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 »

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J.F. Powers: Catholic literature’s forgotten gem

August 1, 2011

Over the last Christmas break I had lunch with my old high school English teacher, Mr. Studer.  (Mr. Studer has a first name, but it still feels impious to use it.)  More than anyone else, Mr. Studer is responsible for getting me interested in writing.

At the end of our lunch, Mr. Studer gave me a small stack of books by J.F. Powers, a collection of short stories and two novels.  The pages of the books were brown with time, and one, Morte D’Urban, was held together with a rubber band.

I had read an odd J.F. Powers short story here or there before, and my last pre-Jesuit job was at St. John’s University in Minnesota, where Powers spent most of his career.  Powers wrote only two novels, Morte D’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green, in addition to several collections of short stories—an understated literary output that in some ways seems appropriate.

Powers is a master craftsman; in terms of tightly constructed prose—taut, subtle, perfectly pitched—he surpasses even Flannery O’Connor, though his subtlety and understatement mean that his work never packs quite the same explosive punch as O’Connor’s.  Powers’ subject matter is the Catholic Church of the Midwest in the middle of the twentieth century, and his mastery of his material is flawless.  He seems especially fascinated by priests—and by all the petty ambitions, joys, politics, and frustrations that occur within the walls of a rectory.

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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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A Jesuit shout-out from the Pope

September 17, 2010

I might be risking the sin of pride by saying this, but we Jesuits have some pretty cool saints.  One of the great unmerited blessings of this vocation is to be able to think of men like Francis Xavier, Peter Claver, and—today—Robert Bellarmine as elder brothers.  And among those saints, I’ve always gotten a special thrill from the martyrs of the British Isles.

If, like me, you were avoiding homework yesterday by poring over transcripts of the papal visit to Scotland on Whispers in the Loggia (yes, I am a really big dork), you might have noticed that the Pope mentioned one of those Jesuits, St. John Ogilvie, as an example for the Scottish clergy.

John Ogilvie (1579-1615), was raised a Calvinist but converted to Catholicism at the age of seventeen.  This meant he had to leave Britain to study on the Continent, first in Belgium and then in Germany and what is today the Czech Republic.  There he studied in a Jesuit college and joined the Austrian province of the Society of Jesus.

He went through the usual lengthy formation process, was ordained in 1610, and wanted immediately to return to Scotland.  His superiors thought Scotland too dangerous at first (and they were proven right), but he was finally able to sneak into his homeland in 1613 disguised as a horse dealer.

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A good priest

September 13, 2010

Unless it’s on Bing Crosby, I’ve begun to cringe when I see a Roman collar in a movie.  If there’s a priest in a contemporary film I’m prepared for him to be lascivious, greedy, cruel, ambitious, hypocritical, or inept—and sometimes all of the above.  So when I ventured to the cinema last week to see George Clooney’s The American, I braced myself when Paolo Bonacelli appeared on screen as the genial Padre Benedetto.

The priest came off amiably enough at first:  an old Italian with the sort of practical wisdom that comes from having been around a long time and, presumably, having heard a lot of confessions.  Padre Benedetto realizes that George Clooney’s character, Jack, an American arms maker hiding out in a small Abruzzo town, is not who he pretends to be, and, without coming off as heavy-handed, he seeks his conversion.  He can sense the emptiness in Jack’s heart.

Given the usual Hollywood treatment of the clergy, I was ready for skeletons to come tumbling out of Padre Benedetto’s closet, and, indeed, he does have a rather dark secret in his past:  an illegitimate son named Fabio.  But, surprisingly, Padre Benedetto doesn’t come off as a hypocrite or lose our sympathy because he makes no effort to disguise his transgression or excuse his sin.  He also sincerely loves his son despite knowing of the latter’s involvement in various petty criminal enterprises.  Padre Benedetto is a sinner, knows it, and still does his best to be a Christian and a priest.

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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 Times Take 3: The Stephen Kiesle Files

April 12, 2010

+AMDG+

Ratzinger MemoI find myself praying a lot for Pope Benedict these days.  From within the U.S., of course, it’s easy to overestimate how much the sniping of the New York Times actually roils global Catholicism.  Nonetheless, as the Times stacks one leaky bucket atop another, it’s easy here to forget that they all leak.  And, because of both the uniquely spiritual outlook of the Roman Catholic Church and the highly technical nature of her legal terms, it’s easy to impute malice and self-protection to garden-variety Vatican heel-dragging.  The saga of Stephen Kiesle, the third and most recent of the front-pagers for the Times, is a case in point.

I feel compelled, in the interest of fairness, to make a few points specifically concerning Pope Benedict’s alleged negligence in this regard: