening, the Church begins the first of three dramatic days – the first devoted to Christ crucified, the second to Christ buried, and the third to Christ risen. We will end this first day, some 24 hours from now, with Mary at the foot of the cross, but we begin by remembering the most memorable meal in all of human history.

Saint Paul’s letters are among the oldest New Testament writings; and his First Letter to the Corinthians, from which we just heard, represents the earliest written account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. It’s safe to suggest that none of those disciples, as they sat down to supper with on the day before the Passover holiday, understood that by time Passover began, 24 hours later, Jesus would be dead and buried, and that they would all be in hiding.
Certainly, none of them yet realized how this otherwise ordinary meal would be dramatically transformed by Jesus’ own words and actions 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 as Christ’s priestly sacrifice of reconciliation, would in time transform, first, the Roman empire and, then, the ever wider world – as it must still continue to transform each one of us, caught up in the priestly embrace of Christ’s reconciling sacrifice.

For he is (in words of one early 6th-century African Bishop) “the priest through whom we have been reconciled, the sacrifice by which we have been reconciled, the temple in which we have been reconciled, the God with whom we have been reconciled. He alone is priest, sacrifice, and temple because he is all these things as God in the form of a servant.”

So it is only fitting that we begin the first day of our Easter celebration, the day on which we will commemorate Christ’s passion and death, with this supremely priestly act of reconciliation, this Eucharistic sacrifice which sums up what Christ’s death and resurrection are about and everything the Church is about.

By giving his body to be eaten and his blood to be drunk, Jesus expressed the deepest truth about what he would do on the Cross. 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. 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. It is, as the old saying goes, the sacrament that makes the Church.

But Saint Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper is also a challenge. For that earliest written account of what happened at the Last Supper was written not just to tell us a story. Paul was complaining. He was criticizing the Corinthians’ behavior, telling them that they were missing the point of the Lord’s Supper – receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood in an unworthy manner to their great peril. The four short verses we just heard from Paul’s letter are part of a longer text (which used to be read in its entirety at this Mass), which provides the context for Paul’s account. It highlights the Corinthians’ conflicts, dissensions, and factions – their unfortunate failure to be changed by the Eucharist, to be taken to someplace new, as Peter was at the Last Supper. 

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 and class distinctions and inequalities, the ordinary life of Roman society, were making themselves felt within the Corinthian Church community, such that the community’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper still seemed to mirror those social and class distinctions and inequalities. Paul wasn’t asking his hearers to pretend that the surrounding secular society no longer existed, but he did want them to understand that those distinctions, those things that matter so much in the secular world, have no significance whatever within the community of Christ’s body, in which Jesus’ sacrificial death has transformed not only our individual relationship with him but our relationship with one another. Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the world with them to Mass, any more than we can. That’s why what happens here is so important, enabling us to leave here different from how we came, enabling us to bring something new to the world, something new and different from the same old stuff we brought with us from the world.

Back at the Last Supper, in the scene that follows next in John’s Gospel, Satan is said to have entered Judas, who, then, after taking a morsel of food from Jesus, left the Supper. How many times in his merely one year as Pope has Pope Francis warned us about the Devil. “Look out because the devil is present! The devil is here,” he reminded us again in one of his recent morning homilies.

Judas could have used that reminder. 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 received from Jesus? Was it the Eucharist? What a warning there is in that!

So too, for us now, at the Lord’s Supper, how we depart from here may matter more than how we arrive. What kind of community have we become, thanks to the Lord’s Supper? Whose cause are we committed to? How have we become new people? What are we taking with us from here to transform this tired old world?

Homily for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Holy Thursday, April 17, 2014.