Saturday, October 18, 2014

Rome of the West

I am in St. Louis on a fall break mission/vocation trip. The idea for a trip like this springs from the mind of Caroline Duffy, and it's brilliant!

We have been staying at the seminary in St. Louis (boys and girls, with the kindest hospitality), working with the Little Sisters of the Poor for two days, and having dinner in the homes of students from St. Louis. Today, the boys and girls split up in the morning to visit religious communities and then get back together for fun in the city. Tomorrow is Mass at the magnificent Cathedral and then back to Nashville. I am coming home today, for obvious reasons.

Anyhow, it has worked well. The Little Sisters are so awesome! Their home in St. Louis is in a rough and depopulated part of the city. As they say, just where they ought to be. And it is so neat to be in a city with its own seminary. There is a certain feel of being at home and taking care of home when there is a seminary in your own town.

St. Louis has the "infrastructure" that the Church imagines for a diocese. There is a lot of excitement in a local church like Nashville, but we are having to make up so much as we go along. Here it is solidly in place, hence the nickname: Rome of the West.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In the beginning it was not so...

It is hard to tell what is actually going on in the Synod, but it seems that the emphasis has been on pathologies of marriage and family life rather than on the way of perfection that is marriage and family life. For example, what to do about divorce, cohabitation, etc.

I hope that the Synod will not fall into this trap -- the trap of letting the world rather than God set the agenda. This trap was set for Jesus when he was asked about divorce, but rather than getting drawn into a consideration of divorce, which is a human invention, the Lord redirected to a consideration of what God's original plan for marriage was: the two shall be one.

Let's talk about how to get couples into marriage with good preparation and formation. Let's talk about how to support family life and the education of children. Let's talk about how to accomplish reconciliation in marriages and families. This is the Gospel agenda.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Beginning again?

As you have noticed, I have not been blogging much at all. I got tired of hearing me so I figured you all must be too! I am tempted to start again but this time not so much about specific things as the bigger picture.

OK, here goes: The Synod on the Family in Rome. Tuned-in Catholics are buzzing about this one. There was some document released yesterday about pastoral approaches needing to rely more on such human qualities as finding and encouraging the good in irregular situations. Of course, that's a good idea, but I doubt that it will work. Leaving theology aside, my hesitation about this approach is its reliance on human efforts to "solve" difficult pastoral situations. That requires superhuman effort and expertise on the part of ordinary pastors. Even then, it's iffy. We, the pastors of the Church, are not superMEN. We do have super powers, but they are supernatural ones, not natural ones. I might (or might not) be good at listening, even counselling, but every priest IS an expert in killing sins in the confessional or baptizing babies or witnesses marriage vows. Get people to the sacraments, and let God work. He promises. So if you have a humanly talented priest, good. Let him listen and counsel. But the emphasis on the Church ought to be on the supernatural means that she alone has to offer and that alone heal and reconcile without fail.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Zombie controversy: it won't die

See yours truly in The Chronicle of Higher Education. My quotation is quite a ways into the article.

I wish it were in The Chronicles of Narnia! As a little boy, I had a wardrobe in my bedroom. I would climb into it and stay for what seemed hours trying to get into Narnia. Never worked.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Reflection on Fr. William Carmona's priesthood

I went to San Antonio for Fr. William's ordination with Fr. John Hammond. Actually, he mentioned to me that he was going, and I realized that I could -- should -- go too. Fr. Hammond was ordained this summer in the record setting ordination class of 2014 for the Diocese of Nashville, now up to 10 with the ordination of Fr. William. Fr. Hammond asked me to preach, not at his first Mass but at his second: a Solemn High Mass at St. Mary's. It was a votive Mass of Our Lady. Anyhow, it struck me that the homily that I preached for this Mass of Fr. Hammond, my companion to the ordination, would actually serve just as well as a reflection on Fr. William's priesthood. Here it is in the previous post, if you care to read it.


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Two days in a row, and I find myself bringing up predestination in a favorable light! Don’t worry, I am certainly no Calvinist, but the theme of predestination is clear in the texts of our Mass. Today’s Mass is a votive of Our Blessed Lady and a Mass of Thanksgiving for the ordination of Fr. John Hammond. Yes, in that order. The fact is that Mary’s Fiat and Fr. Hammond’s Adsum were both predestined by God. They were no surprise to Him, and to the extent that they surprise us betrays the extent to which we are seeing things not as God sees them but as man does.

Things are destined to go well. How else can God’s perfect creation go? And in Mary’s case and so far in Fr. Hammond’s priesthood, they have gone well. Of course, Father hasn’t had much time to mess it up. But even if he has messed it up and even when he will – and he will (That’s one of the heaviest crosses of the priesthood: to mess up God’s work) – we know that all is for good, omnia in bonum. Even the Blessed Mother, although she never sins, seems to need a nudge from God from time to time: those occasions, for example, when she ponders in her heart.

The Lesson at Mass today prefigures of Mary’s predestination, and the Gospel shows it working out practically. God’s “dwelling place” among His people that He has prepared as described in the Lesson is recognized and honored spontaneously by the woman in the Gospel: “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee and the paps that gave thee suck.” Even though this woman in the crowd has rightly recognized Mary as the predestined dwelling place of God, the Lord has to correct her as to why His Mother should be honored.

The woman in the crowd misunderstands Mary’s role in the history of salvation. Or at least she gets it out of order, and that is almost as bad! Fr. Hammond and I had a professor at Sewanee – God rest his soul – who assumed a false and funny modesty in translating references to feminine anatomy that would come up reading Latin poetry. He would refer to the heroine’s or the goddess’s “machinery” rather than to refer to body parts. Well, that is what this woman is praising about Mary: her "machinery," the fact that she physically gave birth to Jesus. Yet that is not what is special about what Mary did. Any woman had the “machinery” for that. Don’t get me wrong: the physical aspects of Mary’s maternity are worthy of honor, but not first. Remember order matters.

The interior is first: “blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” Jesus is constantly turning us to the interior. This interior receptivity is what Mary did uniquely, and of course it did have its physical manifestations. The Word actually became flesh in her. Nevertheless, her hearing and keeping the word is primary. And it is for us as well.

Mary had a unique way of hearing and keeping God’s word that was very literal. She actually heard the Ave Maria, and she actually responded Fiat. And it was indeed done unto her according to the Word. There are likewise specific ways that a priest is destined to hear and keep God’s word. The ordination ceremony is full of them! There is most importantly the silent gesture of the laying on of hands. There are the spoken promises. There is also the acquisition of a lot of the “machinery” of the priesthood: the things that can be seen, heard, and touched. The challenge and struggle of the priesthood is to hear and to keep interiorly all of these words and signs of ordination.

The very laying on of hands is the most powerful of these words, although silent. The power of the priesthood is conveyed in this silent word: the power to confect the Holy Eucharist, the power to forgive sins, the power of Holy Anointing, and so much more. These powers sounds like something in a super hero comic book with lightning bolts and other special effects. What keeps them from being something merely flashy is the cross that comes with the power, the requirement to drink from the Chalice from which the Lord Jesus drinks in His Passion. And this was conveyed in Fr. Hammond’s ordination in the very hands that rested on his head, the hands of our beloved Bishop which themselves manifest the burden that he carries for his flock at every moment. Those hands that he painfully flexes again and again so that he can lay them on the heads of those he ordains, so that he can receive from them their vows of obedience. Those hands, said to be healing hands, have reached out as the hands of Jesus Christ to so many in want or need, to so many seeking welcome or encouragement. To make a promise of obedience into such hands demands so much more than accepting one’s assignments. Obedience to such a shepherd requires a very generous heart that does everything to help this shepherd feed and protect his flock.

In his ordination, the priest also promises to be a man of prayer, especially for his people. Certainly he is to do what is expected of him liturgically praying the Divine Office and celebrating the sacraments, but he must pray interiorly until his heart breaks. I have spent most of this month at the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia, Italy. Sometimes I despaired of praying in the Basilica of the monastery because there would be so many noisy tourists coming to see the birthplace of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica. Fortunately, there was a small church just around the corner that was open most of the day. I grew very fond of praying there. First, because it was built as a church of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, for whom I have great devotion and whose heart literally exploded with the love of God. It is also dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows – the Adolorata. The image above the altar has, not little daggers, but rather a huge sword piercing Mary’s heart. I don’t know Italian, but I could make out the description of a miracle associated with this image. It seems that at a certain point, the image shed tears, and if that were not good enough, the tears caused miraculous healings. This became for me an image of what the prayer of a priest for his people must be: prayer offered with tears and groans from the heart for healing and salvation of souls, especially those most difficult to reach.

The chalice, paten, and vestments presented to the priest at ordination are definitely the “machinery” of priesthood – as well as so much other fun stuff! It would be impossible to imagine the priesthood without this machinery, in some form or another. They are as essential to priesthood as a womb and breasts are to motherhood, and yet they are secondary. As we uses these vestments and vessels, we are invited as priests to enter in the mystery signified by this “machinery,” the mysteries, for example, described in the vesting prayers: the amice as the helmet of salvation, etc. What we do not see at Mass is, after all, infinitely more important than what we do see. In the best case, what we see leads us beyond itself to what we do not see. With priority on the interiority of priestcraft, we behold the mystery, as St. Thomas so paradoxically has us sing.

As I frequently tell couples on their wedding day, this is a glorious day. But more glorious days are coming. The day, for example, 50 years from now when you will have done these things that you said you were going to do and when you will love each other so much more even than you do today because and not despite the struggles of married life. This is a glorious day for the Church in this Mass, one of the first offered by Fr. John Hammond. We are certainly being drawn into the mystery of our salvation in this Mass. But for Fr. Hammond, even more glorious days are coming, glorious days that are already present to God, that are no mystery to Him although they are to Fr. Hammond. The glory of “saving a thousand souls,” as St. John Vianney said was true of every good priest. The glory of the inexplicable reconciliation of a hardened sinner. The glory of fidelity to prayer. The glory of beginning again in the face of his own human failure or error. Those moments when he is driven inward because no outward explanation remains. It is the only reason for old priests! And finally on that day when perhaps he can do nothing outwardly priestly at all, when all the "equipment" fails, that will be the day when his predestined glory is fulfilled, hidden in the lifeless body of the Lord held by His Blessed and Sorrowful Mother. It will be accomplished.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fr. William Carmona, RIP

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him.

Fr. William died this afternoon. There will be a funeral Mass in San Antonio before his remains are taken to Colombia. Details are incomplete at this time.