Friday, February 26, 2010


The following is from St. Aelred of Rievaulx's Speculum Caritatis,"The Mirror of Love," as excerpted for today's Office of Readings in the Breviary:

Who could listen to that wonderful prayer, so full of warmth, of love, of unshakable serenity--"Father, forgive them"--and hesitate to embrace his enemies with overflowing love? "Father," he says, "forgive them." Is any gentleness, any love, lacking in this prayer?

Yet he put into it something more. It was not enough to pray for them: he wanted also to make excuses for them. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing." They are great sinners, yes, but they have little judgment; therefore, "Father, forgive them." They are nailing me to the cross, but they do not know who it is that they are nailing to the cross: "if they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory [I Corinthians 2:8]"; therfore, "Father, forgive them." They think it is a lawbreaker, an imposter claiming to be God, a seducer of the people. I have hidden my face from them, and they do not recognize my glory: therefore, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

For myself, it is very hard not to be deeply moved by this passage...

Thursday, February 25, 2010


An item you perhaps have seen online:

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Less than a year after dethroned Miss California USA Carrie Prejean stirred up controversy with her remarks against gay marriage, a similar war of words is brewing in Beverly Hills.
Beverly Hills Mayor Nancy Krasne said Wednesday she is outraged over a Miss California USA contestant who is claiming to represent the city in the upcoming pageant and who spoke out against same-sex marriage in recent media interviews.
Krasne said in a statement that 23-year-old Lauren Ashley does not live in Beverly Hills or represent the city in any capacity. Krasne said she was shocked to see statements made by a beauty pageant contestant under the name of Beverly Hills, "which has a long history of tolerance and respect."
Ashley recently told Fox News and other media outlets that same-sex marriage goes against God and the Bible.

This is intriguing to me, beyond the issue of free speech (It’s OK to be vocally in favor of gay marriage if that is what you believe, but it is wrong/offensive to be vocally against it, if that is what you believe?).

I am glad that Beverly Hills “has a long history of tolerance and respect.” And I have no interest whatsoever in any beauty pageant, nor do I know if Lauren Ashley lives in Beverly Hills or with the Beverly Hillbillies. I really don’t care.

But what does the phrase “tolerance and respect” mean in the final analysis? We do not tolerate child sex abusers; we do not tolerate drug users/dealers; we do not tolerate (or tolerate less and less) cigarette smokers. Why not?

It’s because we are convinced that these are behaviors that not only violate laws (perhaps all laws), but we find them socially unacceptable. Yet who are the “we” who find these behaviors so offensive?

Most 17-year-old boys dating 15-year-old girls would not; most drug users would not; most cigarette smokers would not. But “we” do not accept their points of view to the extent of re-writing the laws for them. This is true since the girls’ parents object, when drug-using spouses are angry, when diners at restaurants protest because of 2nd-hand smoke from the bar areas. We decide that the second groups' views are more important than indulging the behaviors of those of the first groups.

In our society as it is now, the issue of same-sex marriage is not one on which the “jury has spoken” in favor. Decisions (and referenda) throughout the country have produced mixed results. Beyond that, the behavior is (in most of the US) still not legally sanctioned. So why should someone be pilloried for expressing her view? After all, same-sex marriage does indeed go against the texts of the Bible. Or does the Mayor of Beverly Hills think that the only people who should be allowed to enter such contests and speak be proved beforehand of being at least non-Christian, if not agnostic? The Mayor of Beverly Hills is welcome to disagree with this girl. But why should she be “outraged”?

This is a sad example of an egotistical narrowness of viewpoint. It represents a lack of engagement in the principle of dialogue. Public opinion should not be formed on the basis of shouting down an opposing viewpoint.

The view of the Church (primarily I am speaking of the Catholic Church, but until recently of many other “mainline” Christian Protestant denominations as well) has consistently been to oppose things like divorce/remarriage, adultery, prostitution, abortion, same-sex marriages, birth control, sexual abuse of minors… It can be argued that in this realm of sexual issues there has been a constancy of teaching, even when there have been lapses of practice. It may be true, as the adage says, that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but it is not patently obvious that the Church’s consistency here is “foolish.”

Why not let the girl express herself honestly? The only alternative (as politicians well know) is to say what you think the given audience wants to hear, in order to succeed. But perhaps this is another form of “prostitution” that some folks think we should be content to wink at?

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is an incredible figure. He stands four-square against the popular misconception that the Orthodox Churches are somehow “museums.” In his Encyclical he states: “…Orthodoxy is not a museum treasure that must be preserved; it is a breath of life that must be transmitted and invigorate all people.” To this end, he dedicates himself to dialogue: “…Orthodoxy must be in constant dialogue with the world. …However, this dialogue cannot reach the outside world unless it first passes through all those that bear the Christian name. …It is not possible…for us to remain indifferent about the unity of all Christians. This would constitute criminal betrayal and transgression of [our Lord’s] divine commandment.”

He understands that fanatics wish to wreck this process by whatever means: he condemns their efforts as those of “zealots” who “…do not even hesitate to distort reality in order to deceive and arouse the faithful.” He knows the truth that the Orthodox Church does (and must) stand on “…the doctrines of the Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers.” To this I add a hearty and personal “Amen!” He might also have added, in this short list, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (an addition I would also cheer). But no doubt he understands that this is implicit in his mention of the Councils.

How would we react, I wonder, if Rome had, centuries ago, been captured by (let me be terribly anachronistic here) communists who turned the city into “New Leningrad,” and turned St. Peter’s into a shrine for Lenin and Stalin? What would we think if we knew that history could not be undone and that a ‘revolution’ was impossible? How would we feel if we believed the Eastern Church could have saved us and chose not to?

In spite of this, relations between the Ecumenical Patriarch and Pope Benedict are warm; one might almost wish to describe them as ‘cozy.’ In fact, I believe the Latin Church (officially, at least) longs for reunion far more than the Eastern, but then it’s probably because it is not our, but their, memory which is burdened by the perception of coercion and betrayal. But this takes us too far afield into the history of the 15th century and especially of the Council of Florence…

In any event, Orthodoxy Sunday falls happily at the celebration of the Chair of Peter (22 Feb.)—which for the Orthodox represents the primacy of Peter—at Antioch (Acts 14 and Galatians 2). One day may this be a celebration of the truly Universal (ecumenical and catholic) Church!


The Religion Section in today's Mobile Press-Register contains a feature on a book written by Karen Spears Zacharias, Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide? In it, the author takes to task the preachers of what is popularly called the “Gospel of Prosperity.” According to this spin on Jesus, God’s main desire for His believing flock is to have wealth. Zacharias rightly argues that this is effectively to regard God as “our sugar daddy,” which He is not, she writes.

It's disappointing that she had to write this book. It seems to me that this should be self-evident to anyone reading the New Testament. Let me offer just a few samples of the teaching of Jesus:

“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)
“In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage—I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
“Sell your possessions and give alms…[and you will have] a treasure in the heavens…” (Luke 12:33)
“You lack one thing; go, sell what you have and give to the poor, then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume…” (Matthew 6:19)

Yet preachers like Joel Osteen have a massive following. Do people really not “get it”? It’s not quite that simple, I don’t think.

After all, there is a Catholic version of the televangelist’s “Gospel of Prosperity”—it is the Novena “never known to fail” that people also sometimes buy into. This is typically a Novena prayer to St. Jude (patron of hopeless cases), in which certain prayers are to be recited in a certain order, a certain number of times per day, with a certain number of copies of the prayer placed a certain number of times in a church—and supposedly on or even before the ninth day of the novena (!) the prayer will be answered: never known to fail. I have seen this prayer left at Our Savior; I had to face it far more at St. Bede in Montgomery, probably because also in Montgomery is a church named St. Jude. It is the Catholic equivalent to The Prayer of Jabez which was so popular a few years ago.

What I think there is in common for people who depend upon magical prayers or the “Gospel of Prosperity” is that they are in difficult straits, and they are looking for a way out. These are the people who for example, on a more secular level, put all their trust in “Mega-Millions Jackpot” lottery tickets. They are desperate and are looking for a quick (and easy?) fix to their real and many problems. When I’m in serious debt it’s very tempting to think that if only I had the right kind of faith, Jesus would solve my money problems for me. And preachers of the “Gospel of Prosperity” are eager to teach you the kind of faith you need to have to be financially secure. So the churches are packed. It’s all the more sad, precisely because it is wrong-headed.

It’s Lent--the special liturgical time to realize that if the “Gospel of Prosperity” had any merit at all, we wouldn’t have to face (nor would Jesus have had to face) the fact of Good Friday and Golgotha. If Jesus had had the magic “Prayer to St. Jude” in Gethsemane, all this might have been avoided. He didn’t; it wasn’t; and so I encourage people to get a jump on Holy Week and the Triduum by reading and meditating on a portion of the 2nd reading for Good Friday’s worship: Hebrews 5:7-10. It is only in dying that we are born to eternal life. Our "prosperity" is in (and only in) the Lord. Happy Lent.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Tonight as part of our Lenten devotions, we will begin the tradition of Friday evening Stations of the Cross, followed by a Knights of Columbus sponsored fish-fry supper. The dinner is complete with hush-puppies, cole slaw, beans, and drinks. Our Youth Group sponsors a dessert table for those who did not include sweets among the Lenten ‘give-ups’). Our Scouts help by bussing tables. It’s a real party atmosphere, and it’s a tremendous experience of community.

But wait—what is wrong with this picture? We just engage in a pious devotion remembering the suffering and agonizing death of the Son of God for us, and we go to what is effectively a banquet?

As it turns out, I think there is nothing wrong with this picture. To think there is, one must engage in the kind of mental contortions that allowed us, in the past, to argue whether faith or ‘works’ was more important to the Christian life. It was a theological and devotional battle fought for hundreds of years—should a Christian’s focus be on Good Friday or Easter Sunday? To focus on the former, it was argued, produces a morbid Christianity that leads to the [Jansenist] view that even when we are doing good, we are still somehow sinful. To emphasize the latter, it was countered, meant that we were forsaking the price of our salvation (I Corinthians 6:19-20) in order to accept ‘cheap grace’ (as Bonhoeffer called it).

The key is that these are really two sides of the same coin—heads is not more important than tails since both constitute the identical penny.

So we remember (the theological term in liturgy is anamnesis) the life and death of the Lord—we remember (and bring forward into the present, especially in Holy Week) the reality of our redemption. But we also celebrate that Golgotha is not the end of the story: we have the empty tomb, the appearances and commissions, the transformations of men from cowardice into courage. So our fish-fry is rather like the beach breakfast of John 21; it is like the celebrations of ‘breaking of the bread’ in Acts. It is the realization of Jesus present with us (“Behold, I am with you always…”—Matthew 28:20). We remember, then we give thanks; we give thanks as we remember. It is the joy of being a Christian that we celebrate the past in the present, knowing we have a future.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Is it too early to think of repenting? After all, Mardi Gras’ “bontemps” are only just really beginning to roll, both here and in New Orleans (though they have pretty well been rolling there ever since the Super Bowl). Still, it is always worth contemplating our destiny, here and eternally, in good times and in bad (as the marriage vows put it). In that light, I offer the single piece of music most identified with Ash Wednesday, performed by the choir that did the most to make that identification: Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. But first, a few comments…

Far and away the most ‘traditional’ version for this choir to sing has been an adaptation into English). The classic performance of this is by the choir led by (Sir) David Willcocks, their long-time director. The performance here, however, is to the Latin text, which is Allegri’s original setting—a piece specially composed for and jealously guarded by the Sistine Choir for performance on Good Friday. You can read the story about this piece and the young Mozart elsewhere.

Watching this performance as well as listening to it, notice the cathedral-like size and scope of what is the chapel of King’s College—founded by King Henry VI in the 15th century. Notice, beside the stained glass, the use of what is called “fan-vaulting.” The barrel-arch, called Romanesque or Norman in style, soon was replaced by the Gothic, or pointed, arches which allowed for much greater height in cathedrals. Fan vaulting added to this capacity because it helped distribute the weight of the ceiling and walls that much more efficiently (as did their exterior companions, the “flying buttresses”). They were therefore decorative and functional.

Notice, too, that this choir (as it has always been) is purely male—the high notes are sung by boy sopranos (especially gloriously, in this composition). For a version by "mixed choir" to equally wonderful effect, I recomment the pioneering performance (also to the Latin text) by "The Tallis Scholars" on the Gimell label.

Remember that in the midst of this architectural and musical wonder, the text (which is Psalm 51) is fundamentally about confession of sins. Finally, if you are a person who has enjoyed (if that is the right word) reading Lord of the Flies, know that this is the kind of choir envisioned by Golding on the island: yet more need to repent??

Friday, February 12, 2010


In the penultimate scene of the movie Gandhi, a Hindu man approaches the bed where the Mahatma is near death from a hunger strike as he tries to end India’s civil strife. The man cries, “They [Muslims] killed my boy. I’m consumed with hate. I’m in hell!” Gandhi replies, in a whisper, “I know a way out of hell. Find an orphan boy about the age of your son, who is Muslim; adopt him and raise him with love, as a Muslim.”

In the face of the controversy over the actions of the Idaho Baptist missionaries who were attempting to take children out of Haiti (Did parents give them up willingly? Were they being kidnapped?), I would ask the same kind of question: “Will you raise them in the religion of their families (which is almost certainly Catholic), or will your first actions be to 'convert' them? What is the full nature of your concern for these children?
” Can we love and cherish others without conditions or impositions? There is a play that has been running in theatres titled I love you, you're perfect; now, change. But it doesn't have to be that way, does it? Will this busload of children have change thrust upon them?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


If we think of the word “carnival” at all (though frankly, I doubt we do), we might realize it comes from a fusion of 2 Latin words—carne and vale, literally meaning “meat” and “farewell,” implying that the fast of Lent is about to arrive (for some of you who may disagree, nevertheless it is Lent [the period of fasting and penance] which is primarily here, not Mardi Gras [the orgy before the ‘cut-off’]. The 40 days are not simply scheduled for the purpose of recovering from the partying, the parades, the balls, the King cakes…

But for the more liturgically-minded, Lent might be less the farewell to flesh and more a “Hallel-vale”—the farewell to the Hebrew word of praise that is more familiar to us in its Latin form: Alleluia. We won’t sing this word again until the Easter Vigil.

The word, in its Hebrew form [Hallelu-Yah], literally means “Praise the LORD,” but its joyful meaning removes it from the worship of these next six weeks, in keeping with the penitential and somber atmosphere of the season.

Either way, Lent should be a time of sober reflection on our lives and “firm purpose of amendment,” to use the language of the Catechism. Do we want to change? Probably not. But are we really content with our lives as they are? Again, probably not. And are our lives all that they could/should be, with God’s grace? Once more, probably not…

“What will this Lent hold for us?” This is not so important a question as, “What could this Lent hold for us?” The first seems to imply a sense of fate; the second depends upon a commitment of the self. Is that why we shy away from it? What would you really like to have transformed in your life, or in your self, this year?

What will we say “farewell” to in this season of reflection and accountability?

Monday, February 8, 2010


When you hear two suggestions from different sources, at different times, and you realize they dovetail toward one goal, I guess it’s time to listen.

In reverse order of my “hearing” them, there is the insight of Pope Benedict in his Message for Lent 2010 (to which I referred in this past weekend’s homily):

“[there is] a permanent temptation within man: to situate the origin of evil in an exterior cause….This way of thinking—Jesus warns—is ingenuous and shortsighted. Injustice, the fruit of evil, does not have exclusively external roots; its origin lies in the human heart…”

Some time earlier (October, to be exact), Our Savior hosted a workshop put on by the North American Forum on the Catechumenate. During one of the sessions, the rhetorical question was asked: “How can I use this coming season of Lent to prepare to renew my own baptism?”

Putting these two challenges together, there is nothing for it except to want to make a commitment, this Lent, to focusing less on “externals” (what do I give up; what do I do extra) and more on rooting out the inclinations to evil that are in my own heart. This means spending quality time with the Lord in examining my own heart, to test the spirits, as I John 4:1 puts it—to see those that need to be embraced and those that need to be exorcised.

This will lead me to see exactly what I need to renounce at the Easter Vigil when we are asked, in renewing our baptismal promises, to renounce Satan and all his works and empty promises. Darkness comes to each of us rather individually; there is no magic “one size fits all” form of temptation to sin that is in every human heart, even though at root there is really only one sin: the self-centered egotism of pride, as St. Augustine describes it—The City of God XII, 6. It is the desire that leads to such rationalizations as "Just this once," or "Only a little," or "It's wrong for everyone, all the time, except me, this time."

So I must explore the darkness within that I have (not another’s); and external extra doing or giving up must have one single purpose only: to encourage and make possible this exploration within. After all, it's no good wanting to exorcise a non-real 'darkness' simply for the sake of claiming a false victory. This is a scary prospect: it’s much easier to think that my Lent will be good enough if I simply give up desserts and between-meal snacks. But it’s also ingenuous, as Pope Benedict wrote…

This exploration is famously described by T. S. Eliot in a somewhat different context, in his "Four Quartets," but his words are still worth reflecting, as Ash Wednesday approaches:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I hope our explorations and interior exercises will prepare us all for the most awesome celebration of resurrection ever.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Years ago I read Introduction to Christianity by then-Professor Father Joseph Ratzinger. It is in many ways a model of apologetic writing—a sort of intellectual and more theological version of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

The Holy Father’s “Message for Lent 2010” has the same markings: a graceful dance between the best of ancient Roman philosophy, respectful use of Judaism’s insights and Scriptural exegesis generally, focus on Jesus Christ, and an understanding of the psychology of the human heart. Not too bad for a message that, when printed out, is significantly shorter than 3 pages.

Perhaps the most striking idea in this message is the way in which “justice,” its formal theme, is turned (if you like) inside out at the end, showing that the justice of God is fundamentally rooted in mercy and love (making a link with his first papal encyclical, Deus Caritas Est). God’s justice, the Pope insists, is the inverse of pagan Roman justice—instead of giving others their due, God gives us what is specifically not our ‘due’—it is the graced action of Love. He writes:

What then is the justice of Christ? …it is the justice that comes from grace… [Christ] bearing in Himself the ‘curse’ due to man so as to give in return the ‘blessing’ due to God (cf. Gal 3, 13-14). …here we discover divine justice, which is so profoundly different from its human counterpart. …Thanks to Christ’s action, we may enter into the ‘greatest’ justice, which is that of love (cf. Rom 13, 8-10).

This is our hope as Christians, expressed in the introductory prayer at the Final Commendation in a funeral rite: we long for that day when “…the love of Christ, which conquers all things, destroys even death itself.”

There will be more on Pope Benedict’s insight into the human heart in the “Pastor’s Corner” for this coming weekend’s bulletin and web-site. But let this be enough for now, and perhaps enough to encourage you to check out the message in full.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I am working on a somewhat expanded version of the post "A Real Gamble" which will be in the Mobile Press-Register's op-ed pages this Sunday (2-7). Look for it!

Monday, February 1, 2010


Today Pope Benedict received the bishops of England and Wales in their ad limina visit to the tombs of Ss. Peter and Paul, and to meet with Vatican heads of congregations and with the Holy Father. In his address to them, he included this charge:
"If the full saving message of Christ is to be presented effectively and convincingly to the world, the Catholic community in your country needs to speak with a united voice. This requires not only you, the Bishops, but also priests, teachers, catechists, writers – in short all who are engaged in the task of communicating the Gospel – to be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit, who guides the whole Church into the truth, gathers her into unity and inspires her with missionary zeal.
Make it your concern, then, to draw on the considerable gifts of the lay faithful in England and Wales and see that they are equipped to hand on the faith to new generations comprehensively, accurately, and with a keen awareness that in so doing they are playing their part in the Church’s mission. "

This remark, set in the context of the Pope’s praises of Cardinal Newman (whom he will personally beatify this fall during his pastoral visit to the United Kingdom), calls to mind Newman’s own struggle to have the voice of the laity heard. The essay for which he was (wrongfully—I can elaborate on this point another time) censured was titled “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” He believed that the whole Church was the Church—clergy and lay. To pretend that only clergy were the “real Church” was a sham and a disaster. When questioned by his bishop, “Who are the laity?” he famously replied words to the effect, “The Church would look rather foolish without them.”

Newman understood the need for competence in ecclesiastical affairs, and he understood that clergy do not always have (in virtue of their training) the needed competence. What do bishops or priests necessarily know about education, or finance, or economics, or politics? It is only accidental, if at all: in context of their theological and pastoral formation, there is no specific treating of these topics. So it only makes sense to rely on people (lay-folk) whose formal education has prepared them to weigh in with expertise in these areas.

This reminds us of what ought to be a truism for us—the insight of St. Paul in the 2nd readings of these last two weekends (3rd and 4th Sundays of the Year, Cycle C—I Corinthians 12:12-30, and 12:31—13:13): not every member of the body is an eye, or a foot, or a nose: they are not, for that reason, any less a part of the body, and without them the body is incomplete. If we were all eyes, how would we hear? If we were all hands, how would we walk? If we were all heart, how would we think? If we were all clergy,…? You can fill in the blank.

Let’s thank God that the body has MANY members, all of which working together (ideally), all of which truly making up ONE body.