Thursday, September 30, 2010


After doing a wedding at “Church in the Pines” on Lake Martin this past weekend I was packing up all the vestments, sacred vessels, altar linens, etc and preparing to head back to Mobile (a 3-1/2 hr drive that evening). I found myself surrounded by four children, ranging in age from perhaps 4 to perhaps 11. I’m not at all sure whose kids they were, but we had quite the conversation as I engaged them to help me with getting things into their proper bags and cases.

The conversation began with the littlest ones somehow interested in the idea that God and Jesus could see them always. They brought up the topic, and they were a bit nervous about it (as, no doubt, most adults would be if they thought about it a bit). So I wanted to re-assure them that the reason Jesus always saw them was that He loved them so much He didn’t want to stop looking at them. They seemed satisfied with this, and I will scarcely claim this as “original” with me, but I do take it as important.

Children (and adults) don’t need the image of God or Jesus as a divine version of Santa Claus as represented in the Christmas carol: “He sees you when you’re sleeping/He knows when you’re awake…He’s making a list/Checking it twice/Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” The vision of a cosmic referee just waiting to catch you in a foot-foul on your serve may instill caution, but it will not lead to love. And if God is Love (as Scripture assures us--John 3:16; I John 4:7-21), there has to be a way of approaching the Throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:16)other than in pure fear. There will no doubt be (at the time of our own judgment) a sense of shame, but it will surely be overcome by our sense of desire and longing to be near the One who loved and loves us so totally.

I also had a conversation with my two altar servers. They asked me about the palls I used (these are the stiff cloths often placed on the chalices during celebrations of Eucharist). They saw when and why I put them on, and they were intrigued. The issue was a fly at the outside altar. “I thought they were just for decoration,” one said. I assured him that everything at least started out with a purpose, and this one was to keep things out of the Precious Blood that didn’t belong there. I related a story (true, in fact) of a time at St Bede when I didn’t have a pall (this was a daily Mass), and a fruit fly did get past my waving hand and land in the chalice. I doubt anyone else saw or knew it, but I surely could not offer Holy Communion to people when the chalice had a creature in it! There was only one thing to do: I had to make sure I was the one that got the fruit fly. So the idea of the palls (they are always on the altar for me now) is very practical and in some ways selfish. I would rather have them and not need them than the other way around.

Footnote: my “Pastor’s Corner” essay for a week down the line will be a commentary on the theme and summary of the upcoming “World Day for Social Communications” that the Vatican sponsors every year. It’ll be at But for those who want to see at least the Vatican’s announcement about it, you can check another blog: Rocco Palmo is a master blogger of all things Catholic.

Friday, September 24, 2010


In Birmingham, he beatified John Henry Newman, personally raising to the altars a son of the Church for the first time in his pontificate. In doing so, he quoted Blessed Cardinal Newman: “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”

This citation, from the glowing post-papal visit analysis in Britain’s Catholic Herald, is deeply important for our times as Catholics, especially in areas where we are in a religious minority. The spirit of the lay-folk as armed with the weapons of the Faith (Ephesians 6:10-17; I Thessalonians 5:7-8) was dear to Newman’s heart. It led to his willingness to engage in the founding of a Catholic University in Ireland (which involvement produced his famous The Idea of a University). It imbued his defense of the dignity of the whole Church in his On Consulting the Faithful In Matters of Doctrine. And it was fitting that Pope Benedict would draw it to the attention of his hearers in the context of the beatification.

We need to hear these words, as well.

We all know the experience that was recently highlighted in a prayer breakfast address given in Los Angeles by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. There he raised the example (which he said he was personally involved in too many times) of a conversation he has had with parents who sent their children to college after years of Catholic school and faithful attendance and participation in church life, only to find their new room-mates have told them that Catholicism is wrong. Having no solid answers, they have begun attending the church of their room-mates. “Where did we fail?” the parents typically lament. Archbishop Dolan’s answer: “We did not equip them; we did not give them the solid answers of apologetics: not argumentative, not an “in your face” quarrelsome style, but solid answers to what should be expected questions. No one wins a chess match by making one move and waiting to see what the opponent might do. Part of the strategy of great chess player is anticipating the opponent’s move and being prepared for it. We want our young people (who are the laity of the present and the future) to be able, calming and confidently, to deflect all these sad, stereotypical objections with ease. But such ease, even on a football field or in a battlefield, comes only with practice and proper equipment.

[Commercial: check in the archives of “The Pastor’s Corner” in the web-site of Our Savior——to find my “Answers to Top Ten Questions”].

So the Pope presented the insight of a Cardinal who 150 years ago stated the need that is still with us today, according to a prominent Bishop. What will we do, then, to arm our young people and give them effective strategies? What will we do to work for a properly formed laity? The future is in our hands...

Friday, September 17, 2010


The feast celebrated today in the Church’s liturgical calendar is St Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit theologian, teacher and writer; head of the Inquisition (the Holy Office, now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith); cardinal; and friend of the rich and powerful and influential, most notably Pope Urban VIII and Galileo Galilei.

The opening prayer for today’s Mass remarks on Bellarmine’s “wisdom and goodness”—a combination that, sadly, does not always occur in human life. Bellarmine was brilliant, but he was also humble. He acknowledged, for example, that science might one day prove Copernicus and Galileo correct about the solar system, and if so, there would need to be some re-thinking on the understanding of Genesis on the part of the Church. For his part, Bellarmine was not convinced that this proof had been supplied, and he wished Galileo not to promulgate as fact what was as yet theory. But he was open to the possibility, and he realized (as John Henry Newman put it much later) that “…to grow is to change, and to become perfect is to have changed often.”

Unfortunately, Bellarmine was caught between two figures of towering greatness, both of which had streaks of pettiness in them that made them (though once friends) immovable with regard to one another. Pope Urban was a most forceful personality who knew what he wanted and usually got it (commissioning many of the master works of Bernini in St Peter’s and around Rome, and even having all the birds of the Vatican Gardens killed so he could sleep at night).

Galileo was the greatest scientific mind of his day, and he knew it. When he was convinced he was right, no one could be more stubborn. The story is that at his trial before the Inquisition he was required to recant and admit that the earth does not revolve around the sun, and supposedly he whispered Eppur si muove, which freely translated could be rendered, “Oh yes it does!” Galileo gained the resentment of Urban by making him the butt of an insulting joke in a publication. Urban would never let this slight go unpunished; Galileo didn't apologize.

So both men were marked by tremendous greatness and pettiness at the same time. Is this what has to happen to people in positions of prestige or power?

Bellarmine’s example says this does not have to be the case, but the marks of humility and holiness must be present to counteract the negative power of position and ego. So it is fitting that it is the Jesuit cardinal (imbued with the spirit of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius) who is the canonized saint; the two other figures, great as they are, are simply historical figures.

Today especially it seems (taking a cue from another of Pope Benedict’s comments during the in-flight news conference on the way to Great Britain) that bishops need to recognize their primary role is one of humble repentance as the only way to restore a sense of credibility and trust in the structures and institutions of the Church. There is neither time nor place, now, for posturing, only for humble service and ministry. May God bless us with bishops and pastors who understand and live this for the good of the Church, the Body of Christ, the faithful. Let our times sound the death-knell of triumphalistic clericalism and the welcoming of the ministry of service. We clergy all need to be ‘deacons,’ and really, we never need to be any more than deacons.


The imminent beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman is a joyful thing, and it is made even more joyful by a couple of interesting items. The first is the report of a 2nd miracle through his intercession. If validated and accepted, it would clear the way for his canonization, something that Benedict XVI of all popes (except me, if they ever elect me by acclamation!) wants to do.

Along with this, there is the interesting comment Benedict made in the papal plane on the flight over to Great Britain. In the course of a customary news conference, he let drop this remarkable statement (official Vatican translation in English):

So I would say these three elements: the modernity of [Newman’s] existence, with all the doubts and problems of our existence today, his great culture, knowledge of the great cultural treasures of mankind, his constant quest for the truth, continuous renewal and spirituality: spiritual life, life with God, give this man an exceptional greatness for our time. Therefore, it is a figure of Doctor of the Church for us, for all and also a bridge between Anglicans and Catholics.

This is special because it hints at the final signal honor which could be accorded Newman—being named a Doctor of the Church. If being named a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII was a gesture that ‘lifted the cloud forever’ from him, this (along with the formal declaration of his sanctity) would vindicate the specific way he spent his life’s search for faithfulness, for truth, and for the life of the mind in the Church. And I can hardly wait for this to happen!


I have a strong hunch that St Augustine would have played well on television—if we were talking about the 1950s, the same time-frame as Bishop Sheen or Billy Graham in their hey-day. Today? Not so much, I don’t think. He (and they) would be swimming too much against the current of the wave of what is known as the “Gospel of Prosperity.” Today the theme of much televangelism is the doctrine that God wants us to be wealthy and well-off, and if we have the right kind of faith this will be the result.

In his long sermon On Pastors, though, St Augustine strikes a different note. The excerpt in today’s (Friday of the 24th Week of the liturgical year) Office of Readings from the Breviary includes these potent words:

The negligent shepherd fails to say to the believer: My son, come to the service of God, stand fast in fear and in righteousness, and prepare your soul for temptation. …Such a believer [who is prepared in this way] will not then hope for the prosperity of this world. For if he has been taught to hope for worldly gain, he will be corrupted by prosperity. When adversity comes, he will be wounded or perhaps destroyed.
The builder who builds in such manner is not building the believer on a rock but upon sand. But the rock was Christ. Christians must imitate Christ’s sufferings, not set their hearts on pleasures.
…What sort of shepherds are they who for fear of giving offense not only fail to prepare the sheep for the temptations that threaten, but even promise them worldly happiness? God himself made no such promise to this world. On the contrary, God foretold hardship….
For the Apostle says: All who desire to live a holy life in Christ will suffer persecution.

So: should St Augustine be on television? Probably! But I don’t think he’d get the ratings or the commercial endorsements. Thanks be to God, that is not what he was looking for. I hope it is not what we are looking for, either: let’s look for nothing other than to be faithful fellow cross-carriers with the Lord.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


“You can’t trust those people—they’re anti-American! They want to take over the country, and if we elect one of them President he’ll become the agent of the Antichrist to conquer us and try to impose their religion on us. We know he’s not really a Christian. We have to take a stand now!”

We can imagine (some who listen way too much to talk radio don’t have to imagine) folks saying exactly these things about President Obama and the proposal to have a Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center. But the words I’m using are only a summary paraphrase of words thrown at another group of Americans for much of the 19th and 20th centuries: Catholics.

It was widely believed that Al Smith, and later, John Kennedy, were most likely secret emissaries of the Pope, whose Vatican “legions” were ready to invade our shores (irrationally, some people somehow seemed to expect another Spanish Armada, this time directly from Rome). We are still regarded by some ultra-evangelical Protestants as not Christians. Even with the finessing of crucial speeches by Rev John Courtney Murray, SJ, Kennedy might well have lost the 1960 election had it not been for “creative bookkeeping” in election returns in Chicago (and, less famously, in Texas). People dreaded a Catholic in high office like they dreaded the apocalyptic four horsemen. Why?

Not only were they regarded as the vanguard of the Vatican and not Christian (“everybody” knows that Catholics are idol-worshipers), they were foreigners. They came from countries where English was not the primary language: Poland, Italy, Hungary, Germany, Lithuania, Portugal; or worse, they came from a country where English might have been spoken but whose people were chronically despised—Ireland.

If we contemplate standing in condemnation of a race or nation or religion, fostering misunderstanding and malice, we need to see our own history in the mirror—we who are Catholics, and we who are Protestants as well. What is the heritage of anti-foreign xenophobia in our country? What can we do to combat its irrational grip on people’s hearts? These are not trivial questions, and I do not propose simple solutions. I do think we need to think, and to pray…

Friday, September 10, 2010


A thought: if we Americans want to think that all Muslims are anti-American terrorists because of the actions of a fanatical few, should not Muslims think all Americans are anti-Islamic terrorists because of the acions of a fanatical few (as proposed in Florida for tomorrow)?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


My first instinct in writing about the plan of Rev Terry Jones is to say, “Let’s consider this rationally.” But the more I think of it, the more I think that trying to do that would be like trying to consider rationally things like Kristallnacht, or the rants of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, or the claims of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il about his prowess at golf.

There is nothing to be said for (or to) people who have hearts filled with hate, who have power (either political, or economic, or military, or because celebrity has been conferred on them), and who are megalomaniacs who see their view (and themselves) and nothing else.

Rev Jones’ behaviors and proposals are about as inverted a twist on Christian teaching as it is possible to get. He seems to have ‘modified’ the sayings of Jesus to read things like “Hate your enemies; curse to those who oppose you…” or “Blessed are you when you insult them and persecute them and utter every kind of evil against them…” or “Blessed are the war-makers…”

If in your own mind you can justify acts of deliberate and provocative offensiveness, you can justify anything. It has happened far too often in human history in the past; we must not stand by simply to watch it happen again in the present. This is not about religious freedom. This is not about political speech. This is about hatred, pure and simple.

The most interesting inter-faith group has assembled in Washington, DC to produce a statement that rejects Rev Jones’ Koran desecration—it includes Jews, Muslims, and Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, and Orthodox Christians. In our hearts, in our prayers, and in our voices of public protest, I pray we will all stand with them in condemning acts of hatred in all its forms, at all times, most especially by all who claim in doing so that they are giving glory to God.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Though I might cite C S Lewis or Cardinal Newman more in homilies, those who know me know the great regard I have for the insights of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince. I (without much joking) refer to it as “one of the most important works of sacramental theology in the 20th century.” And so I wonder if this is why, of all the special guests I have at the rectory’s back yard, my favorite critter is the fox.

So last night’s visit by the fox was an especially happy time for me. It had been a long time since I had seen a fox in my yard (which is not fenced in, and which butts up against woods). Everyone else is pretty well a regular: raccoons, possums, armadillos, turtles, squirrels, snakes, rabbits (and moles, drat it). And of course I feed them: scraps from supper, ends of bread, and so on. It’s a pleasure to watch these nocturnal creatures enjoying a meal.

And last night all I put out was stale bread. But there was the fox—silvery-grey, skittish, ears always up and tuning in all sounds, having a snack. It didn’t last long.

He was rudely bounced from “Club Rectory Yard” by a raccoon. The contest lasted only a few seconds, and though the fox waited around off to the side for a short time, finally he accepted the inevitable and returned into the woods. If anyone thinks raccoons are cute because they are frequent visitors at state park campsites, that person needs to be disabused of the thought. They are (for their size) ferocious animals, not to be trifled with. The fox knew this.

I have a friend who was afraid I wanted somehow to make a pet of the fox, when a pair of them first appeared a couple of years ago. I was taken to task that they were wild animals by God’s design and not to be “kept.” And I fully agreed.

Still, I did want to “tame” the fox in the sense of Saint Exupéry—to create ties of relationship, to make a friend (not to possess): Si tu veux un ami, apprivoise-moi! “If you want a friend, tame me!” the Fox told the Little Prince. And it begins patiently, just looking at each other—recognizing that you are in fact “others.”

How long does it take to “tame” another (or allow oneself to be “tamed” by another)? Commercials for on-line dating sites suggest that 1st dates can (and should) lead quickly to relationships (these days a code-word for being sexual partners) and marriages. But it’s not that easy—not if the idea is for the connection to last. Il faut des rites, the Fox said. Some rituals are necessary, including taking the time, going slowly and gently, accepting the idea of otherness and not falling in love with a fantasy, an artificial construct of the mind, instead of the person him-/herself.

Prayer is my allowing myself to be truly who and what I am (for better and for worse) in the presence of God who loves me. It is my patient and gentle opening of myself to God. Of course I cannot ever truly hide myself from God, but making the choice to be open actually opens me to myself—I come to see myself honestly (perhaps for the first time). And letting myself be tamed changes me—friendships formed in this way make me different, and better—they make me more aware of and sensitive to things that otherwise I would have ignored. I am led to cherish what matters to the one who has tamed me. This is true in all deep friendships; how much more so when I open myself to God in this way?

This is the lesson (the sacramental lesson) my backyard fox teaches me.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


The meditations in the pages of Magnificat for today (2 September) include a one-sentence quote from (Blessed) Abbot Columba Marmion:
We must go to God in his way; we shall only be saints in the measure wherein we adapt ourselves to the divine plan.
What might this mean for us?

There is an obvious and easy interpretation of the Abbot’s words: surrender to God’s will. And this is true enough in its own way (see the words of Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:33ff. for a parallel). But knowing how to do this is quite a bit trickier.

I want to suggest a way that has a realistic application while remaining faithful, I believe, to the sense of the quote. You must explore your own depths (probably with the aid of a spiritual director, or someone who can be objective with you in ways you cannot be with yourself). You must examine yourself to see who you really are, and this means exploring your past—memories of events, joys, sorrows, disappointments, hurts, being loved or not, loving or not… All these are what go into making you, spiritually and psychologically, who and what you are today. “You” cannot successfully adapt yourself to a divine plan (or anyone else’s) without knowing who “you” is. You have to come to God in prayer with words to this effect: “All right, Lord—given all this, all I’ve been and experienced, all that has made me “me” today—given all this, how can I best serve and follow you?”

Then you must “test the waters,” so to speak, with life decisions. Make a choice (Pascal would have said Make the wager). See the results. You are looking for the results that produce peace in your heart and soul, for this peace is the resonance of who you are and what you are choosing. And this, I suggest, is “the divine plan” for you. Albert Camus put it like this: But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?

Your harmony must be yours; no one else’s will do. Nothing else will bring you peace or happiness. Abbot Marmion’s quote was an encouragement to become a saint. But consider the incredible diversity of kinds of saints we celebrate: hermits and virgins, bishops and priests, kings and queens, religious and lay, mystics and missionaries and martyrs, old and young… There is no one road to heaven, to sanctity: we are simply called (as Bl. Mother Teresa put it) to be holy where God has placed us.

This road is not easy; it is surely a “road less traveled.” But is the journey, the destination, worth it? Is it worth it to you? Consider the alternative of never being truly happy or at peace, never being truly who and what you can be. Honestly, no road is more worth it.