Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B: Explaining the Roman Missal

November 26, 2011


Since the new translations of the Mass are “official” today, I thought I might spend a little time explaining why the Church thought a fresh rendering was worth all the initial awkwardness.

There is a passage in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where one of the characters, Caroline Bingley, objects to formal dances because she finds them “irrational.” While at a Ball she remarks to her brother,

“I should like Balls infinitely better if they were carried on in a different manner … It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”

[Her brother]: “Much more rational, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a Ball.”

Caroline Bingley was, for once, at a loss for words.

The point of her brother’s answer, of course, is that it is rather irrational to limit ourselves strictly to our rational aspect.  If we did, there would be no variety in human activities—no dancing, sports, poetry and feasting—just rows of people intently solving Sudoku puzzles.  Caroline Bingley is correct that conversation would be more communicative, that is, better at getting across information; but she fails to note that the purpose of dances is to be expressive, to embody festivity, solemnity, courtesy.  This is the true value of a Ball.  Drawing a parallel to our present situation, we could say that the new Roman Missal attempts to strike a better balance between the values of communication and expressiveness–to make the Mass just a little more like a Ball. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Feast of St. John Berchmans, SJ

November 25, 2011


If you have the honor of the Society at heart, cherish modesty.
—St. John Berchmans, SJ

St. John Berchmans (1599-1621) is one of more difficult Jesuit saints to cozy up to nowadays.  Born of solid burgher stock in Flanders, he entered the Jesuits over the moderate opposition of his parents and died at the age of 22 (from studying too much).  He saw no mission lands and made no notable contribution to the arts or sciences.  In fact, it seems that he stood out mostly for his “regularity,” i.e., of his cheerful and exact observance of the rules, most of which prescribed impulse control and governed religious decorum.  I doubt that even Louis de Wohl could make a historical novel out of such scant material.

Still, the fact that a canonized saint devoted himself so wholeheartedly to external observances raises an interesting question: Is there a bearing or demeanor suited to Catholic religious of every time and place?  Before dismissing the idea out of hand, I think it worth mentioning that Ignatius not only thought that there was such a decorum, but he even wrote up “Rules of Modesty” detailing its more important elements. Read the rest of this entry »

Romney v. Kennedy

November 21, 2011

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations…”

1 Samuel 8:19

As I noted a few weeks ago, the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney has prompted questions about Mormonism and the fitness of Mormons to serve in public office.  It has also prompted references to the 1960 presidential election, in which John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was seen by some as a bar to the presidency.

The standard narrative—the way this episode is presented in high school history classes—is that Kennedy’s election was a great leap forward for American Catholics, and certainly it was experienced as such at the time.  No longer were Catholics seen as second-class citizens; Kennedy’s election proved, to use his words, that “40 million Americans [had not] lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized.”

Early on in their candidacies both candidates gave speeches, both in Texas, attempting to head off the “religious issue.”  While both speeches are rhetorically powerful, that of the Mormon, I’m sorry to say, is more nuanced and more thoughtful.  Both Kennedy and Romney make the case that their religion should not disqualify them from office; that as president they intend to serve all Americans and not only their coreligionists; and that they are not spokesmen for their respective churches.

Seen in retrospect, however, Kennedy seems far more willing to bury his Catholicism beneath a bushel basket—and then douse that bushel basket with concrete—than Romney is with his Mormonism.  To be fair to Kennedy, his speech in many ways reflects the era in which it was given, when American society was far more homogeneous and a much broader moral consensus existed than does today.  American society was more religious generally, with secularism per se a negligible phenomenon, and mainline Protestantism still a dominant cultural force.  Catholic identity was thicker—in ways hard to imagine for those of my generation—with new seminaries under construction, Mass attendance at around eighty percent, and the system of Catholic social services (schools, hospitals, colleges) still very close to their immigrant roots.  Perhaps the nuance that Kennedy’s speech lacks did not seem, at the time, necessary.

Read the rest of this entry »

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Year A

November 19, 2011


Ez 34:11-12, 15-17; Ps 23; 1Cor 15:20-26, 28; Mt 25:31-46.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of ordinary time.  The image of kingship and kingdom, like most of the images used to describe Christ, is rich and multifaceted.  All of today’s readings, however, either feature or allude to a certain dimension of Christ’s kingly power: his role as Judge.  Ezekiel, describing the Lord as a royal shepherd, reports that the Lord “will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats” (Ez 34:17).  The Gospel of Matthew makes the link between King, Shepherd, and Judge even clearer when it describes the Son of Man seated “upon his royal throne” (25:31) and separating the nations “as a shepherd separates sheep from goats” (25:32).  In the reading from 1 Corinthians, Christ does not separate any sheep, but he does destroy every “sovereignty, authority, and power” (1Cor 15:25) hostile to himself, so that “God may be all in all” (1Cor 15:28).  Christ, in other words, is judge of everything.

It’s no secret that the theme of judgment has always been central to Christian preaching and, therefore, to the Christian imagination.  For many nowadays, however, it seems to provoke only anxiety, and to have so little to do with the “Good News” of the Kingdom. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the enemy of my enemy my friend?

November 17, 2011

Pro-lifers, where are you? We share a common enemy with OWS, the fact that corporations are persons by law and unborn children are not! Remember the Civil Rights marches? Anarchists and communists and radical and conservative religious marched arm and arm. It didn’t matter which party they were affiliated with. They were trying to open up a new space for discourse, a new way of thinking about citizenship. We should be doing the same! We have an opportunity to create a new voice here, a voice co-opted neither by the Republican nor the Democratic party which are both sold out to interests. Planned Parenthood is the 1%! Let’s join forces. Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

This has been my approach.  Thoughts?

Celebrating Unpopular Positions

November 16, 2011

Jesuits often take unpopular positions.  Sometimes they get in trouble for them. Sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes they are right.  Sometimes they are wrong.  As we remember the 6 Jesuit and 2 lay martyrs of the University of Central American in 1989, we remember what the price can be for taking uncomfortable and unpopular positions. However I would also like to remember another unpopular position.  Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, was born yesterday, November 14.  It never hurts to re-read the very unpopular letter he wrote to the Jesuits in response to Humanae Vitae, the encyclical letter banning artificial contraception.  Here is the letter below.  Jesuits are often called upon to take up unpopular positions, even if it puts them in limbo, between the right and the left.

Dear Fathers and Brothers,

Pax Christi

We are all aware of the response given to the most recent encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, about the problems raised by the question of contraception. While many completely accept the teaching of the encyclical, a number of the clergy, religious and laity violently reject it in a way that no one in the Society can think of sharing. Yet, because the opposition to the encyclical has become widespread in some places, I wish to delay no longer before calling to mind once more our duty as Jesuits. With regard to the successor of Peter, the only response for us is an attitude of obedience which is at once loving, firm, open and truly creative. I do not say that this is necessarily painless and easy. In fact, on various grounds and because of particular competence, some of us may experience certain reservations and difficulties. A sincere desire to be truly loyal does not rule out problems, as the Pope himself says. A teaching such as the one he presents merits assent not simply because of the reasons he offers, but also, and above all, because of the charism which enables him to present it. Guided by the authentic word of the Pope — a word that need not be infallible to be highly respected – every Jesuit owes it to himself, by reason of his vocation, to do everything possible to penetrate, and to help others penetrate, into the thought which may not have been his own previously; however, as he goes beyond the evidence available to him personally, he finds or will find a solid foundation for it. To obey, therefore, is not to stop thinking, to parrot the encyclical word for word in a servile manner. On the contrary, it is to commit oneself to study it as profoundly as possible so as to discover for oneself and to show others the meaning of an intervention judged necessary by the Holy Father. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Feast of St. Joseph Pignatelli, SJ

November 14, 2011


At least nowadays, Jesuit spirituality is often presented in stark opposition to the so-called “negative” spiritualities—traditions that emphasized self-emptying, withdrawal from the world, and fulfillment in the life to come (as opposed to the present).  Jesuits, of course, play no little role in crafting their own image, and it’s true that we usually emphasize the “world-affirming” aspect of the Ignatian patrimony (it’s a reputation, after all, that’s much easier to live up to—and everyone appreciates truth in advertising).  Hence, we proudly point to the long tradition of “Ignatian Humanism,” the mysticism of “finding God in all things,” and our “worldly” pragmatism.  There is certainly a great deal of truth in this characterization, and one could spend a lifetime gathering and documenting supporting evidence.

But today’s feast of St. Joseph Pignatelli, S.J. (1737-1811), reminds us that the “world-affirming” element of the Jesuit tradition is only one part of the story. Read the rest of this entry »