Tuesday, January 31, 2012


How does an act of faith (our personal acceptance of an item, or a system, of beliefs) come about? It will surprise no one that I turn, in questions such as these, to Bl John Henry (Cardinal) Newman and his theological insights and analysis. From him, I perceive two essential steps in leading one to make an act of faith: a stimulus of the imagination, resulting in the desire to share a vision; and an examination of conscience which attunes the soul (or not) to the content of the vision the imagination has presented. The end result is a choice which Newman described in one place like this: “One can believe what one chooses. But one will be held accountable, in the end, for what one chose to believe.”

This is already getting heavier than most folks would like! I hope I can be more straightforward in presenting what I think is important here.

The short version (from the quote at the end of the 1st paragraph) is that I am responsible for my own convictions—holding them and living them. I am emphatically NOT responsible for forcing my (or anyone else’s) convictions on another. This is the distinction Newman makes between “faith” and “bigotry.” When struggling with whether or not to leave the Church of England, he would write, “Can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved [refusing to become a Roman Catholic]?” But to answer such a question properly, without falling back on excuses like “It’s what I want to do,” or “I think I’d like it better,” or some other such evasion, one must explore the depths of one’s conscience—where God’s word is spoken to us who are willing to listen. “Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ,” he would write.  We must actually listen.
Still, we must first feel the call. It is why I have often referred to an essential ingredient of evangelization as offering others the “attractive confrontation” of Jesus Christ. They must be drawn; drawing must lead to openness to conversion…

And we are drawn by a vision offered to us by someone who is attractive, or whose vision is attractive. Newman writes: “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination… Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.” And the key is falling in love: “The sheep could not tell how they knew the Good Shepherd; …yet doubtless grounds there were: they, however, acted spontaneously on a loving Faith.” St Peter (John 6:68) said as much at the end of the Bread of Life discourse, when Jesus asked if the Twelve also wanted to leave: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter admitted he had no understanding of Jesus’ words, but he’d fallen in love with the Master and would not let such a small thing as a lack of comprehension divide them.

One can believe what one chooses. But one will be held accountable, in the end, for what one chose to believe.” What we believe is a function both of to whom (and to what) we are attracted, and how we listen to the voice of our true conscience, rather than the urgings of our own desires. In this way we will discover what, and how, and why, we believe.


Saturday, January 28, 2012


While I was in Rome, I had the chance to attend a Conference and Ecumenical Celebration of the Word, sponsored by the Franciscan Atonement Friars at the Centro Pro Unione. While there I learned of a new multi-lateral ecumenical document, The Reims Statement, entitled “Praying With One Voice.” It was published this past August 2011, under the auspices of the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC).

This document was produced by participants representing Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed traditions, among others; they come from England, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa; members are respected scholars and Church-people, some of whom I know personally. They make straightforward observations and recommendations under three headings: “Liturgy and Ecumenism,” “Common Texts,” and “The Revised Common Lectionary.”

But sadly, I think there is a fly in this ointment which so wants to be a “balm in Gilead.” It comes in section two of the statement. There, the participants write: For the first time in history, Christians in the English speaking world are using common liturgical texts….They are being experienced as a gift, a sign and a way to Christian unity in our diversity….Prayed together, shared common texts become a part of the fabric of our being. They unite the hearts of Christians in giving glory to God…
This is a noble vision, but it seems we Roman Catholics have taken a step away from it (this is the “fly”) by the promulgation of the new English translation of the Roman Missal, 3rd Typical Edition. What has happened has been a change of what was the Catholics’ use of “common liturgical texts”—a change made unilaterally, seemingly without regard for the ecumenical implications. To give an example of this problem: when ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy) made the translation “And also with you” for the Latin Et cum spiritu tuo, this was not a rendering that necessarily sat well with Anglicans and Episcopalians (they were quite comfortable with “And with your/thy spirit” from their Book of Common Prayer), yet they did acceot this adaptation, along with the bulk of the other ICEL-proposed translations of the “Common” (ie, Gloria; Holy, Holy; Lamb of God). We were, then, “praying with one voice.”

How will we do so again? Will the Catholic Church renege on its new commitment to the translation principles of Liturgiam Authenticam and return to the older ICEL texts? It is not likely. Will other English-speaking Protestant denominations change to our new version? Especially in the case when to do so means a return to a preferred translation once given up for the sake of unity, it is not reasonable. So it seems we are at an impasse.

The "Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity," In One Body Through the Cross, makes the comment: …magisterial deliberations of the Roman Catholic Church should regularly involve non-Roman Catholic consultants. If the bishop of Rome is to teach for and to all the baptized, he must receive reliable counsel regarding the faith and life of the entire Christian community (no. 66). Though this comment refers specifically to the teaching office of the Church, yet the same suggestion can be made with regard to the sanctifying office in its worship. After all, we believe that the rule of worship is the rule of the faith (Lex orandi [est] lex credendi]. Much could be gained by such consultations, and much that is undesirable, like unnecessary divergence, might be avoided. We are proud to name our the Roman Catholic (Universal) Church; we should be proud also to have a truly “catholic” process of theological reflection and decision-making (which may fairly be distinguished from ‘decision-taking’).

The Reims Statement is a very short piece, fitting into a trifold. To see the statement and more information about the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC), go to http://www.englishtexts.org/.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


While I was in Rome and waiting for dinnertime, I found myself watching a feature on Italian TV about a nature reserve in the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia. During the show I heard an interesting statement. A father and his son have permits to enter the reserve for the purposes of photography, and the only way to get to one particular part of the grounds is by horseback. The boy (perhaps 12) was talking  through an interpreter about two horses: one was his favorite—he could do anything, he said, with that horse. The other, the boy said, was too young a stallion; he wouldn’t let the boy near him or touch him.

What is the difference between these two horses? I think the answer is a relationship of trust built on experience—or not. Yet there is a problem: if the other horse will never let itself be touched, can trust between it and the boy ever be established? I am always presuming, of course, that the boy has nothing but the highest intentions—as he surely has with his favorite horse…

This seems to me to have a direct bearing on relationships between humans, as well. How is trust established, other than making a choice to trust? One sees and feels the signals of honesty, regard, warmth, high intentions in general terms at the beginning. Then one makes a choice to be vulnerable; when the honesty, warmth, regard and high intentions are reinforced, one makes further choices to trust. Honesty leads to trust; trust then can lead to love. And the bonds grower ever stronger, so long as the trust remains unbroken by dishonesty.

In a somewhat different way, this is the theme of a short story by William Trevor that I recently read: “A Friendship.” Unfortunately, it is about dishonesty as a betrayal of trust that permanently damages more than one relationship.

It happens. But it doesn’t have to happen. In William Saroyan’s play The Time of Your Life, Joe tells Kitty: “I have only the noblest of thoughts for both your person, and your spirit.” An honest and mutual meaning of that, one to another, and having it believed by both the others, is really the secret to trust growing into love.


This past Wednesday, 25 January, Pope Benedict XVI presided at a Vespers (Evening Prayer) service in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, to mark the end of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
And on Saturday, 10 March, he will again preside at a Vespers service, this time at San Gregorio al Celio (just up from the end of the Circus Maximus), in context of a visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Why these two churches?

For centuries, St Paul’s has had a special association with the Church in England (long before the Reformation). The King of England was an honorary member of the Chapter (the decision-making body) of the Benedictine monks in whose care the basilica rests; the Abbot of the community was, in return, an honorary Knight of the Garter. Needless to say, by the 1530s this relationship of mutual honor was all but destroyed.

But because of this heritage, and because of the ways in which the Catholic Church and the Church of England were working together in ecumenical dialogue in the post-Vatican II era, historical associations seemed good to be remembered if not restored. And in the past the Bishop of Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury shared the sanctuary for this final prayer service. Of course the fact that Christian Unity Week ends on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul made the choice of this basilica even more obvious.

San Gregorio has a complex of wonderful associations of its own. Its site originally was a monastic-style community founded on his family’s estate by the man who became Pope Gregory the Great (late 6th century). And it was from this community that he sent missionaries to England to preach to the Angles and Saxons there (we must always remember that Christianity in Britain pre-dates this event—there were Roman British and Celtic Christians centuries beforehand). Still, under the leadership of St Augustine (who became the first archbishop of Canterbury), the Good News spread in England. It also set up a conflict with the earlier Celtic Church, but this is a story best left for another time (and, in fact, by St Bede the Venerable). So if you like, Archbishop Rowan Williams will be returning to the threshold of his ecclesiastical patrimony (if you like, making a personal ad limina visit) of sorts).

The complex of buildings directly behind this church now serves as the international motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity; there the sisters offer food and lodging for the homeless poor (and I worked there one evening a week during one of my years in seminary). It is only here (or Calcutta) that Mother Teresa’s sisters make their solemn final vows.

What comes of such prayerful encounters as these? What kind of conversation might the Pope and the Archbishop have? Where might it lead? When we speak with divided voices, what I hear is a line from many old cowboy movies: “Paleface speak with forked tongue.” Can our voices unite? Here are the questions that need real answers…

[Footnote: There is one other church very important especially to English Catholics, and it is San Giorgio in Velabro,
a small church near to the more famous church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin (which houses on its front porch the legendary Bocca della Verità). San Giorgio was named for a saint who was (and is) one of the patrons of England; and it was given as a “titular church” in 1879 to John Henry Newman when Pope Leo XIII made him a Cardinal. Needless to say, this is an association very dear to my own heart!]

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


As I prepare to leave for a few days of vacation, flying to Rome, I posted on Facebook that I had as “Job 1” to pray in special places for family, then as “Job 2” to pray for friends/parishioners, also in special places. But why bother with “special places,” anyway? And what “special things” could be of any meaning?  Isn't this all just "Church Lady" talk?

Surely from God’s point of view there is no need for anyone to go anywhere “special” to pray: Jesus (Matthew 6:5-6) assures us the best place may just be our private room. But now I am not referring so much to God’s listening but to my ability to open myself. And if the saying “Guilt by association” is true, so it is with the sense, the awareness, that generates or stimulates my capacity to connect.
It is why retreats are important—and they typically take place in contexts that are “special” if for no other reason than that they are different. We priests make our pilgrimage to the Jesuit retreat house in Manresa, LA every summer—a far better option than the “too familiar” Spring Hill College locale of old. Jesus Himself knew the advantage of retreats to a “special place” for the sake of re-charging the spiritual battery: after return of the Twelve from the mission on which He sent them, Jesus said to them: “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).

Then, too, Geoffrey Chaucer famously reminds us of the times when “…longen folk to goon on pilgrimages/…And specially, from every shires ende/Of Engelonde, to Caunterbury they wende/The holy blisful martir for to seke…”

For myself, the “holy blissful martyrs” and saints that I seek include Ss Peter and Paul, Augustine and Monica, Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola. I feel a connection there that aids me in my prayer for others; and so I go.

“Special things” make a difference to me, as well: in these places I find that the Rosary is especially useful in helping me enter into prayer for others. But it is not just any rosary: it is made of what were once crushed rose petals, now blackened with use (though there is just the faintest hint of fragrance in them still). And it was my Father’s rosary, which I inherited when he died.

So, even though I will be doing some visiting with dear friends, some sight-seeing (there are in Rome still some churches, amazingly, that I have never visited) and of course some good eating. But I know what “Jobs 1-2” are, and I know the places and things that will allow me to pray better—not to change God, but to change me.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


The tragedy is multi-fold:  given behavior like this, why would we wonder that Muslims dislike Americans?

More to the point for us as a nation, if presentations of defecation/urination on crucifixes or images of Mary are regarded as "art" and protected by First Amendment rights in our country, why would the fact of this behavior surprise us?


Monday, January 2, 2012


Today is the Memorial of two of the three great “Cappadocian” Fathers of the 4th century, Ss Basil and Gregory Nazianzen—friends and fellows standing in defense of the teaching of the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) on the full divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. Their teaching, preaching and personal witness led to the confirmation of these beliefs at the Council of Constantinople (381 AD)—giving us the form of the “Nicene” Creed that we recite at Mass today. These men are regarded as two of the original four “Doctors of the Eastern Church”—along with Ss John Chrysostom and Athanasius.

How to describe the divinity of the Incarnate Word? The theologians of the late 3rd and early 4th centuries struggled over this question, striving to strike a balance between respect for the sovereign unity of the One God and the integrity of creation, along with the conviction that redemption in Christ must involve more than just the “approval” of God: it requires actual participation by God. So the idea that Christ was the most exalted and first made of all Creation was inadequate: Christ must be seen as sharing fully in divinity: He must be of the same ‘stuff’ as God: not created at all, but eternally begotten, ‘true God from true God.’ The word settled on at Nicaea to describe this was (in Greek) homo-ousios. What does this mean? It means (in its two parts) ‘of the same substance.’ A poor analogy: the marble quarry of Carrera in Italy is the same ‘stuff’ as Michelangelo’s David

Folks in the Western part of the Roman Empire had pretty well given up Greek and embraced Latin as their common tongue. I will ignore the problems that arose as a result of linguistic mistakes, mistranslations and general suspicion, and I will simply refer to the word in Latin that is the equivalent of homo-ousios. It is con-substantialis. So you can see where our “new word” in the Creed that is causing so many tongues to trip up comes from!

Our older English version of the Creed, in its rendering, produced the phrase “one in being.” For all the decades since its introduction, it has been suspected of being inadequate at best, and misleading at worst. Again, I won’t go into the details of theology here (and you may thank me privately, later!). But the difficulty of the concept was what led those responsible for the new translation to opt for a “trans-planting” rather than a translation. I think their thinking was “Better safe than sorry”…

Basil and Gregory (along with Basil’s brother, St Gregory of Nyssa, the third of the “Cappadocians”) were vindicated in their insistence on the full divinity of the Lord, and our Faith has been based on their teaching (and its proper developments) ever since. So even though we don’t recite the Creed at Masses today, we might pray it in private, and give thanks to Ss Basil and Gregory Nazianzen for living out the courage of their convictions for the fullest teaching of the Church.

One small footnote: some Fathers of the Church at and after Nicaea rejected the Creed on the argument that the crucial term, homo-ousios, was not found in the Scriptures. This argument finally failed, and it is worth noting that from very early times the concept of sola Scriptura as commonly understood today was rejected.

Below is the Credo from Ralph Vaughn Williams' Mass in G-minor for your enjoyment--sung in Latin.  Let the video fully load before starting it, to maximize your listening pleasure.  And at about minute 1:06, notice how Vaughn Williams uses the music to express the meaning of consubstantial.