Say it ain’t so, Joe

February 19, 2013

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I’m sometimes asked by artless, though usually fairly harmless, people, “Are there some Church teachings you don’t believe?”  I resist the urge to respond with equal tactlessness, “Are there things about your wife you don’t love?”  The question itself reveals just how much political paradigms have distorted our ways of thinking and speaking about the Church, as if the deposit of faith were somehow equivalent to a party platform.

And yet—here you have it, Mr. Artless Questioner—this week I find myself ready to dissent publicly—for all the web to see—from an official act of the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff, the Successor of the Apostle Peter.

Benedict XVI, do you have to go so soon?

I agree, to be sure, with all the generous things that have been said about the pope’s decision—that it’s a selfless and humble act, the fruit of great prayer and faith, born out of a profound love of the Church.  Of course, it is.  And of course Pope Benedict is a better judge of his own limits and abilities than anyone else and is also in a better position to judge the needs of the Church than some two-bit blogger from South Dakota.

But still, I can’t help but thinking, Benedict at 75% is still better than most of us at 100%.  Who else combines Benedict’s spiritual and intellectual breadth and depth, his combination of scholarly incisiveness and gentleness of spirit?  Who else has better seen through the pomps and empty promises of secularism or proposed so insistently, so clearly their remedy—friendship with Jesus Christ?  Who else has Benedict’s sense of the liturgy, sense of history, sense of prayer?  Couldn’t he just stay on for another year or two?  Couldn’t he at least have waited until after finishing that encyclical on faith? Read the rest of this entry »


Immaculate Misconceptions

December 6, 2012

Saturday’s Holy Day of Obligation means a back-to-back Sunday Mass schedule for me (with a prize bingo thrown in there in between), so I didn’t have time for a new post.  But I dug up an old one instead, which answers that age old question, “Whose conception is it anyway?”  We discussed the same question last night in my RCIA class–a group that is always a joy–and we had a quite few laughs.  But the group began by shouting “Jesus!” in answer to the above question and ended by shouting “Mary!”, so I was happy where we ended up.  Here it is, my own, feeble attempt an an explanation: 

El Greco Immaculate ConceptionThere always seems to be a bit of confusion around this week’s Solemnity.  Despite falling in the middle of Advent, December 8 is not a celebration of the conception of Jesus—which would have meant a remarkably brief pregnancy—but of Mary.

Still, even if we remember whose life it is we’re celebrating, that doesn’t clear up every mystery about the Immaculate Conception.  I must confess that for most of my life even though I knew we had to go to church on December 8, I wasn’t exactly sure why.  It had something to do with one of those Marian dogmas, I knew, but most Catholics tiptoe around those nowadays for fear of offending the Protestants.  And even though I, being a somewhat contrarian lad, was prepared to pick Mary over the Protestants, I really had no idea why.

Even today, while I know a bit more about theology, I still have to admit to finding this particular Mystery particularly mysterious.  Among the writing I’ve found shedding light on the subject is an excellent essay titled “The Immaculate Conception” by the British Thomist, Herbert McCabe, OP.

Continue reading here…


Letting the King be king

November 26, 2012

Sunday’s Solemnity of Christ the King comes between the memorials of two of my favorite Jesuit martyrs, Bl. Miguel Pro (Nov. 23) and St. Edmund Campion (Dec. 1).  These priests were killed in the religious persecution of twentieth century Mexico and sixteenth century England respectively.  The proximity of these feast days reminds me of the issue that has lately been atop the list of the American bishops’ concerns:  religious liberty.

I was asked to give a reflection for a community gathering on the feast of Miguel Pro, and as I thought about his life and martyrdom the question that I couldn’t shake was:  why are American Catholics not more concerned about religious liberty?  Catholic institutions have already been shuttered in Illinois and Massachusetts, and powerful cultural voices are explicitly calling for the exclusion of Christianity from the public square.  Pro’s death occurred less than a century ago and on this continent.  Do we think it cannot happen here?  Why do American Catholics seem so sleepy?

There are obvious answers:  the indifference (and often hostility) of the media; a general climate of secularism and religious indifferentism; political commitments that make raising the question uncomfortable for some, especially in an election year.  But it’s perhaps more instructive to look a bit deeper, at attitudes ingrained in our American outlook that make us drowsy when it comes to religious liberty.  Among other factors, three modern myths stand out. Read the rest of this entry »


House’s Christian ending

November 20, 2012

I don’t have much time for television in my current job, but parishes or no parishes, I haven’t been able to give up House, MD.  The show ended last year but I’ve been watching it on Netflix—I march at my own pace, as readers here know—and last week I reached the final episode.

Dr. House, as viewers can attest, is a difficult man to like.  A drug addict, a cynic, a master-manipulator, he shows glib disregard for the feelings, beliefs, and even human rights of others.  He has a penchant for insulting patients and destroying relationships with anyone who dares to get close to him.  A difficult man to like, yes—but I like a challenge.

The genius of the show comes from the character’s complexity, the fact that House needs relationships even as he unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) burns the ones he has.  His colleagues (and viewers) see through his frequent, and slightly too insistent, assertions that curing patients for him is only a matter of solving puzzles.  And a great deal of his off-putting-ness comes from the fact that he says things that are true, or uncomfortably close to the truth, but socially unacceptable. Read the rest of this entry »


Number One

November 18, 2012

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior

for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed:

the Almighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him

in every generation.

He has shown the strength of this arm,

he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel

for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

the promise he made to our fathers,

to Abraham and his children for ever.  (Luke 1:46-55)

OK, maybe it’s not that big an event.  But, boy, it feels good.

AL, SJ


More on Mormons…

November 12, 2012

My good friend Rachel Lu has published an intriguing piece on the “Mormon Moment” created by Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president on the First Things blog.  Rachel’s thoughtfulness and unique perspective on all things religious, political, and cultural make her a scholar and commentator to watch.  Her piece addresses the contentious question of whether Mormons are really Christians by asking, “Do Mormons really want to be Christians?”  And then she goes on to explore why Mormonism presents such a unique challenge to today’s orthodox Christians.

While many of us might be tempted to simply dismiss Mormonism as a weird aberration, making jokes about the magic underwear and polygamy, Rachel points out that the Catholic Church has long benefited from serious engagement with other such “heresies of an older style.”  I continue to think, as I’ve argued before, that we Catholics have much to learn from Mormonism.    And when it comes to sorting out the helpful from the erroneous in Mormonism, we are fortunate to have scholars such as Dr. Lu in the discussion.

AL, SJ


YES, Minnesota!

October 30, 2012

At the beginning of this political season, as our national political conventions were underway in the swing states of the southeast, I paid a visit to my home state of Minnesota, that liberal bastion of the frigid plains, where political passions were swirling like a January blizzard over a ballot initiative to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

I’ve known about the marriage amendment for some time thanks in part to the unsolicited opinions various Minnesotans have shared on that modern day heir to Plato’s Academy and Rome’s Forum—Facebook.  Most of those favoring me with their opinions have supported homosexual “marriage”.  I must say that I’ve been disturbed by many of these comments—not because I disagree with them, nor even because they employ the atrocious grammar that seems to be the common idiom of Facebook, but because of their increasing stridency and self-righteousness.

I can’t, to be sure, entirely fault the supporters of homosexual marriage for their erroneous opinions (or even for the sentence fragments with which they express them).  While the argument for homosexual marriage is deceptively straightforward (it’s equality, stupid), that for defending traditional marriage is rather more complex and has not always been made particularly well.

Contrary to what our opponents often imply, those of us who defend traditional marriage do not do so because we are hateful bigots, nor because we find anal intercourse particularly distasteful, nor for any of the myriad ways our beliefs are commonly distorted.  We do so because we think that privileging traditional marriage is conducive to the common good.

Read the rest of this entry »


Reservation Story

October 26, 2012

It has been a while, dear readers, since I posted anything new here.  Running three parishes in American’s second poorest county has kept me busy, to say the least.  But you will be happy to know, I hope, that the Church here is growing once again — Mass attendance up by 40% over this time last year, sacramental prep programs expanded, a good number of people in RCIA, and a great shot of energy and joy last week with the canonization of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.  I had a little talk with Kateri, back when she was still just a Blessed, and I think she’ll be helping us out here in the future.  In fact, I think she may have pulled a few strings for us already this week.

I hope to write a bit more about our little (but growing) Lakota church here in the near future, but first I thought I’d share something I wrote a while back, after my first visit to Rosebud, which has now finally appeared in print in the very fine Christian literary journal Relief.  I’d recommend a look at Relief even if they hadn’t published my story, and they’re available on Kindle.

I’d also recommend liking St. Francis Mission on Facebook to see a few more pictures of all that’s been going on here, especially our celebrations for St. Kateri.
AL, SJ



Heaven: Miracle or Entitlement?

March 15, 2012

Our readers might be interested in my latest offering on The Jesuit Post.  Here’s how it starts:

In my current line of work—I’m the administrator of three small parishes on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota—I deal with a lot of funerals.  I schedule them; I lead prayers; I empty the ashes out of the censer afterwards.  I’ve helped to bury everyone from the saintly to those who haven’t seen the inside of a church since they were baptized.

The job causes one to hear and say and think quite a bit about the life after this one, which is a good thing: in our liturgy, in fact, we ask God to turn our thoughts from the things of this world to the things of heaven.  And contrary to what skeptics like Nietzsche thought, a lively belief in heaven helps one live a good life here below; the courage of the saints and martyrs would never have been possible without it.

And yet…

…and yet, I often find myself cringing at the things people say about heaven.  Atheists have historically mocked Christians’ belief in paradise as an opiate—a comforting fantasy, a fairy tale we tell ourselves to soften the pain of loss.  And sometimes I find myself agreeing with Christianity’s critics.

I’ve noticed, for example, a tendency among many to attempt to remake heaven in our own image.  So if Grandpa really loved donuts, heaven gets described as an all-you-can-eat Dunkin’ Donuts, open 24 hours, where the Bavarian cream is always fresh and smooth.

You will be relieved to know that even though I cringe inwardly when I hear someone preach hope in an everlasting supply of jelly donuts, I don’t jump in with, “Actually-it’s-not-like-that.”  Still, I can’t help but think how awful such a “heaven” would be—even if one were spared the indigestion.  As Pope Benedict put it, reflecting on the possibility of an endless prolongation of this life:  “…to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable” (Spe Salvi, 10).

To continue click here…


When should we confirm?

March 10, 2012

Is Pope Benedict a regular reader of Whosoever Desires?  Well, probably not.

But regular readers of our little blog might remember that a few months ago I wrote a short post on the decision of Fargo’s Bishop Samuel Aquila to restore the traditional order of the sacraments of initiation.  If you missed it, you can check it out here.  

Bishop Aquila was in Rome this week, and he was singled out for praise for his decision by that city’s bishop.  You can check out the article here.  So apparently I’m not the only one to find his argument about confirmation interesting.

On a practical level, I now find myself teaching courses for baptism, RCIA, RCIC, and confirmation, and I do find it somewhat difficult to explain the discrepancy between the standard practice for most cradle Catholics and that for those initiated through RCIA or RCIC.  The theology doesn’t quite make sense and, as is so often the case, shaky theology undermines actual Catholic practice, leading to the sacrament of confirmation functioning as a kind of graduation from church for many teenagers.

Also, I just love to see Fargo on theology’s cutting edge.

AL, SJ


What makes Rick Santorum so threatening – and what’s at stake in the HHS battle

February 29, 2012

I haven’t been at all surprised by the vitriol of many of the attacks on Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum I’ve seen on the internet recently.  They’ve been personal and vicious and have largely focused on his Catholicism.  Many of these attacks have come from Catholics themselves.

In the Washington Post, a columnist accuses Santorum of wanting to rule by “fatwa,” while in the Huffington Post a self-described Catholic accuses Santorum of belonging to a “barbaric…cult” where “black-robed cleric[s]” cast spells over followers’ “cannibalistic reverie.”  Santorum is also accused of waging “jihad,” which makes me wonder whether it would be permissible to use references to Islam as an insult if the candidate were actually a Muslim.

I’ve been a little bemused, but not surprised, at some of the Catholics I’ve seen posting on Facebook attacking Santorum in unusually nasty terms; bemused because I’ve heard many of these same people talk about how we need to put our faith into action, about how Catholicism is not only about worship but contains an integral social dimension.  Mr. Santorum clearly believes the same thing, and yet the attitude of many of his Catholic critics seems to be “How dare he talk about how faith informs his social vision?”

While no one has to agree with Santorum on every issue, shouldn’t we at least be happy that a public servant clearly takes his faith seriously and is unafraid to talk about it in public?  Yet it seems Santorum threatens something quite fundamental in the worldview of his critics, and the vitriol flows out of this threat. Read the rest of this entry »


Why War?

February 7, 2012

The men and women working for the Obama White House are not stupid people.  In fact, the billion-dollar Obama political machine is perhaps the most impressive such operation in American political history.  Why then, I’ve heard many people asking, would this Administration choose to go to “war”—to use the word of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius —with the Catholic Church, in an election year no less?  Why, furthermore, has the Administration’s response to Catholic objections to its new contraception rules ranged from the obtuse to the insulting?

Ducking reporters’ questions on the subject, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney read from a prepared statement with all the sincerity of a North Korean news anchor before refusing to answer questions about the penalties Catholic institutions will face when they refuse to supply free contraceptives to employees.  And the Administration trotted out talking points on the White House blog that are blatantly mendacious even by the standards of today’s politics.

People of faith, and even fair-minded secular opinion-makers, have seen through the pretense that this front in the White House’s war is really about contraception.  Indeed, one of the positive outcomes of this controversy has been the unity it has produced, not just within the Catholic Church but also among believers who do not share the Church’s beliefs on contraception—or just about anything else.  The liberal columnist Sean Michael Winters issued an interesting proposal for our cardinals to engage in civil disobedience.  Prominent Protestant and Jewish leaders have also objected to the Administration’s power grab, and the nation’s Orthodox bishops voted unanimously to “join their voices with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops” in “adamantly protest[ing]” the Administration’s new rules.

Read the rest of this entry »


Virtues and thrones and dominions! Oh my!

January 31, 2012

Sometimes contributor to Whosoever Desires, Paddy Gilger, S.J., is behind a new Jesuit online venture, a new page called The Jesuit Post.  Yours truly has an article on the page, in which readers of Whosever Desires might be interested.  Here’s how it begins:

If you listened carefully to the new edition of the Roman Missal rolled out this Advent, you might remember hearing mention of a strange menagerie of heavenly creatures.

The Advent Prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayer—the part that begins “It is truly right and just” and ends with us all singing “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts”—invoke the songs of Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Dominions, and Powers; other Prefaces throughout the year throw in Virtues and Seraphim for good measure.  But what exactly are all these heavenly gizmos the priest is inviting us to join in acclamation?

It is perhaps best to start by pointing out that in this context, thrones are not chairs sat upon by kings; dominions are not regal estates; and virtues have nothing to do with the established habits of decent human beings.  All of these words refer to types of angels mentioned in Sacred Scripture.

Now I am no expert in either angelology – though I do like saying the word – or Biblical studies, but you don’t have to be a specialist to notice how thoroughly permeated with spiritual beings the world of the Bible is.  We tend to gloss over mention of the heavenly hierarchies these days, not talking about them much because of how foreign the notion of angels is to our own worldview.  And we don’t talk about thrones and dominions because, well, we don’t even know how to talk about them.

To continue, check out The Jesuit Post


Henry IX?

January 24, 2012

The Obama Administration is the most anti-religious and anti-Catholic presidential administration in the history of the Republic.

Last week the Administration released health care regulations which will force Catholic schools and hospitals to provide, free of charge, sterilizations and contraceptives, including some “contraceptives” which induce abortions.  These regulations come on the heels of a Supreme Court decision in which the Administration’s lawyers pushed a line of legal reasoning, which, if followed to its logical conclusions, would have allowed the government to decide whom churches hire and fire, possibly even whom churches ordain.  Fortunately the Court recognized that if the Administration’s argument had prevailed, the First Amendment wouldn’t be worth the faded parchment on which it is written, and rejected it—unanimously.

Toward the beginning of his presidency, President Obama and his subordinates had the tendency to describe nearly every policy they implemented as “historic” or “unprecedented.”  A bit self-congratulatory perhaps, but certain aspects of this presidency no doubt made it worthy of those adjectives.  And now, sadly, President Obama has made history in another way:  no president has ever undermined the First Amendment’s promise of religious liberty in the ways President Barack Obama has.

Right now, the Catholic Church, because of its teachings on the morality of contraception and abortion, is bearing the brunt of the Administration’s assault, but undermining the principles of religious liberty and freedom of conscience threatens the rights of those whose beliefs put them entirely at odds with Catholicism.  If the government can force us to violate our consciences today, what is to protect your conscience when the regime changes?

Read the rest of this entry »


St. Francis Mission on EWTN

January 17, 2012

I am told that astronauts orbiting the earth from space can see the lights of our big cities.  It is probably safe to say that the metropolis of St. Francis, SD, has thus far escaped the notice of NASA’s crews.  But the lights of the world will soon be upon us when St. Francis Mission is featured on EWTN Live this Wednesday, January 18, at 8:00 EST.

The theme of the show is “Bringing the Gospel to the Lakota,” but it would be well worth tuning in even for those who aren’t Lakota and don’t plan on visiting St. Francis, SD (or viewing it from space).  That’s because the question of how evangelization and the inculturation of the Gospel takes place is relevant far beyond the borders of the Rosebud Reservation.  Moreover, I believe both that Lakota Catholics have something unique to contribute to the Church and that the model of mission and ministry we are developing here on Rosebud could serve as a model for evangelization in other contexts as well.

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Come, Lord Jesus!

December 21, 2011

It is almost 2012, and the world will soon be ending.  At least, according to the Mayans and a fundamentalist preacher in California, it will.  Even though the Church’s readings in November, the end of the liturgical year, and Advent, the beginning, point toward the Second Coming, I have, I admit, not been overly concerned.

But then I had an unusual conversation a few weeks ago with a priest who was passing through town, one of those delightful Jesuits one meets who could be described as “a little crazy, in a good way.”  On the surface, this good priest appears a tad unkempt, but you can tell from the way he prays the Mass—and he is praying, not performing—that the man has real spiritual depth.

While visiting our community, this man talked about his time, many years ago, working on the Rosebud Reservation, where I am now stationed.  He talked about working with prisoners and people in one of the reservation’s most depressed communities and then said, almost out of nowhere, “It was here that I realized that prisoners and the really destitute have an intuitive understanding of the apocalypse—the good news of the apocalypse.”  And then his voice rose slightly and he gave his little-crazy-in-a-good-way laugh and added, “Because it is good news.”

I realized I had never thought of the apocalypse as good news before, but I should have.  The Bible itself ends with an urgent prayer for the Lord’s swift return:  Come, Lord Jesus!  (Rev 22:20).  We pray for the end of this world every day in the words of the Our Father, Thy Kingdom come.

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Pray without ceasing…

December 16, 2011

Ever wonder how one could possibly fulfill Paul’s directive to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17)?  I have, and I’ve also been asked by students how one manages such a feat.  (Does sleeping count?)

Apparently St. Augustine wondered the same thing because he gives a nice interpretation of the phrase in today’s Office of Readings, which I thought worth sharing.  His answer struck me as rather “Ignatian,” in the sense that Ignatian discernment trains us to be attentive to our desires and where they’re leading us.  And our desire for the coming of Christ is one of the great undercurrents of this quietly joyful season of Advent.

So here he is, the ever-profound, ever-insightful St. Augustine:

[T]he desire of your heart is itself your prayer.  And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer.  The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying:  Pray without ceasing.  Are we then ceaselessly to bend our knees, to lie prostrate, or to lift up our hands?  Is this what is meant in saying:  Pray without ceasing?  Even if we admit that we pray in this fashion, I do not believe that we can do so all the time.

Yet there is another, interior kind of prayer without ceasing, namely, the desire of the heart.  Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless.  Therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire…

AL, SJ


Paul VI, the Jesuits, and atheism

December 5, 2011

I noted at the beginning of my series on the “new atheists” (Contra Dennett 1, 2, and 3) that Pope Paul VI entrusted the Society of Jesus with the mission of combating atheism in the modern world.  At least one commenter questioned just how effective the Jesuits—and the institutions calling themselves “Jesuit”—have been in answering the Holy Father’s challenge.  That’s a fair question, one which might even prompt our least Society to do a bit of soul-searching.

I thought, therefore, it might be useful to reprint Pope Paul’s charge, which came at the outset of the Order’s 31st General Congregation in 1965.  The Pope’s exhortation begins by praising the contributions Jesuits have historically made to the Church, mentioning Church Doctors St. Peter Canisius and St. Robert Bellarmine.  Pope Paul’s tone is confident, speaking of the Society as the Church’s “most devoted sons.”  The laudatory preamble heightens the importance of the substance of the Holy Father’s challenge:

We gladly take this opportunity to lay serious stress, however briefly, on a matter of grave importance:  We mean the fearful danger of atheism threatening human society.  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.

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