Wales forever! Today is the feast day of St. David--a sixth century monk, a reforming bishop, and the patron saint of Wales. I've had the privilege of visiting Wales twice and it may well be my favorite place in the world. It is a land of serene rolling hills, ancient castles, magnificent cliff-faces, and sheep--the perfect spot for quiet reflection. St. David lived an austere and difficult life, but his final words to his brother monks are a fantastic reminder for us and perfectly summarize our Christian duty:
I haven't posted in a while, so I thought I'd start of the new year with a little piece of obscure (and probably irrelevant) historical theology. If you're as nerdy as me, you might find this interesting. Someone recently found this unique tidbit in Denizinger, the definitive collection of Church teaching...
Assistance of a Physician or of a Confessor at a Duel [From the Response of the Holy Office to the Bishop of Poitiers, May 31, 1884]
I. Can a physician when invited by duelists assist at a duel with the intention of bringing an end to the fight more quickly, or simply to bind and cure wounds, without incurring the excommunication reserved simply to the Highest Pontiff?
II. Can he at least, without being present at the duel, stay at a neighboring house or in a place nearby, ready to offer his service, if the duelists have need of it.
III. What about a confessor under the same conditions?
To I, he cannot, and excommunication is incurred. To II and III, that, insofar as it takes place as described, he cannot, and likewise excommunication is incurred.
So have a happy new year and try not to go to any duels in 2018, especially if you're a priest or a doctor!
With the winter weather quickly and seemingly out of nowhere descending upon us it might be nice to spend a minute reflecting on a sunnier topic! This past Monday evening at OLMC we watched part three of Bishop Robert Barron's Catholicism Series and during the video Bishop Barron discussed briefly Georges Seurat's pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (take a look at the painting below).
If you were to go to see the original work at the Art Institute of Chicago you would notice that, like other pointillist works, the painting is magnificent from a distance but a bit confusing from up close. Pointillism involves small distinct dots of color arranged in a larger pattern and the result is a painting that up close seems to be a random assortment of multi-colored points but at a distance displays an image or scene. This genre of painting can, in many ways, be used as an analogy for our everyday lives and the presence of God in the world. So often as we go through our days the things that happen around us seem random, unimportant, or difficult to accept. It is only when we step back and look at the world and our lives as a whole that we can see what is happening and where God is at work. Don't be discouraged if you struggle finding God in this or that event or circumstance in your life, sometimes we need to see the whole picture to find and experience his presence and his Providence.
I always thought that today's feast, The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, was a strange one, why such a big deal about a single solitary church?
I felt that way, that is, until I enrolled just next door at the Pontifical Lateran University, one of my almae matres. It was then that I was able, every day, to spend a little time praying in this magnificent church. First of all, it is not simply called "The Lateran", instead the official title is " Major Papal, Patriarchal and Roman Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in Lateran, Mother and Head of All Churches in Rome and in the World "...quite a mouthful. The Lateran, not St. Peter's, serves as the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome and the Pope's church and it is alive with the history of western civilization. As you enter the Lateran you walk through a set of massive bronze doors, the original doors of the Roman Senate, and once through the doors you will notice ancient columns that were once located in Trajan's Forum. As you gaze on the work of some of the greatest architects and artists in history, men like Borromini and Galilei your eyes are immediately drawn to the massive statues of the twelves apostles that flank the nave of the basilica, each holding the instrument of their martyrdom (definitely notable is St. Bartholomew--holding his own skin!). Throughout the church you'll find countless religious and historical relics from the bones of Ss. Peter and Paul to the bronze that once adorned the Temple of Jupiter and before that Cleopatra's fleet decorating the tabernacle. When you reach the apse of the cathedral you find the chair. When the pope teaches something infallibly we say that he speaks ex cathedra (from the chair)...this is that chair. A remarkable testament to the centrality of this cathedral from the very earliest days of Christianity.
What can you learn from the Cathedral Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Ss. John the Baptist and Evangelist in Lateran? You learn that the church is universal, both in terms of geography and in terms of history. The Church exists on every continent, where billions of Catholics pray the same prayers and make up the same Body of Christ. The Church has also existed for 2,000 years (and in a certain sense, longer) and has been the home to countless sinners and saints, artists, scientists, and leaders. It is on this feast that we celebrate the universality of our church that is so beautifully expressed in the mother and head of all churches, the Pope's cathedral.
Losing a loved one--a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling, a friend--is, in most cases, the most difficult thing that any of us will go through in our lives. It follows, then, that accompanying those we love through the process of mourning a death is one of the most important things that any of us will do in our lives.
As recent news stories have indicated, helping a friend or loved one cope with death can be very intimidating and many of us struggle determining what is the appropriate thing to say or do. Sometimes it seems easier simply to avoid death altogether and resist putting ourselves in situations about which we are unsure or uncomfortable. Our faith, of course, urges us to do the opposite. Not only do three of the Church's works of mercy (burying the dead, praying for the dead, and comforting the sorrowful) urge us to accompany others on the funeral journey, but scripture tells us of Jesus himself accompanying those who mourn from Mary and Martha to Jairus.
Perhaps news of the president's interacting with the grieving widow of a soldier can serve as a reminder to all of us of the importance of being present for those in our lives who are mourning. People aren't looking for us to explain why their loved one has died, they are not looking for us to take away all of their pain, and they are not looking for someone to provide them with all of the answers. Our loved ones, friends, and acquaintances are, above all looking for the people in their life to accompany them, to be present to them, and to listen. Even in the short time since I have been ordained a priest I have noticed a decline in the number of people who attend viewings and funerals and I imagine that this is due in part to the level of discomfort and uncertainty people feel around death. Please, do not allow your discomfort to get the best of you! It is so critically important that we continue to bury those who have died, to pray for them and their families, and to comfort our brothers and sisters as they mourn. You don't need to have all the answers, you simply need to be present--it is one of the most important ways we can follow the example of Christ in our lives and be Christ for those in need.
May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs come to welcome you
and take you to the holy city,
the new and eternal Jerusalem.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord
And may perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.
May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace.
On September 22, 1217, 800 years ago today, legend has it that seven Dominican friars entered Paris for the first time, together with their brother friars in Bologna, Italy, to begin teaching at the university there. The Dominicans were founded by St. Dominic de Guzman the previous year as a mendicant order (support themselves by begging) who would focus on preaching, teaching, and correcting heresy. The Dominicans have for centuries provided some of the church's most brilliant theologians from St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Catherine of Siena in the middle ages to Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu at the Second Vatican Council.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross seems like a strange concept. Why on earth would something like the Cross be exalted. Would we proclaim the glory of the guillotine or the ecstasy of the electric chair? Of course as Christians we shouldn't be shocked by paradoxes such as the exaltation of a weapon of execution. Our Faith holds to notions such as the Incarnation, which states that Christ is both God and human; the Trinity, which tells us that God is both one substance and three persons; and of course Jesus' teaching which proclaims that the last shall be first just to name a few. Our theology of the Cross is no different.
As we prepare to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in October, I am reminded of the extensive writing of Martin Luther on this very topic. For Luther all of Christian thought retains this paradoxical structure, and nowhere is it more evident than in his theology of the Cross. Luther uses the phrase fröhliche Wechsel und Streit, the happy and quarrelsome exchange, to describe what's going on with Jesus' crucifixion. For Luther the Cross is not simply a sad event from the life of Christ, it is an exchange, an exchange that is at once glorious and sorrowful. The Cross is about Christ taking on the sin, death, and darkness of humanity and exchanging it for the redemption, life, and glory of God. It is a trade that at once reminds us of the fallen nature of humanity and the infinite mercy of God. Thus the Cross becomes our salvation, a glorious exchange, and something worthy of exaltation.
I am not old enough to remember the great anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko in life. At the time of his death in a Pretorian prison cell I had not yet been born and my memories of Apartheid South Africa are limited to it's death throes in the late 1980s and early 1990s from my safe home thousands of miles away. It seems, as we celebrate today the 40th anniversary of his unjust and violent death at the hands of an inherently racist government, his memory, at least in the United States and much of the western world, has been neglected. In fact, if it weren't for the song Biko written by a personal favorite Peter Gabriel, many of us may have never encountered his legacy at all.
So why, on a blog written by a Catholic priest in northeastern PA, would I want to touch on the life and death of a man who lived in a country that is not my own, in an era that is long past, and who didn't appear inherently religious at all? It's simple--Biko's legacy touches on something that is as important today as it was in South Africa in the 1970s--dignity.
As a teenager Biko was expelled from all government schools for his involvement in the Black Consciousness Movement and eventually found a home at the Catholic St. Francis College in Natal. You can still read some of his commentary on his time there, how he learned of the contradictions between the Gospel and the "Christian" society in which he lived and became better able to realize the true call of Christ to the black community of South Africa. So much of his writing, his speaking, and his impact centers on the idea that what was/is needed above all for the oppressed black majority in his home country was a sense of dignity, of pride in being black, of eliminating the false and dangerous notion that they belonged to an inferior race. The Black Consciousness Movement was about more than reforming political or economic systems, it was about restoring a sense of dignity to the minds of black South Africans, of allowing his brothers and sisters to feel proud about who they are and be willing to fight for a more just society.
I do not claim to be an expert on the thought of Steve Biko nor am I qualified to examine or explain his message. I do, however, think it is worthwhile today, 40 years after his death, to take a chance to examine his legacy. A quick Google search today will undoubtedly lead you to no shortage of interpretations. It seems to me, though, that above all he sought to bring dignity back to his black community. It is the dignity of the human person that lies at the heart of all Catholic social teaching, dignity that is God-given and inalienable--a truth Steve Biko knew and was willing to die for.
Today, September 5, 2017 is the feast day of St. Teresa of Calcutta and the 20th anniversary of her death. I had the opportunity to offer Mass for her order, the Missionaries of Charity, several times while living in Rome and working with them from time to time as they served the poor and I must say, the stories that you may have heard about their selflessness, dedication, and love for all are not exaggerations. Day begins with Mass at 6 AM and continues, non-stop, from then on. The Missionaries of Charity follow the example of their foundress by dedicating their entire lives to those in most need. It is inspiring (and tiring) to see them in action. Whenever I hear criticism of Mother Teresa following the line of the late Christopher Hitchens it is obvious to me that the individuals leveling the critique have never had the privilege of working with these holy sisters. They are doing work that no one else is willing to do, helping those whom the rest of the world has forgotten.
Perhaps the most inspiring thing about their work is that they are not simply concerned with providing material relief for the poor, they provide the spiritual and psychological tools necessary for them to endure suffering. While we can and should try to eliminate poverty and suffering as best we can, we live in a world in which they are often inevitable. In addition to needing food, water, shelter, and medicine, the poor and suffering of the world need faith, hope, and love. The Missionaries of Charity, in addition to helping with material needs, provide the spiritual tools necessary to endure suffering in a difficult world. What a gift, what beautiful work.
I'll leave you with the words of Mother Teresa during her visit to the University of Scranton in 1976- "know poor people in your own home and local neighborhood"--let us learn to know and serve the poor in our midst, offering them material relief, skills, and spiritual assistance in faith, hope, and love.