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 »

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

November 12, 2011


The Southern Catholic author Flannery O’Connor was famous for filling her short stories with bizarre and unsettling images.  She once explained her motives in this way: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (Mystery and Manners, p. 34).

We might say that Christ is “shouting” at us in today’s Gospel.  The master, to whom Jesus seems to compare himself, comes across as a very “undemocratic” boss.  He distinguishes publicly between the abilities of his servants, entrusts his property to them without leaving explicit instructions, goes on a long journey, and then demands a strict accounting when he gets back.  Two of the servants were enterprising, and the master rewards them.  One of the servants, however, has simply buried his money.  Scholars say that, according to Rabbinic Law, one who buried money to be held in trust immediately after receiving it could not be held liable for theft or loss.  The servant was, in other, words trying to gain an “indemnity” against his master.  The outraged master strips this last servant of his one talent and casts him into the “outer darkness.”  These are indeed “large and startling figures.”

The vision that Christ makes “apparent by shock” is, of course, none other than faith.  It always is.  But today Christ focuses us on a particular element of faith: risk. Read the rest of this entry »

Newman on Revising Liturgical Language

November 10, 2011


In light of the fact that we’re drawing near to the implementation of the Roman Missal, I found this little nugget from Newman’s Anglican phase interesting.  Apparently, a general enthusiasm arose in the 1820s to revise the Book of Common Prayer.  Newman, however, demurred.  Always the pastor, he resisted any measure that, in an age of ‘liberalism’, would diminish popular attachment to the Church of England.  As he saw it, moreover, the chief ‘influence’ that the Church of England exerted ‘in the hearts of her people’ came

by a reverential attachment to those prayers which they have heard from childhood and have been their solace often in their most trying seasons, and have shed a grace on the high solemnities of marriages and births.—Should we not dread disturbing this feeling? (Letters and Diaries, ii, 191).

The quote, of course, can’t really be used to score any points in contemporary liturgical debates.  It argues as much against the change to the vernacular as against the change within the vernacular.  Still, I think Newman is on to something about the true seat of religious influence.  We might at least piously hope that the imminent transition to the Roman Missal will be the last of its kind for many years.


NY Times on Spanking

November 7, 2011

I wrote a post a while ago on child discipline and spanking, interrogating whether or not spanking is violence.  The post relied implicitly on Michael and Debbie Pearl and their books on child training.  For those who found that post interesting, I would like to direct them to an article in the New York Times today on the Pearls and recent deaths possibly associated with their child disciplining methods.  Any thoughts?

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

November 5, 2011


The Church has traditionally dedicated November to reflection on the mystery of the Communion of Saints and its related practices, especially prayer for the “poor souls” in purgatory.  The value of praying for the dead souls and to the dead saints, once obvious to most Christians, is perhaps now a little more obscure.  And it requires a special effort on our part to reclaim it.  The first reading today, however, reassures us that “Wisdom … is readily perceived by those who love her and found by those who seek her.

Our general insensitivity to the dead probably owes much to the extreme “presentism” of our lifestyles: that is, technological shifts and mobility have made it difficult to feel the influence of the past upon the present, or of the dead upon the living.  We do not generally practice, for instance, the profession of our parents and grandparents (and do not, therefore, depend concretely on them for skills and wisdom); as a rule, we no longer live and die on an ancestral plot, decorated with family tombs and cultivated by the industry of past generations; libraries and the internet have replaced “elders” as the sources of information about the past.  American mythology, moreover, tends to praise “self-made men”—cowboys who have “gone West” to lose their past, business tycoons who have gone “from rags to riches.”  Though it still makes sense to us to respect our forebears while they are alive, death seems to cut off all traffic between us and them.  Everything in our culture, in other words, reinforces the idea that we neither receive any special help from the dead nor owe them any special gratitude.

This stands in stark contrast, of course, to the great anxiety that the Thessalonians felt for their fellow Christians who had died. Read the rest of this entry »

Daniel Avila and David Gibson on Homosexuality

November 4, 2011

Daniel Avila’s piece on the causes of homosexual orientation has people, including David Gibson and our friends at dot.Commonweal, upset.  The problem is that, near the end of his explanation, Avila cites the devil as the ultimate cause of homosexual inclinations.  He has since apologized and was removed from his position as policy advisor on marriage to the USCCB.  However, I would like to look carefully at his explanation of homosexual attraction, since it is helpful and illuminating in several ways:

More than once I have heard from or about Catholics upset with the Church for its insistence that sexual relations be limited to marriage between husband and wife. Does not this moral rule force people with same-sex attraction into lives of loneliness? If they are born that way, then why should they be punished by a restriction that does not account for their pre-existing condition? God wants everyone to be happy, and for persons with same-sex attraction is not their happiness to be found in the fulfillment of that attraction? Some seek to change the Church’s teaching on marriage or have left the Church because of it. They believe either that God through the Church ignores the needs of people or that the Church misunderstands what God desires.

That is, if God causes same-sex attraction, and yet commands that it not be satisfied, then this is divine cruelty. Read the rest of this entry »

For All Forgotten Souls

November 2, 2011

Let us pray today for all forgotten victims of abortion.

The Meaning of the Occupy Movement

November 2, 2011

I asked a friend of mine who is very involved in the Occupy movement to write for the blog an explanation of what it is all about.  Throughout I have inserted some pictures that I took while occupying Oakland last Saturday night.  I wanted to see things for myself, so I attended the rally, took part in the march, and slept over night in front of city hall.  Please let us know what your experiences have been with the movement and how we can bring a religious and Catholic element to it. 



The workers and students have reached full saturation. They work at one or two jobs, maybe more. They seek to better themselves by college and vocational training. They have no health insurance, no pension and no labor union. They have little financial security, lots of debt and bleak economic and social prospects at least in the near future and possibly for a long time to come. They have lost control of the democratic levers of their government. They are what my grandmother would call “bone-tired.”

Oligarchic interests have purchased both major political parties and virtually all federal elected officials. They have funded think tanks and academicians who advocate almost perpetual warfare and have produced ever more deadly armaments for sale on the open and black market. They have worked to limit court access to petition for grievance and seek remedy. They have supported the militarization of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors who send millions to prison for ever more minor, personal offenses for ever longer periods of time. Of course, in the same process the oligarchs have immunized themselves from criminal or civil sanction for wrongdoing. They kept wages stagnate and favored mechanization of labor at every turn. They have exported what remains of production jobs for people to the developing world in order to exploit cheap labor and natural resources. They colluded with central bankers to keep interest rates low and credit easy to allow for the double enslavement to wage and debt. All of this results in the concentration of wealth in their hands and ensures that the classes below them remain below them. Read the rest of this entry »

Newman on the Sensus Fidelium

November 1, 2011


Procession in Honor the Immaculate Conception

Nathan recently brought up the knotty subject of the role of the so-called supernatural sense of faith (or “the faithful”) in the explication of Church teaching.  Using Newman as a point of departure (since it seems to be to Newman’s intellect, cardinal’s hat, and sanctity that the concept owes much of its present authority), I thought I might throw in my two cents on the matter.  It seems that the heart of the vexed discussion about the “supernatural sense of faith” is twofold: 1) determining the proper uses of the sensus fidelium, 2) and identifying genuine fideles.  Drawing from “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” and “Note 5” to Arians of the Fourth Century, I’ll take up the first point in this post.

Beginning with the correct application, then, I would point out that Newman himself was at pains, no less than Donum Veritatis, to distinguish what he meant by “consulting the faithful” from “a kind of sociological argumentation”(DV 35).  Against the many who took Newman, when praising the practice of “consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine” to be suggesting a plebiscite or an ongoing opinion poll, Newman clarifies that

the English word “consult,” in its popular and ordinary use … is doubtless a word expressive of trust and deference, but not of submission. It includes the idea of inquiring into a matter of fact, as well as asking a judgment. Thus we talk of “consulting our barometer” about the weather:—the barometer only attests the fact of the state of the atmosphere. In like manner, we may consult a watch or a sun-dial about the time of day. A physician consults the pulse of his patient; but not in the same sense in which his patient consults him. It is but an index of the state of his health . . . .  This being considered, it was, I conceive, quite allowable for a writer, who was not teaching or treating theology, but, as it were, conversing, to say, as in the passage in question, “In the preparation of a dogmatic definition, the faithful are consulted.”

So Newman, no less than Donum Veritatis, is pretty clear that the consulting the faithful is not done by focus groups or other quantitative methods.  By likening the supernatural sense of the faithful to a barometer, a sun-dial, and a pulse (hardly the stuff of an “Occupy-the-Church”-style empowerment), Newman suggests a real but limited use for such consultation. Read the rest of this entry »