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.

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Whose conception is it anyway?

December 6, 2010

There 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.

Read the rest of this entry »


Nietzsche in November

November 21, 2010

We are nearly at the end of the liturgical year, with daily readings from the Book of Revelation reminding us of the end of everything else too.  Indeed, the month of November as a whole, beginning with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, is dedicated in a special way to remembering the dead and contemplating our own eternal future.

Some people have a problem with that.

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Christianity’s most brilliant enemies, criticizes our faith for placing too much emphasis on the life to come, thereby emptying this life of meaning and giving unhappy and unsuccessful human beings—“mutterers and nook counterfeiters”—an excuse to wallow in their own misery until they arrive in “heaven,” which in Nietzsche’s estimation seems like little more than a very long nap.

This, I’m afraid, is not one of Nietzsche’s better arguments (though to give the poor old guy a break, I don’t think it’s original to him).  Unfortunately, it has too often been taken up in one form or another by well-meaning Christians themselves.  If we spend too much time contemplating heaven, they say, we will be neglectful of our duties here on earth.  Or, as that summit of liturgical kitsch, “Gather Us In,” puts it, “Gather us in… [but] not in some heaven, light years away.”

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Happy Birthday, Mom!

May 22, 2010

Since the weekend’s big feast, Pentecost, is sometimes colloquially referred to as the birthday of the Church, I thought I’d offer a little birthday greeting.  I couldn’t fit two thousand candles on a cake, so I came up with a top ten list instead.  Maybe it’s not really my top ten, but here are ten things I love about the Church.  (The New York Times doesn’t want you to know this, but, yes, it’s still okay to love being Catholic.)

10.  Songs about Mary. Whether it’s Pavarotti belting out “Ave Maria” or tone-deaf Jesuits (like yours truly) humming their way through the “Salve,” the Blessed Mother brings out something sweet and beautiful even in the gruffest of us.

9.  Relics. They may seem a little weird to contemporary American tastes, but think about all that relics say about the importance of the body, the embodied nature of our faith, and our hope, ultimately, in the resurrection of the body.

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Do We Ever Need Baseball

April 5, 2010

It was in 1733 that Alexander Pope penned the famous verse, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”  Whence the line?  Maybe it can be attributed to something in Pope’s Catholic upbringing.  Or maybe it arose from his general, lifelong observations of man.  Or maybe, just maybe, Pope, in a prescient moment, gleaned that line from his observations about something else going on in the 1730s in England: the old game of “stoolball” being referred to more and more as “baseball.”  Indeed, it would be a mere decade later, in 1744, when the word “Base-ball” would for the first time appear in print.

Baseball teaches one many things, not the least of which is hope.  It does not matter how badly one’s team finished the year before, the season opener in April provides reason to hope.  T.S. Eliot could not have been a baseball fan, for no baseball fan would ever write, “April is the cruellest month.” Read the rest of this entry »


Alasdair MacIntyre and Fractured Modernity

March 23, 2010

If anyone has both the ambition and the ability to complete a critical history of God, philosophy, and universities in 193 pages, who better than Alasdair MacIntyre?  Now a hair over eighty and still teaching a very-hard-to-get-into undergraduate seminar at Notre Dame, the Scottish-born philosopher and trenchant critic of modern morality has done just that in God, Philosophy, Universities:  A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

I have been a fan of Alasdair MacIntyre since he made a guest appearance in one of my undergraduate ethics courses and warned the roomful of over-eager philosophy majors not to let our minds be ruined by philosophy.  Though he admits God, Philosophy, Universities is by no means a comprehensive history of any of the three, MacIntyre’s insights into all of the above are worthwhile.  What is particularly valuable is MacIntyre’s conviction that the three should somehow fit together.

As one might expect, many sections of the book are dense, summarizing centuries of philosophical arguments in a few paragraphs.  MacIntyre delivers a succinct summary of Aquinas’ metaphysics in a single memorable chapter, and his treatment of Pascal, the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld, and the soul/body problem is enlightening.  He quotes Newman on conscience—“Conscience implies a relation between the soul and a something exterior, and that moreover superior, to itself”—and even draws on Nietzsche’s criticism of the presuppositions of philosophers.

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The Hope of St. Peter Canisius

December 21, 2009

+AMDG+

St. Peter Canisius, SJ (1521-1597), whose feast the universal Church celebrates today, is perhaps the most prosaic saint of the Catholic Church.  He passed his adult life trudging from town to town, stoking the smoldering embers of the Catholic faith throughout Western Europe.  Indeed, the continuing presence of the Catholic faith in both Austria and Bavaria owes much to his tireless labors: he founded 18 colleges, wrote 37 books, published a catechism that went through 200 printings, and threw himself into preaching and administration of the sacraments.

One aspect of St. Peter’s life that I continue to find comforting is the great spiritual harvest that God accomplished through his mediocre talent. Read the rest of this entry »