Thursday, April 23, 2015

A lovely idea

"I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass."

"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."

"But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea."

"But I do. That's how I believe."

This is a quotation from Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Charles is asking Sebastian about whether he actually believes his Catholic faith, and this is how Sebastian replies. Although it seems superficial at first glance, I would argue that this is a good reason to believe. Catholicism is indeed a "lovely idea." It is beautiful, and it is true. I do not mean here in an abstract sense, but as we actually encounter things.

I am reminded of the conversion story of a parishioner from Tennessee Ridge. Michiko was a little girl in Japan at the end of the Second World War. She was being raised by her grandparents. Her mother worked some distance away and would come to visit when she could. One time, she told Michiko a story "about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass." Where her mother had run across this story, I don't know. At the time, Michiko received it as any other bed time story. But years later as she was walking home from school, she passed a Catholic Church -- she was from the island where St. Francis Xavier had first landed in Japan -- and saw a nativity scene in front of the church. She remembered the story that her mother had told her years before. The pastor, an old Irishman, was outside and saw her interest...You can guess the rest of Michiko's story.

It was the story of the Incarnation, not the proof of it, that converted Michiko. It is indeed lovely. And it is an idea. Such a crazy idea that only a story can really do it justice and make it true: the Word became flesh.

I think that we have forgotten just how lovely is the story of Jesus Christ. It really is a lovely idea, in a world of very unlovely ones.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

family -- real life

I went to a beautiful funeral lat weekend. Beautiful because of the legacy of family left by the deceased. Beautiful because of the faith proclaimed in the face of the reality of death. Everything was so real. So often it seems that funerals are big acts of denial. That's what I make of the "celebration of life" approach to funerals. Better to celebrate a person's accomplishments or qualities while the person is alive, but once the person is dead accomplishments don't mean much. All the celebrating of life in the world is not going to change the reality of death. Is there anything to say or do about death? Yes! Pray.

That frees us to mourn. Death is real but not final because of Jesus Christ. We gather in faith and love to entrust the departed to the mercy of God. That's real. That is what I saw at this funeral.

As for "celebrations of life," this funeral was that too, but in a real sense. Life living and breathing in the dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That's real life. There were four little boys, all brothers or first cousins, playing at the cemetery as the grave was being filled. The father of one was anxious to keep the boys quiet. Everybody else was grateful for the signs of life.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


It is hard to believe that another school year is almost over. Monday will be the last day of classes. I am finishing my ninth year as chaplain, and in many ways I feel that I am just getting started!

This has been the assignment that has caused me to grow the most of any in my priesthood. Doing something new, I admit that I have made big mistakes along the way. It has been the most difficult assignment I have had. I have also received the least support for it, mainly, I think, because it is hard for outsiders to understand what we are doing here. But UCat has made a big difference in many ways, especially in many young lives. I am proud of what we are accomplishing. And I am a better priest for it.

I think what has been accomplished more than anything else is a communion of faith, in an atmosphere very hostile to both community and to faith. It is hard to quantify that; actually it's practically impossible. Even though we don't have much to show in institutional terms, I would not hesitate to put our people up with the "big dogs" of campus ministry. There is joy, reverence, purity, understanding, and so much more beautiful fruit. The students find at UCat what they often have never found before: a communion of their peers united in love of God.

It is time to celebrate another year of grace at UCat!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spot on

Fr. Schall nails it -- no surprise.

This is what the world thinks.

pastor of a small parish in a big city

St. Mary's is an interesting place, as I have said before. One of the more interesting things about it is how constricted it is in space. We have a (beautiful) church and a surprisingly nice basement with a couple of classrooms, an office, a tiny kitchen, bathrooms, and a hall. That's about it. We have no outside space at all and no parking of our own. Needless to say, we are bursting at the seams on Sunday mornings. I was at a dinner at one of the other urban parishes over the weekend and was struck by how much space there was. But lack of space means that St. Mary's has to be creative in being a church downtown. We end up being about God -- He doesn't need much space!-- and about people a lot more. It helps that we are small. This week, for example, we have Confirmation for our parish with a cluster of other parishes at the Cathedral on Thursday evening. We have five candidates, three young men and two adults who were never confirmed. On Sunday, we will have first Holy Communion for two. I have to say that from the crying babies I hear on Sundays, these numbers will be going up in years to come, but even so they are very small in comparison to "real" parishes. People often ask me how many people we have in the parish, and I cannot answer the question. I can tell you how many people are registered, but that does not seem to correspond to who is actually in the pews. And I don't really care.

On the other hand, St. Mary's has robust liturgical and devotional life. We have some sort of outreach to various groups including engaged couples, married couples, young adults, and the needy. We have pretty dynamic catechesis. We have other ideas bubbling up all the time, some of which work out! I wish that we could simply open the doors more than we do. I am sure that we will come up with a creative solution for that. I also want to do more with Sundays: confessions, devotions, perhaps vespers, etc.

I really am grateful for this experience. We are not a status quo place. We are not an institutional place. We are not a bureaucratic place. I have to rely on people to bring things about. And first things are first. St. Mary's is not an imposing place. That is fitting. We do not seek to impose but rather to propose Jesus Christ. It is a physically inviting place, and I think the people are as well. There is a lot going on on the streets just outside but within there is a sense of eternity. And there is a sense of communion, especially with the unseen and the silent. I don't know where this is going, except, I hope, to Heaven! I think St. Mary's is very much a place to stop on the way there.

Saturday, April 11, 2015


It might be a dangerous thing to know me pretty soon. I hope that the living won't mind my writing about them. So far, so good anyhow.

Next I want to write about a very close friend, Michael Tinkler. He is my introduction to blogging, by the way. He is the Cranky Professor in the blogsphere. I don't know what has happened to his blog. It has gone silent for about two months. Anyhow, Michael and I are friends because our parents were friends. My mother and his parents were all classmates at Vanderbilt. My father was a couple years ahead. His father and mine graduated from the same high school, McCallie School in Chattanooga, but were not there at the same time. Both of them were boarding students for their last two years and so did not overlap.

My friendship with Michael really came about because of his parents willingness to support my father's desire that I go to McCallie with, I suspect, my mother's desire that I have as homelike an experience while in boarding school. It certainly worked, and it was very gracious of the Tinklers to play along. I never thanked them enough.

It started when we were in grade school, and I would come down to Chattanooga for McCallie camp and stay with the Tinklers. I really did not get that familiar with McCallie or with anyone else there, except Michael, but we became very close. Michael was a year ahead of me in school. He has always had a tremendous imagination grounded in practical reality so being an art historian is a natural fit for him. He is just so fun to talk to. He has great enthusiasms in conversation about even small details. He is much kinder and more generous than I am.

At McCallie, he would pave the way for me in a number of ways. The Tinklers' home was a open house to me. To this day, I have a key. From this strong foundation, we have remained friends. His sister, Cate, who is a couple of years younger and a retired Navy captain, is also a great friend.

Michael is now a professor of art history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. It really is a good fit for him, other than being in upstate New York! He runs the colleges' Program in Rome for a semester every couple of years. Michael had a terrible time finishing up his dissertation at Emory and so was in Atlanta for a long time. It is where he became a Catholic. He also became involved in Birthright at their national call center, taking calls from midnight to 8 a.m. on Sunday mornings. That is a lot of practical experience in the pro-life trenches! Another time that I was very worried about him was when he was getting tenure. It is funny, but we don't really communicate about such things very well. I remember when I had decided to go the seminary. I had not been able to tell him. He came up for a visit one weekend, and I finally got it out. A few days later, he let me know that he had decided to enter the Church but had not been able to tell me when we were together. Go figure.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Stay the course!

I feel like my life is too blessed. That is, there are too many good things going on in my life. For that reason, I am really glad that the school year is coming to an end soon. Not that I don't enjoy the students and working with them. I do tremendously. I just need to regroup a bit. UCat is growing. St. Mary's is growing. They overlap in time commitments a good deal. How to make all this work? That's the answer I don't have. For a variety of reasons, I have decided not to pursue a "solution" because a solution to this situation is not in my hands. Instead I try to do what I can do to make it work. God seems to be blessing this surrender on my part. Things just keep getting better at both places. I do get frustrated at times but I also get more efficient. I have things falling through the cracks -- mainly things in addition to the two main assignments. I do need a break, and I am getting one soon. Sometimes, like yesterday, I lose my joy for a bit. That's when I need to remember the roller coaster analogy. Since I am on the roller coaster anyway, might as well sit up front and wave my hands in the air rather than cringe in the back. It's going the same place ;-)