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 »


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


Elijah the Prophet, Jesus the Lord

September 27, 2011

Today’s Gospel reading happens to correspond to a presentation that I recently made in one of my classes on Luke’s use of Elijah imagery in his Gospel.  Luke’s use of Elijah is complex.  He does not make a simply one-to-one typological correspondence, but rather seems as concerned to contrast Jesus and Elijah as compare them.  Luke contrasts Elijah and Jesus not to criticize Elijah, but rather to show that Jesus is something more than a prophet.  Jesus is the Lord, and a Messiah who will bring salvation to all people, not through violence but through the cross.

Jesus explicitly invokes Elijah (and Elisha) in Luke 4:16-30. Here, he reverses the people’s expectations that the Messiah would be a warrior king who would bring God’s blessings on Israel and his wrath on her enemies.  Jesus first reads a messianic passage from Isaiah about the blessings the Messiah will bring, and says that this passage is fulfilled in their hearing.  This accords with people’s hopes and expectations.  But then, he invokes Elijah and Elisha who gave God’s blessings to Gentiles, to say that God’s blessings will be extended outside of Israel.  This contradicts the people’s hopes and expectations about membership in the Kingdom of God, and provokes their wrath.

Again in Luke 7:11-17, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, there are allusions to Elijah raising the son of the widow who fed him during the famine (1 Kings 17:17-24).  Here, though, there are notable discontinuities.  Elijah uses almost magical efforts to raise the boy–laying upon him and three times breathing upon him (according to the Greek Old Testament which Luke would have used), completed by a powerful plea to the Lord (kyrios in the Greek Old Testament) to raise the boy.  By contrast, Jesus simply commands the boy and he is raised.  Elijah must beg the Lord for the miracle, whereas Jesus simply commands.  Significantly, Luke calls Jesus only “kyrios” in this passage.  Elijah must call on the Lord, Jesus is the Lord. Read the rest of this entry »


The Chalice and Eucharistic Faith

September 26, 2011

Nathan said some important things about Bishop Olmsted’s recent decision in his post on Liturgical Minimalism in Phoenix.  I’ve got some different thoughts that I share here.

Even in this section of the GIRM dealing with “Communion Under Both Kinds” (281-287), there is much anxiety for the proper catechesis of the people about Eucharistic doctrine.

Rightly so, for the expansion of communion under both species was a stunning capitulation, in liturgical practice if not in theology, to Protestant arguments in favor of communion in both species.  The Catholic Church vigorously opposed these arguments for over 500 years, since the practice was condemned by the ecumenical Council of Constance in 1415 in response to the Utraquist controversy prompted by John Wyclif and John Hus.  Martin Luther listed the denial of both species to the faithful as one of three “captivities” of the sacrament of the Eucharist, along with the doctrine of transubstantiation and the sacrifical understanding of the Mass (James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist, 2nd ed., Ignatius Press, 2005, 130-135).

The GIRM is concerned above all that the faithful be properly instructed on the lynchpin of the Catholic response as formulated at the Council of Trent, namely that:

 “Christ, whole and entire, and the true Sacrament, is received even under only one species, and consequently that as far as the effects are concerned, those who receive under only one species are not deprived of any of the grace that is necessary for salvation”  (282). Read the rest of this entry »


We believe. And so do I.

September 6, 2011

Among the sundry tasks with which my new assignment presents me is overseeing the transition to the new translation of the Roman Missal in the parishes of the Rosebud Reservation.  The transition here promises to be rather smoother than in other places, at least in part because the people here do not seem to have as many ideological hang-ups as their sibling Christians in certain other locales.  And many, particularly elders, already have experience praying in another language—Lakota—which gives them intuition into the reasons behind the change.  As a lay cantor who participated in a workshop on the new translations explained to me a few weeks ago, “Lakota is a very spiritual language, and we understand that when we translate into English something gets lost.”  The new translations are simply an attempt—imperfect, like all human endeavors—to recover a bit of what has been lost.

Among the complaints I’ve heard about the new translations from other sources is the objection that changing the Creed’s “We believe” to “I believe” diminishes the communal nature of the Mass.  In some ways this is a strange objection, since the Creed’s first line is one instance in which the 1973 translation simply gets the Latin wrong, something obvious to anyone celebrating Mass in another of the major modern languages, which correctly translate “Credo” into the first person singular.  Given that the 1973 English version is the outlier in this instance, there’s something self-defeating in defending a supposedly more communal word that in fact puts a distance between English speakers and the rest of the international Church.

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What do I offer?

April 6, 2011

I suggested at the beginning of Lent that this season is a good time to get back to basics, and for Catholics it doesn’t get more basic than the celebration of the Eucharist.  It’s well known that the Second Vatican Council called for the “full and active participation” of all the faithful in the Eucharist, but interpretations of what this phrase means have differed so widely that the Council’s vision hasn’t born the fruit we might have hoped for.  On the most basic measure of full and active participation—Mass attendance—we’re actually far worse off today than we were when the Council began.

For me this Lent has coincided with work on a master’s thesis about sacrifice and the Mass (some of the ideas for which I test drove here on Whoseoever Desires), and my research has raised a question so basic we usually forget to ask it:  what exactly do we do at Mass?

Answering that question depends on how we think about the Mass, what models we use to describe it.  An incorrect model for thinking of the Mass is that of a show or play.  Unfortunately, a lot of people fall into this kind of thinking.  I’ll sometimes hear complaints that Mass is boring, which doesn’t make sense because Mass isn’t supposed to be entertainment.  Even those who should know better sometimes fall into the trap of turning Mass into a kind of high school musical.  I once attended an Easter Vigil in which the man delivering the third reading dressed up as Moses—complete with beard, robes, and staff.  It almost made me root for Pharaoh.

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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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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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Gifts of Gold

January 3, 2011

I’ve been thinking about presents.  After all, it’s Epiphany week, and in my house Epiphany always meant a visit from the Befana.

The Befana, for those who don’t know, is a legendary old woman who brings gifts to Italian (and Italian-American) children on the feast of the Epiphany, a sort of Signora Santa Claus.  According to legend, the Befana was a particularly fussy housekeeper who lived along the route taken by the three kings on their journey to worship the baby Jesus.  When the Magi stopped at the Befana’s house, they offered to let her tag along and visit the newborn Messiah, but she claimed to have too much housework to do and declined.  Only after the Magi had left town did the Befana regret her decision and hurry to catch up… but by then it was too late, and the wise men were out of sight.  Since that first Epiphany she has been leaving presents for the children of every home she visits in the hope that one of them will turn out to be the Christ child.

I’ve also been thinking about presents because of an exhibit I recently visited at Chicago’s Field Museum.  The exhibit was about gold.  Of all the commodities Melchior, Balthasar, and Caspar came bringing, the only one which seems to have held up in market value is gold.  I’m afraid I wouldn’t know what to do if I found a box of myrrh under the tree, but gold would be nice, especially in today’s economy.

Gold, I learned at the Field Museum, has many unique properties.  It does not tarnish or rust.  It is found in small quantities throughout the world, on every habitable continent.  And, of course, it shines brilliantly.  There are other qualities too—gold is a great conductor of electricity and can be pounded into sheets mere microns thick—but these first three made me think about how appropriate it is that gold should show up time and again in religious rites.

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Beauty, Basilicas, and Barcelona

November 9, 2010

Beauty is one of mankind’s greatest needs.

—Benedict XVI

7 October 2010

 

On Sunday Pope Benedict consecrated the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, a truly awesome rite.  Construction of the basilica, Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece, began in 1882 and is not expected to be complete for another decade and a half.  In that respect, the Sagrada Familia is like many of the other great churches of Europe which took centuries to complete.

Today, the Church celebrates the dedication of another great basilica, St. John Lateran, Rome’s cathedral.  To some, this might seem a rather strange feast on the liturgical calendar, commemorating as it does a building rather than an event in the life of Jesus or a saint.  Some might even disapprove of lavishing such attention on a structure, a sentiment that finds expression in a line from my least favorite liturgical song, “Gather Us In.”  “Gather us in,” the ditty goes, but “[n]ot in the dark of buildings confining.”

The idea of church buildings as “confining,” however, does not do justice to artistic marvels such as the Sagrada Familia or St. John Lateran, wonders as much spiritual as they are architectural.  These buildings are, in fact, a true and profound expression of faith.

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A holy day of opportunity

October 26, 2010

This year All Saints Day is not a holy day of obligation.  I have to confess, I’m a little sad about that.

I’m sad because, absent the threat of sin, most people won’t go to Mass.

Too cynical a way of putting it?  Maybe.  But am I wrong?

Human nature being fallen, there’s a certain legalistic streak in each one of us, and the most common form of legalism is minimalism.  Ever asked yourself, “How late can I show up at Mass for it still to count?”  Or calculated how many minutes into Mass communion is likely to be so that you can squeeze in one last donut before heading out the door?  Come on, admit it.  I have, too.  (The donut had sprinkles.)

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Melville, Hemingway, and new Mass translations

May 31, 2010

Last month the Holy See gave final approval to a revised English translation of the Roman Missal, a long process not without its share of comedy, tragedy, and controversy.  I, for one, am enthusiastic about the change, even while recognizing that change often takes a bit of effort to get used to.

The new translations have come in for a bit of criticism on the web and elsewhere, including a rather odd online petition drive.  The criticism mostly stems from the fact that the new translations, which hew more closely to the Latin original than the translations now in use, employ a vocabulary and syntax that is likely to sound a bit foreign to most contemporary English-speakers.

The desire for the words used at Mass to be comprehensible to most people is straightforward and laudable, but simple comprehension is not the only quality we should expect in our worship language.  In fact, sometimes it’s desirable for language to sound unusual and, yes, even foreign.  To help me make this point, let me call on two old friends from my days as an undergraduate English major:  Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway. Read the rest of this entry »


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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Girard, sacrifice, and the (Holy Sacrifice of the) Mass, Part II

April 14, 2010

Two weeks ago I offered a summary of René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.  Girard’s insights into the origins of violence and the violent origins of civilization are worth serious consideration.  The social insights that come out of his theory are often unsettling.  For example, he realizes that Christianity’s concern for victims has been largely absorbed into contemporary society, though this concern itself can be perverted by mimetic contagion:  “we practice a hunt for scapegoats to the second degree, a hunt for the hunters of scapegoats.”

There’s fruit for several posts in that sentence alone, but when I first read Girard it was in the context of sacramental theology.  So today I’d like to turn to a couple of questions having to do with the Eucharist.  Here, to be clear, we start to move beyond Girard’s views to my own musings.

Girard’s analysis highlights one of the more disquieting aspects of the Passion accounts for those living in contemporary Western culture:  the role of the crowd.   Read the rest of this entry »


The Slow Food Movement and the Liturgy

February 14, 2010

To celebrate this Mardi Gras I thought it appropriate to post something about food.  Good food and good eating are not things to be taken for granted.  I am a proud Italian-American—my grandfather was a baker—and, for Italians, a good meal is an art.

Unfortunately, as many have noted, even in Italy, the art of gastronomy is increasingly becoming lost.  Demographic decline, the pressures of work, an increasingly utilitarian attitude toward just about everything, the encroachment of fast food—these and other factors have taken their toll on the quality of the Italian meal.

There are, of course, unwritten rules to the traditional Italian meal—rules about the order of the courses and their content, about the way food should be served, about which foods are appropriate in which seasons, about who does what at the table.  These rules are practical only up to a point and they don’t always make for the most efficient eating, but they tend to facilitate instead savoring, conversation, and—to drop a weighty theological concept—communion.

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More Praise for Clunky Translations

January 4, 2010

+AMDG+

As the list grows of those who wonder what if they just said ‘wait’ to the new translation of the Missal, I thought it might be helpful to draw another historical parallel (in addition to the parallel I already drew to early Christian Latin).  A quick read of In the Beginning, Alister McGrath’s history of the King James Bible, reveals that many of the controversies surrounding the proposed liturgical texts resemble the controversies attending the first translations of the Bible into English.  And, as it turns out, the translation philosophy that guided the Vox Clara commission is also the philosophy that produced the King James Version, once reckoned the “noblest monument of English prose.”

At least two of the charges commonly leveled against the Vox Clara translation—that it is foreign-sounding and unintelligible to the average person—could also have been leveled against the KJV (and commonly were). Read the rest of this entry »


In Praise of Clunky Translations

November 23, 2009

+AMDG+

On November 17 the USCCB approved the final segments of a new English version of the Roman Missal.  A few have already criticized the Vox Clara translation as “slavishly literal” (here) and disrespectful of the “natural rhythm and cadences of the English language” (here).  On purely grammatical and stylistic grounds, I am actually inclined to agree with these criticisms.  However, a recent rereading of Liturgical Latin, Christine Mohrmann’s slim classic from 1957, has reminded me that slavish literalism and barbarous constructions have always been a hallmark of Christian liturgical language.

Mohrmann—at pains to show that early Christian Latin was hardly the Latin of the “common man”—notes that biblical Latin was marked by precisely those stylistic features most criticized in the new Roman Missal: Read the rest of this entry »