Monday, April 27, 2015

the end always comes as a surprise

It dawned on me last night after the 9 p.m. Mass that the students will be leaving. The year is coming to an end. Of course, I can read a calendar, but I mean knowing it in my gut. They won't be around pretty soon. I will miss them. The end always comes as a surprise, I think, because I don't want to face it. I think it will always be this way for me. I will probably be surprised by death.

One of the perfections of God that I most long for is His immutability. I can't wait to be beyond change. My friend the Cranky Professor, who is an early medievalist, loves to quote for me the beginning of St. Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks: "A great many things just keep happening." Amen, brother!

In the mean time...let's get ready for next year.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Going out with a bang!

Today will be quite a happy Sunday! Confessions and Mass in the parish, a talk at 3 to Get Married, Mass at Belmont, and a holy hour and Mass at Vanderbilt! But it's the last Sunday for the semester. Can you believe that?

So pray for a good end to the school year. Pray for me to be a faithful servant today. And, if you can, pray for a little more help for next year ;-)

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

UCat

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

Michael

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 ;-)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

culture wars

I know that I am way out there when it comes to contemporary culture. I am not on Facebook and don't ever intend to be. I don't care about Tweets. I hardly even care about TV or movies. I just care about people -- the real kind. When I socialize or communicate, I want to interact with a person. I don't want to influence millions because I don't think that I can really. I think maybe I can influence the few around me. They are the ones who see me, the real me, rather than the image of myself that I am trying to project by social media. I think this is the reason behind my current blog project of revealing myself through those who have influenced me.

Anyhow, this is to explain why I cringe at the concept of culture war. A culture formed this way is not a culture that I am interested in. I had a thoughtful discussion with a recent alum who comes by the chapel at Frassati House to pray on a regular basis. We were speaking of a friend of his who is trying to engage evangelical leaders in authentic Christian outreach to those with same-sex attraction. This is cultural engagement worth pursuing, but it's not culture war. Back in our skirmishes in culture war, I tried very hard to stay on the issue of fairness and freedom for religious groups to make relevant distinctions in how they organize themselves, much as many other student groups do. We lost. I did not want to push the "wider implications" of this conflict. I am here to serve the students need for the Catholic faith, not get on a soap box.

It comes down to being a Christian: to being a follower of the one who came to serve. How can I serve? What a liberating question! Not how do I win? Or how do I get more likes? Or how do I influence the most people? What slavery is that! I was very edified at the Knights of Columbus meeting last night at Frassati, when a couple of the young men emphasized more service for crisis pregnancy centers as a way to become more involved in pro-life causes. It is not flashy, but it involves "meeting the people" rather than projecting the image.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

SMA

Sr. Margaret Andrew, that is. Well, she is certainly not extinct or anywhere close! I am moved to write about her because of something that happened yesterday. I conducted the funeral of a woman just my sister's age. It shook me up at the cemetery. It was not my own mortality that shook me up but hers. In terms of human relationships, especially family, I don't have much more to lose.

Anyhow, let me tell you more about my sister. Nobody ever forgets about meeting Sr. Margaret Andrew, although they often take a while getting her name right. She is fully alive wherever she is. You can go from city to city where she has been assigned and find her remembered fondly and strongly. This is especially true in Birmingham. My sister is about Alabama the way that I am about Texas, although with much more reality to back it up in her case. It is her second state.

On the personal level, she is so good with people, and she knows she is. She is also very accomplished professionally and academically. I love to point out how much better educated she is that I am, with a real doctorate (a Ph.D) and a real theology degree, not the M.Div that I have. Right now, for example, she is at the National Catholic Education Association convention giving a couple of presentations.

She works too hard and takes on too much. For example, she was working full time, driving all over Alabama, getting new programs at Aquinas accredited, and all kinds of other things while getting her Ph.D. Oh, and in remission from cancer. She thinks it took her too long to finish!

Maybe someday I will go back into our growing up but not now. I just want to celebrate her as she is. After our father's death and her being assigned to the wonderful community of sisters in Washington, DC, I think that we were both in a pretty low state. She even had pneumonia at the time. We have worked very hard to support one another. I don't really know what I would do without her. She is the best prayer warrior and cheerleader ever.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Wildflowers

Yesterday, I was determined to get to Beaman Park again despite the predictions of rain. I did make it, and the rain began just as I was driving away. It was not as fine a day as my last visits there. I think I have been there for four Mondays in a row -- or is it three? But the overcast sky made things feel stiller and quieter. It was great.

I really wanted to go again because I wanted to see how the wildflowers were coming along. On my first trip, there were no signs of wildflowers. Each week, there have been more signs and a few early bloomers. Last week, the red trilium were about to open but not quite yet. This week they were all over the place, phlox had slipped in unexpectedly, and the shooting stars are where the trilium were last week -- temptingly on the verge of blooming.

I realize that for most of you, this is getting boring and sounding like a foreign language. Wildflowers are not a hot interest of too many people. But they are for me because of another one of those people who have influenced my life: my maternal grandmother. Donnye Clopton Tarver was my best friend as a little boy when she moved from Murfreesboro to the house next door to us in Ashland City. I would stay at her house a lot. We were both very early risers. We would have breakfasts of pound cake and coke, play games, plan trips that both of us knew we would  never take, etc. How much fun is all that? She loved wildflowers and had what I realize now was an amazing wildflower garden. Hence my interest in wildflowers which has been resurrected lately by my friend Roger Sisson's plans for a wildflower garden at his river house in Polk County.

My grandmomma Donnye was so exotic to me as a little boy. She seemed always frail, but she would use French expressions in ordinary conversation and other neat things like that. She had been given a teaching license upon graduation from high school in western Kentucky because of a severe shortage of teachers somehow resulting from the First World War. She later went on the receive a masters degree from the University of Michigan. We have a picture of her in a sleigh with friends all covered by a fur blanket. How a young woman from the Purchase ended up in Ann Arbor in the 20's is a story I never really heard. My mother took delight in telling people that her mother was more educated than she was.

I think that will have to do for today, if I am going to get any work done!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

the greatest day of his life

Not having mastered bi-location (we'll leave aside the metaphysical problems), I was not able to be at the Easter Vigil at the Cathedral last night when the UCat students received the Sacraments of Initiation. Rather, I was at St. Mary's. But I did make it back for the party. And party is the word. I am so happy that the most festive event we have at the Frassati House each year is the Easter Vigil party. It is as it should be. There was even a Jewish student there whom I wished a happy Passover. We made party small talk about the Exodus. Awesome!

Anyhow, I got to talk with one of the newly baptized. He told me that this was the greatest day of his life. He was right. It is the eternal day beginning for him.

I also gave Cathoversary greetings to a number of students celebrating the anniversary of their initiation into the sacramental life of the Church. So much joy!

Christ is Risen!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Holy Thursday charity

I had the bright idea of asking parishioners to put small gift cards to practical places like Walgreens and Subway that exist downtown and bus passes into the offering for Holy Thursday. It allows us to do a kind of foot washing at St. Mary's when people come by with small and humble requests for food or transportation. Well, like just about everything else at St. Mary's, it worked. They started coming in last weekend even, including a big stack of one ride bus passes.

During the Holy Thursday Watch, pretty late because I had so many confessions, someone came to the door. I went to invite the person in. It was a teenage boy looking like he had gotten off work from a restaurant -- he was still in an apron. He asked if we could help him. He had lost his bus pass. I asked if the buses were still running, and he said yes that he only needed a pass. I was able to get one for him on the spot, and he went across the street catch the bus.

Thank you.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Fr. Conly

The middle of the Triduum seems a fitting time to remember Fr. Conly -- the title that even the Catholic Bishop of Nashville let him use, even though he was never ordained a Catholic priest. His name was Edwin Leonard Conly, and he was my pastor in the Episcopal Church from as early as I can remember until I was out of college. His tombstone simply identifies him as "priest," although trusting Leo XII, I know that he never was. He certainly died a Catholic.

It's complicated. Like he was.

He was a Texan: an alum of the University of Texas among a number of Aggie brothers, including one who was commandant of the corps. He was a Marine Corps chaplain at the end of World War II, serving in China. He tried his vocation as a monk and ended up serving Episcopal churches in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and finally and longest in Nashville. He was a musician, owning the largest private collection of music that I have ever seen -- and not much else. He was intense, certainly too intense at times, but he showed the glory of excellence and recognized it in others, whether mechanic or musician. He understood the liturgy deeply.

That is why I cannot separate Holy Week from him and perhaps why I always feel inadequate and overwhelmed at this time. I can never do Holy Week the way he did. I am not sure that I could or should, but it is hard to tell your emotions how to feel.

He was man of prayer and taught me to pray. That has made all the difference. He is the first person to suggest that I pray about the priesthood. This happened while he was still an Episcopalian and I was a Catholic already.

Alongside his intensity was a joy and gentleness that made him popular with children. He was also a class act with perfect manners -- not pretentious at all but putting one at ease, as good manners are supposed to.

He loved to hike. Simple hikes with him in Edwin Warner or Montgomery Bell Park are fond memories. My discovery of Beaman Park takes me back to those times.

That does not give you much to work with, but I don't know how to capture him for you. Even at the time, he was a member of an endangered species and now certainly extinct. My life would not be what it is apart from him.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

GD, continued

My mother had lots of friends from childhood in Murfreesboro -- straight out of central Southern casting, from college, in Ashland City, and even one made in Brazil but from Canada who is my godmother and who lived with us for a long time much later. My mother appreciated authentic people. This is where my sister gets her instinct for people who are the "real deal" as she says. Our pastor growing up, who was so austere in so many ways, was captivated by my mother. He used to say that he wished he had been in college with her because they would have been such good friends. And my mother did have male friends from college. I cannot tell you how many people to this day say how much they miss my mother's friendship. I do too.

She took a lot of stray people under her wing. Not just anybody -- she was not the soup kitchen kind of person, but she would get deeply involved in peoples' lives and let them into hers. Basically, it was the people whom God sent to her to take care of.  She certainly had a streak of noblesse oblige, for good and ill, in this work, but mainly for good. She got her hands dirty and sometimes bitten.

I am not sure how to keep from going on and on so I will just call it quits, but I do need to address her spiritual life that was so matter of fact and practical. Once she became a Catholic, her main apostolate was the Legion of Mary -- straight by the handbook. It was a perfect fit.

I think that these are a least some of the aspects of my mother than fit the criteria of being nearly extinct. Let me introduce you to some more of the rare breed that I have known.

1st UCat priest

Fr. Josh Altonji and some UCat friends in Birmingham!

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