Are we there yet?

March 30, 2011

This Sunday at Mass you might notice an anomaly—pink vestments.  No, the Lenten vestments didn’t get ruined at the cleaner; the pink (technically “rose”) color means we’re halfway to Easter.

The fourth Sunday of Lent goes by the name “Laetare Sunday,” which comes from the Mass’s “indroit,” or opening antiphon, which begins “Rejoice, Jerusalem!”—in Latin, “Laetare, Jerusalem!”  We break out the rose on the third Sunday of Advent, too, when we’re over halfway to Christmas.

There’s something delightfully human in allowing ourselves a splash of rejoicing in the middle of this penitential season.  It’s sort of like stopping at the Dairy Queen for a sundae after passing the halfway point of a long road trip.  Of course, to my mind, Lent still is a joyful season, because penance can—and even should—be done with joy.  Good Friday is a day of mourning because that too is a part of the human experience, but penance does not mean sadness.

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Taylor – A Secular Age: Part 2, “The Turning Point”

March 15, 2011

Well, well!  A good day to you all out there gazing lovingly into your computer screens!  …okay, maybe that was a bit much…


But… It is lovely to have you back after wading with me through the muck (beautiful muck though it was!) of the first part of Herr Professor Taylor’s work.  I thought we’d kick things off by reminding ourselves of where we left off last time.  Part 1 of A Secular Age set the scene for answering the question of how we have created a social context within which it’s possible for human beings to be satisfied with interpreting our highest moments (moments of “fullness”) as wholly immanent.  It’s about how it became possible for we moderns to be self-sufficient secular humanists.

In Part 1 Taylor introduced us to the concept of reform.  We saw that this didn’t just include Luther and Calvin and the great reformers, but also included those involved in the counter-reformation.  Now these reforms quite obviously took different forms, the former reforming through flattening the “higher” vocations (there should be no monks, religious, etc.) and the latter reforming by raising up the “lower” vocations (finding God in our ordinary lives within the world).  Further, we took a look at three lenses through which such reform could be viewed: that of the natural world, of society and of the enchanted world itself.  This, we saw, helped to create a new version of the self that could thrive within such a reformed society, a self which Taylor names “buffered” in contrast to the “porous” self which was at home in an enchanted world.

Part 2 of the book (as you most likely astutely noted above in my spiffy titular heading above) deals with the “turning point.”  What is this turning point, though?  Suffice it to say that this turning point deals with the reconstruction of a type of society in which belief in God is accommodated to the buffered self that is being created through the reformation of the enchanted world.  Let’s say it again: the turning point is a middle place between the world of 1500, in which God was deeply embedded, and the world of 2011, in which it is possible for God to not be embedded at all.  The question we will want to get at in this section then, is: what kind of accommodations are made to fitting God into the reformed society that is being constructed during this time period (basically 1700 to 1850 or so)?  Or even more simply (hey, gimme a break, sometimes it takes me a few tries to get out what I want to say!): What is the place of God in a reformed society?  Certainly we can see that the place of God in society will have a big impact on the kind of belief (and the kind of believer) that will fit within such a society.

...shoulda read your Charles Taylor before making this sign...

So then, let’s put it in Q&A form.  Question: what kind of religion do we find thriving within a buffered, reformed society?  Answer: Deism.

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Of Gods and Men

March 15, 2011

It takes a lot to leave me speechless, but the French film Of Gods and Men, which tells the story of the 1996 assassination of seven Trappist monks by Islamic extremists in Algeria, did just that this weekend.  It may well be the best religious film I’ve ever seen.

Like the 2005 documentary Into Great Silence, the film allows the Trappists’ monastic lifestyle to unfold simply and quietly.  We see the monks at prayer, tending their garden, making honey, attending patients in their small clinic.  The film makes great use of silence and of the rugged Algerian countryside to allow us to feel the elemental beauty and humanity of the Trappists’ way of life.

We also feel the humanity of the Algerian villagers who live around the monastery.  As we watch the elderly physician Br. Luc tending a child’s wound, then rummaging for shoes for a mother and her daughter, or another of the monks helping a village matron address an envelope to her son in Paris, one has the sense that the relationship of monastery to village we’re seeing might as easily be unfolding in medieval Europe as in Muslim Algeria; it touches on timeless parts of being human—sickness, celebration, making a living, family, death, elders complaining that the world has gone mad, falling in love.

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Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year A

March 13, 2011


For the folks at St. Paul’s in Cambridge …

Lent has an interesting history.  It seems to have begun as the period of preparing catechumens for baptism: the time for “becoming Christians.”  Later, Lent also became the period when the “order of penitents,” the already baptized who had fallen into serious sin, prepared to be re-admitted into the Church.  Finally, it became an annual observance for the whole Church.  The gradual expansion of Lent suggests a growing insight into the fact that conversion from sin is not the victory of a moment, but the pilgrimage of a lifetime.  Unless we keep becoming a Christian, we cannot be a Christian.  To no longer strive to be better, is no longer to be good.

This principle holds throughout the year, of course.  But the Church devotes a special season to conversion precisely because of the richness of the Christian mystery.  Christ’s words and deeds give us strong motives to feel many different things: to mourn our sins, to rejoice at our redemption, to contemplate Christ’s second coming with holy fear, to contemplate his first coming with gratitude and wonder.  To try to attend to all the facets of the Christian mystery at the same time is really to attend to none of them at all.  And so the Church refracts the white light of the Christ through the prism of the liturgical year, separating it into its various colors.  Now we are in the purple of conversion.

A question arises: what is conversion? Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Sleep Through Lent: Spiritual Exercises for Lent

March 10, 2011

In addition to Paddy’s fine suggestion, here are ten other sites to make for a good Lenten journey.

1. Mentioned here in these pages last year, this group of young Jesuits are blogging their way through Lent, offering spiritual reflections for each day (or thereabouts) during Lent.

2. The Irish Jesuits offer a Lenten guide on their Sacred Space website. Take a look.

3. Saint Louis University Campus Ministry has a great year-round resource for the liturgy. Take a look during Lent for reflections and commentary on the Sunday readings.

4. Take a look at Father Robert Barron’s always excellent Word of Fire Blog. He’s got some special posts for Lent.

5. Here the Vatican posts messages from the Pope related to Lent.

6. US Bishop’s Conference Daily Video Reflection.

7. This comes from the Church in Ireland. Interesting resources for lent. According to Sacred Space, “Trócaire is the overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The Lent site has comprehensive resources for use by individuals and groups in parishes and in schools. ‘Trócaire’ is how Irish people express ‘mercy.’”

8. Almsgiving is an important part of the Lenten trifecta. Take a look at Operation Rice Bowl, Catholic Relief Service’s annual appeal to fight hunger.

9. Similarly, here is Jesuit Relief Service’s donation page.

10. Creighton University has a fine collection of daily reflections. Check them out.

Jeff Johnson, S.J.

Ash Wednesday Homily

March 10, 2011

(Delivered at the 3 pm Ash Wednesday service at Immaculate Conception in New Orleans–my future assignment after ordination. This stained glass window at Immaculate Conception is of St. Joseph’s death)


Matthew’s gospel today, warns us to pray in private, to give alms in private, to fast in private. It’s very ironic then that we are gathered here today in a public place of worship to get our foreheads marked with ashes for all the world to see. It seems that Matthew doesn’t want us showing the world that we are fasting, praying, giving alms, yet we will leave here today with ashes on our foreheads, for all of New Orleans to see.

What are we to make of this admonition to pray, fast, and give alms in private?

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Lent 2011: Pilgrimage with Jesus

March 9, 2011

A pair of young Jesuit priest from the Midwest have done a series of podcasts reflections to give us a hand in deepening our relationship with Jesus the Pilgrim this Lent.  The podcasts are between 5 and 8 minutes – perfect for taking with us as we travel on way this Lent.

Click on the picture above or click here to be directed to the site.

Prayers all.


From feast to fasting

March 7, 2011

Last year about this time I wrote a post about food for Mardis Gras, so this year I thought I’d better muzzle my inner epicure and write something about fasting for Lent.  Lent, of course, is bookended by two days of fasting, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but I’m not going to write about either of those fasts.  Nor am I going to focus on the common practice of giving something up, another variation on fasting.  Instead I thought I’d write about that fasting which should be a part of the ordinary weekly routine of every practicing Catholic.

Lost already?  I thought about titling this post the “forgotten fast,” because the fasting I have in mind is the Eucharistic fast, a practice today as often forgotten as observed.

Prior to 1957 the faithful were obliged to refrain from food and drink starting at midnight on any day they planned to receive communion.  This fast was reduced to three hours before communion, and then in 1964 it was reduced again to one hour.  Unfortunately, as has happened with a number of Catholic practices, when a requirement becomes too easy, people stop taking it seriously, and today many ignore the pre-communion fast—if they’ve heard of it at all.

While the amount of time involved hardly constitutes a privation, the spirituality behind the Eucharistic fast is important, and perhaps this Lent would be a good time to rediscover its meaning.  After all, just because we are only required to fast for one hour, that doesn’t mean we are limited to the minimum.

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Taylor – A Secular Age: Part 1, “The Work of Reform”

March 6, 2011
The Work of Reform!!

The Work of Reform!!

Aaaannnd, we’re back.  Thanks to all who posted on the opening piece – it’s always easier to get up the motivation to write another we’re all engaged in a discussion.  I’ll try to continue to respond to questions & comments as well.  What I’m going to try to do in these next posts is to split each into two halves; in the first half I’ll try to give a brief (and therefore unfair) overview of whichever of the five parts we’re dealing that week.  In the second half I’ll try to pick one particularly important theme/idea and show how it might shed light on our own situation as ministers in the 21st century west.

So, where were we?  Oh yeah… so a Secular Age for Taylor is an age in which the shape of a society is such that giving a transcendent interpretation to moments of fullness is ever more difficult to do; it’s an age in which goals beyond that of immanent human flourishing are very often eclipsed.  Good enough.  But, rather than just giving bald assertions, how does Taylor go about showing us this?  Well, for those of us who are the cultural heirs of Latin Christendom (i.e., Europe, North America, maybe Australia, etc.), he re-frames, re-tells, the story of the last 500 years of our history.  So, Part 1 is the starting point for this story, it’s the setting of the stage and introduction of the main players (here: the concepts through which he’ll tell this story).  And he gives Part 1 the title: “The Work of Reform.”

One last pre-lectionary note before we dive in, as we go through this I recommend paying attention to two major ideas: (1) the porous vs. buffered self, and (2) the reform of societies built on the complementarity between the sacred and the secular.

Diving in.  As you might well guess, in order to have a reform there must be something that is being reformed.  That something is described by Taylor as the “enchanted” world (read: as opposed to the Weber-ian “disenchanted” world).  The enchanted world i Read the rest of this entry »

Homily for the 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

March 6, 2011


For St. Bernard’s Parish in Newton, MA, which is in the middle of making the Novena of Grace in honor of St. Francis Xavier.  Hence the lengthy references to St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier in the interpretation of today’s parable (and the extra couple hundred words in my homily).

Among the many things that Jesus, St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier shared in common is the following:   they preferred to talk about three kinds of persons.  This might not seem obvious at first since Jesus draws the sharpest division between the “wise man”  “foolish man” in today’s Gospel.  The wise man is the one who listens to Jesus’ words and acts upon them.  He has a foundation of rock.  The foolish man—the one who listens but does not act—has a foundation of sand.  But, if we notice, there are actually two kinds of foolish men.  There are those who do nothing at all:  the ones who simply call out ‘Lord, Lord.’  But there are also those who put a lot of energy into “deeds”–but deeds of their own choosing.  These are the ones who meet Jesus on “that day” and point to the “mighty deeds” they performed and the demons they drove out in Jesus’ name.  As we can see from the Gospels, however, Jesus is not impressed unless these are also the deeds that His Father desires.

In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius recasts today’s parable. Read the rest of this entry »

Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age”: Context & Question

March 1, 2011

Wow, this book is 800 pages... really?!I write this morning proposing a project – over the next few weeks I’d like to present, synthesize and analyze some portions of Charles Taylor’s massive and massively important tome A Secular Age.  Aside from being Roman Catholic (and Canadian!), Taylor is, in my opinion, a brilliant philosopher.  He is currently Professor Emeritus at McGill University in Montreal.  Those interested parties among us can find a link to Taylor’s contributions to a website which sprung from A Secular Age here.  A good and recent interview with him can be found here, and (of course…) there’s always Wikipedia.

But let’s take on the tough question right away: if there’s all this material out there already, why add more to it on this blog?  It’s pretty straightforward actually.  I want to write about Taylor’s thought here because I see this community as, in some respects, a community of ministers.  As a ministerial community, a community of servant-believers, I am convinced that understanding the context of our belief and service will help us to do it better.  One significant Jesuit presupposition runs something like this: in thinking we believe and serve more effectively.

So… if you buy that and are sticking with me (!) I’m going to try to do this in six parts, six interlocking blog posts, each of which will correspond to a different aspect of Taylor’s work.  The first part of this effort, then, is to set the scene, to give a précis of Taylor’s project.   So to it, then!

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