Sunday, March 27, 2016

He Is Risen! - 'Laudamus Te'

"The Resurrection", by Sebastiano Ricci
He is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Here's some joyful music for Easter Sunday, Laudamus Te ("We Praise You") from Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor, beautifully performed by Anne Sofie von Otter.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Holy Saturday: "Something Strange Is Happening . . . "

On Good Friday and Holy Saturday every year the Cathedral here offers the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, presided over by the bishop.  It has become a tradition for me to attend on Holy Saturday with my four sons, while my wife and daughter stay home and enjoy some Female Bonding.  I have been writing a series of posts recently about the Liturgy of the Hours as a private devotion for laypeople, [starting  here] with an emphasis on how we can structure our daily routine around prayer and so make Christ the center of our day.  Praying the Divine Office as a congregational prayer is an even more powerful experience.  This morning about thirty people, mostly lay, gathered with our bishop, two of his priests and two cantors in the sanctuary of the Cathedral; the cantors sang the antiphons in Latin, and we all chanted the Psalms together.  It was a beautiful and moving experience.
     The Liturgy of the Hours is just one of many means that Christ has given, through his Church, to  conform ourselves to Him, as he has called us to do (see Rom 12:2, Eph 5:1-2. 1Peter 2:21, and many other places in scripture).  In fact, if we fail in this, all else is worthless (See 1 Cor 13).  Not only are there many means, there are also any number of ways in which to conform ourselves to Christ.  Many people see this as  a largely spiritual, and therefore an internal matter; to some degree this is true, but it's only part of the story. The moral quality of our life and conduct, for instance, is also important.  As Catholics we further understand that we often come to realize spiritual realities through God’s creation, an understanding often referred to as the “Sacramental Imagination” or the “Sacramental Principle.”  That’s why we place so much importance on the Sacraments and sacramentals; that’s why at the end of every Mass the priest used to read the beginning of John’s Gospel, the Beloved Disciple’s great hymn to the Eternal Word who Became Flesh and dwelt among us”(John 1:14). That is also why the Liturgical Calendar is so important, so that we might live out the story of Salvation in our lives over the course of each year, rather than just read or hear about it.  Through the Liturgical Calendar we sanctify time over the course of an entire year, just as the Liturgy of the Hours consecrates each day.
     We have an especially rich experience of this Sacramental Reality during the Triduum and Easter, when the Liturgical Year reaches its peak.  Just as the Sacrifice and Resurrection of Jesus is not simply reenacted at every Mass but is actually present outside the confines of time, so it is during the Holy Week and Easter liturgies: we are present as Christ washes the Apostles feet at the last supper; we are in the crowd calling for Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday; we stand in front of the Empty Tomb on Easter Sunday.
     Which brings us back to today's Office of Readings. The non-Scriptural reading from today’s office was, as the prayer book says, “From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday.”  It begins:

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. . . 

But now night is falling, and the whole world is awaiting a new dawn . . . 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Christ Came To Serve

He said to them, "But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.  For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was reckoned with transgressors'; for what is written about me has its fulfilment." And they said, "Look, Lord, here are two swords." And he said to them, "It is enough." (Luke 22:36-38)

     I often find it easy to identify with Peter and the other Apostles when they are slow to catch on to what their Master is saying.  In the passage above, from Luke’s account of the Last Supper, there’s an almost comical quality to their too literal understanding of Christ’s sword imagery.  I picture Jesus shaking his head, with just a hint of a wry smile, as he says “It is enough.”  And yet this is a very serious moment, the Lord’s last instructions to his closest associates before he goes out to meet a horrifying death.  And later that same evening, Peter uses one of those two swords to mutilate a man in the gang that has come to arrest Jesus; nobody smiles at that.

Giotto's Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet

     In the passage below from John’s Gospel, one of the readings at this evening’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we see something very similar:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, "Lord, do you wash my feet?" Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand." Peter said to him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you." (John 13:3-10)

     When he takes on the servile task of washing the Apostles’ feet, Jesus doesn’t simply speak but acts out his message, in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, that the purpose of the Apostles’ office is to serve, and not to exalt themselves.  After Jesus notes that Peter does not understand what his Lord is doing, Peter confirms it with a curious mixture of pride and humility: he is indignant that his Master should lower himself in this way. Jesus tells him, in effect, that this is the price of discipleship, and then Peter, thinking that now he gets it, goes to the opposite extreme: in that case, wash everything!  As in the passage from Luke, Christ seems, in effect, to shake his head patiently and move on.
     There are many other examples like these in the Gospels: Peter and the other Apostles just don’t understand; then when they think they’ve finally got it, they still don’t understand.  And yet, these are the men Jesus has chosen to carry on his mission.  This tells us something about what it is to be human: none of us can figure it all out on our own.  We need the Power of the Father, the Saving Grace of Christ, and the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. When we see the same Peter acting with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles, we see a more consistent and confident Apostle, much more worthy to be the Rock on which Christ builds his Church.
     The washing of the feet also points to the much greater events that are about to unfold.  Christ’s death on the Cross, a servile and degrading form of execution (Roman citizens, such as St. Paul, underwent the more dignified penalty of beheading with a sword), was the ultimate act of Service, because it was all for us:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Who can blame Peter for finding that hard to accept?  But eventually he does, through God’s Grace.  I pray that I also, in the commemoration of Christ’s Passion and glory of his Resurrection, find the grace to understand, and to accept His service to me.  

Monday, March 21, 2016

Confession, Jonah, and The Prodigal's Sons


I had the good fortune to be able to go to confession the other day. A part of my penance was to meditate on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). My confessor emphasized that the father in Jesus' story, who extravagantly welcomes back his wastrel son, is the true "prodigal". In the context of Sacrament of Confession we can see a clear identification between this father and the loving and forgiving God, with ourselves as the erring son who, having wasted his father's generosity, returns home chastened and knowing that any any kindness he receives will be more than he deserves. "Father", he says, "I have sinned against Heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:18).

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Jean Germain Drouais (angry son at right)

There is another son in the story, however, the Good Son, who remained faithfully at home and, as he tells his father, “ 'Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command” (Luke 15:29).  Angry that his erring brother is receiving a huge “welcome back” party, while his father “never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends” (Luke 15:29), the obedient son stubbornly refuses to come in and join the celebration.  He is, in fact, still obstinately standing outside the house at the end of Jesus’ parable, and the last thing we see is his father pleading with him “to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32).
    Thinking about this second son, I was reminded of the story of Jonah.  I had never before considered how closely Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son parallels the last two chapters of the book of Jonah.  In the Old Testament book we see the people of Ninevah, like the Prodigal Son himself, whole-heartedly repent, and in turn receive whole-hearted forgiveness.  Who could object to that?  As it turns out, Jonah could, and does, object:

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, "I pray thee, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil.  Therefore now, O LORD, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:1-3).

"Jonah, Seated Under the Gourd, Contemplates the City"
(Maerten van Heemskerck)
Jonah stays angry, at least as far we can see.  God tries to soften his heart, first with kindness, by growing a large plant to shield him from the sun; next, a harsher approach, in which he kills the plant and exposes the sulking prophet to the ravages of sun and wind.  Jonah’s heart is unchanged: "I do well to be angry,” he says, “ angry enough to die” (Jonah 4:9).  The story ends, as does Jesus’ parable, with the voice of the Father explaining to his angry son why it is better to show compassion for those who were lost in sin:

"You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night.  And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" (Jonah 4:10-11)

In both places, it is left unsaid whether the Father’s kindly words eventually pierce the heart of his unforgiving son.
    Which brings us back to Luke’s Gospel. The parable of the Prodigal Son is the culmination of a series of parables illustrating that, as Jesus says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).  He is addressing a group of  Scribes and Pharisees who were grumbling about Jesus, saying "This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).  The angry son in the parable is obviously intended to represent Christ’s hard-hearted critics.  
    Scripture, of course, always works on numerous levels, and we can see other meanings in the unforgiving brother as well.  As I meditated on this passage I could see myself in this unlovely figure; as much as I can identify with the erring but repentant son, I can also be the judging, unyielding son who refuses to share his Father’s joy in the redemption of those who had previously fallen. Sometimes, amazingly, I can be both at once.
     In his way, the angry son is the worse sinner.  There can be no doubt that the first son has indulged in serious and destructive wrongdoing, but because it’s so obvious, and the consequences so inescapable, he knows he needs to repent.  The second son appears to be doing all the right things, and in fact he is . . . on the outside.  He is really like (again) the scribes and pharisees, whom Jesus says "are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (Matthew 23:27). The appearance of probity keeps him from seeing his own sinful heart, and he willingly removes himself from his father’s house.  Jesus makes the same point with a different parable in Matthew’s Gospel:

A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not'; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." (Matthew 21:28-31)

    This is, I think, a good point to consider as we embark upon Holy Week.  It may be that the inspired author of Jonah, and Jesus himself with his parable, finish with a open-ended question, because we, in the person of the (self)righteous son, are being invited to give up our stubbornness and embrace the Father's compassion. All of us need to throw ourselves on the mercy of God, Who in his prodigal love for us gave His only Son to suffer and die for our sins.  Who am I to place my judgment over His?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Where Have All The Fathers Gone?

Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers.  It seems a good time to republish one of my first blog posts, a piece on the importance of Fatherhood (originally posted January 22nd, 2014)

Decline of Fatherhood

It's not easy being the Dad . . . Federico Barrocci's Aeneas' Flight From Troy
      One of the largest elephants in the room today (if I may further abuse an already overworked metaphor) is the decline of fatherhood.  It is just one of a number of factors in the implosion of the traditional family, but it’s a - or maybe, the - key one. If you google “the importance of the father” you’ll find 98,600,000 results. That’s 98 plus million. These are not mostly religious or conservative sources: most are related to various universities or government agencies, some are mainstream magazines not known for their cultural conservatism, such as Parenting and Psychology Today. Whatever their perspective they all have the same general message: growing up without a father is bad. Real bad.
   In order to get a sense of the immensity of the problem you can to go to site of one of the organizations set up specifically to address this problem, such as The National Fatherhood Initiative at They have lists of problem areas, including: poverty, emotional/behavioral problems, maternal & child health, crime & incarceration, sexual activity & teen pregnancy, child abuse, drug & alcohol abuse, childhood obesity, education. Not only do they cite studies and statistics, they have links to collections of studies and statistics for each category, a veritable mountain of information that is researched, published and . . . ignored. The information is there, its import is crystal clear, but it seems that nobody who is able to have an impact on public opinion is willing to say or do anything. That’s why I was so pleased to hear Maine Governor Paul Lepage address the issue (here) in such a forthright way at a public appearance a couple years ago.

Like Father, Like Son (and Daughter)

     Of course, while there are political dimensions to it, this is not primarily a political problem; its sources are social and cultural and therefore, on a deeper level, spiritual and religious. Which means we can’t expect governors, or senators or presidents, to fix it for us: the answers lie in our own attitudes, choices and behaviors.
     The Australian Catholic publication AD2000 (which I cited here also, in a recent post about church architecture) produced a fascinating article (here) a few years ago about a very important aspect of the fatherhood  crisis, especially for us as Catholics, called “Church Attendance: the family, feminism, and the declining role of fatherhood.”   The article focused on a survey done in Switzerland that examined  the relationship between the parents’church attendance and that of their children, and examined the different effects of the father’s religious practice (or lack thereof) and that of the mother. There are a variety of angles and permutations, but the big picture is this:

     .[I]f a father does not go to church, no matter how regular the mother is in her religious
     practice, only one child in 50 becomes a regular church attender. But if a father attends
     regularly then regardless of the practice of the mother at least one child in three will become a
     regular church attender.

Wow. Notice that this is for all children, by the way, not just boys. AD2000 goes on to quote an
Anglican clergyman named Robbie Low, who says:

     . . . when a child begins to move into that period of differentiation from home and
     engagement with the world 'out there', he (and she) looks increasingly to the father for
     that role model. Where the father is indifferent, inadequate or just plain absent, that task
     is much harder and the consequences more profound.

This has been shown to be true over and over again, of course, although one must have courage to
say so in "polite" company these days. Vicar Low points out an important way that the decline of
fatherhood has affected his church, one which we Catholics would be wise to consider:

     Emasculated liturgy, gender-free Bibles and a fatherless flock are increasingly on offer.
     In response to this, decline has, unsurprisingly, accelerated. To minister to a fatherless
     society the Church of England, in its unwisdom, has produced its own single-parent
     family parish model in the woman priest.

Lex Orandi, etc.

Guido Reni's St. Joseph With The Infant Jesus 
     It's a startling thought, but it rings true;  and while we won’t be seeing women priests in the Catholic Church (see John Paul the Great’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis [here], and the CDF document [here] affirming that the teaching on an the all-male priesthood is infallible), we are already seeing the emasculation of the liturgy in many other ways.  At all but one of the Masses in my parish the majority of lectors and extraordinary ministers are women, in some cases all of them; in all but one Mass, most or all of the altar servers are girls (and if three of my sons didn’t serve, it might be all the Masses). Among the various other things that a priest does, he is an iconic representation of the fatherhood of God. When he is surrounded by women in the sanctuary, that image is diluted. As a more practical matter, the more something is dominated by girls, the less attractive it is to boys. That may be a regrettable reality, but a reality it remains. Over the last dozen years we have seen the male/female ratio among altar servers tip ever further in the female direction. Altar serving has historically been a first step for many men in discerning a vocation to the priesthood, so as fewer boys become servers we can expect fewer “father figures” to preside at Mass and consecrate the body and blood of Christ; also, more generally, the more the Mass is seen as a “girl thing”, the more religious belief and practice themselves will seem to be “unmanly” (lex orandi, lex credendi – “the law of praying is the law of believing”), and the fewer men will bother to show up at all.

     I’m not trying to pick a fight with those whose daughters are altar servers, or who serve as lectors at Mass.  I think that it’s a good thing that we’re trying to do more than pay lip service to the truth that women enjoy a dignity equal to that of men. I also appreciate the huge number of single mothers who are struggling, sometimes heroically, to do the best they can for their children.  I’m only asking that you please look at the resources I have linked above and consider that, in a society that is destroying itself because it refuses to acknowledge the difference between women and men, we as Catholics can be a prophetic voice proclaiming and celebrating the separate but complementary roles proper to each sex.  
     On April 4th, the Feast of the Annunciation, we will (quite rightly) celebrate the Blessed Mother and her "yes" to God's plan that she be the Mother of the Savior (Luke 1:38).  Today is a reminder that Joseph also gives his assent, in his case to give up his own plans in order to be the Messiah's Father here on Earth (Matthew 1:18-25).  God saw to it that the Word Become Flesh would have both a mother and father in this world, each playing a specific role.  Wouldn't we be wise to follow his lead?

we pray, Almighty God,
that by Saint Joseph's intercession
your Church may watch over
the unfolding of the mysteries of human salvation,
whose beginnings you entrusted to his watchful care.
Through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.

(See also "Fatherhood and the Litany of St. Joseph" on Nisi Dominus)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick and Slavery to Sin

(An earlier version of this throwback was first published 17 March 2015)

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today” (Deuteronomy 15:14-15)
     St. Patrick is, of course, the Patron Saint of Ireland, but he wasn’t originally Irish.   He was Romano-British, probably born in what is now southern Scotland.  His first introduction to the Emerald Isle was as a slave, after he had been kidnapped as a youth by Irish raiders.  In his difficulties he came increasingly to rely on God, and he believed that God was calling him out of captivity.  He escaped and found his way home.  His faith life deepened, and after a time he concluded that he was being called back to save those who had enslaved him.  After ordination as a priest he returned to Ireland, where he successfully evangelized his former captors, and eventually became known as the Apostle of Ireland.

St Patrick baptizing former captors

     There is something profoundly Christian about St. Patrick’s story.  I am reminded, by way of contrast, of a story about the young Julius Caesar as told by the historian Suetonius.  When he was a young man, Caesar was kidnapped by pirates, who held him for ransom.  The buccaneers were charmed by the Roman aristocrat’s magnetic personality, and soon he was a participant, even a leader, in all their feasting and horseplay.  Suetonius relates that Caesar often smilingly told the pirates that, when he was ransomed, he would come back and crucify all of them, which apparently amused them quite a bit. As it turned out, Caesar wasn’t joking: after he was ransomed, he returned and brutally avenged himself on his abductors.
     St. Patrick came back as well, but in a spirit of love, not of vengeance, heeding the words of Jesus Christ: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  He shows us in a very concrete way how the Wisdom of God is indeed different from the “wisdom” of the world (see 1 Corinthians 3:19).

     We don’t need to be kidnapped or enslaved in a literal sense to see how the lesson of St. Patrick applies to ourselves.  Jesus Christ came to save us from slavery to sin.  Many serious Catholics that I know have spent a part of their life separated from Christ, living in that state of servitude.  Like St. Patrick, we are called to respond to that experience in love, and to try to bring others, even those who have wronged us, into the freedom of Christ.   That, rather than funny hats and green beer, is the true Spirit of St. Patrick’s Day.

(See also "The Breastplate of St. Patrick: Still Relevant After 1500 Years")

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Moses, Pharaoh, and Why We Preach the Gospel

(An earlier version of this Thursday Throwback was first published on 27 February 2015)

       One of the most vivid images from the Old Testament is Moses standing before Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, and demanding "Let my people go!"  It's a powerful image for its own sake, but also for what it says about our own role in proclaiming the Word of God in the face of an unbelieving world.  

    We can find the depiction of Moses' confrontation with Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, verses 6:28 through 7:25.  Here we see Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh in order to ask him to release the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt.  Pharaoh is unwilling, and so the Hebrew leaders use miraculous signs in an effort to convince him:  Aaron throws down his staff and it turns into a snake, but Pharaoh’s magicians turn their staffs into snakes as well; even after Aaron’s snake devours the others, Pharaoh is unpersuaded.  Next, Moses turns all the water in Egypt into blood,

But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them [i.e., Moses and Aaron], as the Lord had said. Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not lay even this to heart. (Exodus 7:22-23)

We should not be surprised that Pharaoh so easily dismissed Moses and his miracles, because God had “hardened his heart” (Exodus 7:3), and someone whose heart is hardened toward God will always be able to explain away any evidence we can offer, any arguments (however sound), and even miraculous events.  We cannot by either proof or persuasion change a mind that does not want to be changed.

Why Preach?

Am I saying, then, that it is futile to for us to contend with atheists and agnostics in a contest of ideas? By no means.  If a hard heart is the obstacle, then a softening of the heart can make change possible.   This softening only happens through the work of the Holy Spirit, but our words and actions can either help or hinder the process.  More significantly, we can plant seeds (if I may switch metaphors) that might take root in the soil prepared by the Spirit, and even somebody who is not willing to listen today may at a more fertile time remember what we have said.  The atheist philosopher Anthony Flew is one example, who late in life was finally ready to be convinced by arguments he had been rejecting for decades, and willing to embrace the reality of a Creator.  We see something similar in the case of another atheist philosopher, the Jewish-born Edith Stein, who later became a Carmelite nun and was murdered by the Nazis; we now know her as St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross.
What we say is important.  How we live our lives and treat other people (expressly including those with whom we are debating) is even more important, because the good example of Christians has led to many conversions (and conversely, the bad example of Christians has chased not a few away).  Let’s return to Pharaoh for a moment.  He eventually relented and released the Hebrews after the events of the first Passover, when the lives of the first-born sons of the Egyptians were taken.  For many of us, the Holy Spirit softens our hard hearts through  suffering or misfortune.  In the Twelve Steps (the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has now been applied in many other areas) this is known as “hitting rock bottom”: life has become so difficult, so intolerable, that a person is finally driven to consider possibilities that had been unthinkable before.   If a person who has reached such a point sees Christians living peaceful and joyful lives, he or she is likely to ask “why can’t I have that?”  Such a person is ready for conversion.  If he sees Christians who are back-biting hypocrites, on the other hand, he will probably start looking elsewhere, and the opportunity that the Holy Spirit has created will be lost.

Knowing Our Own Part

Apart from the person or persons with whom we are in direct dialogue, we also need to be aware of others who might be listening to our discussion.  Who knows where they are in their faith journey?  They might be wavering, and looking for reasons not to give up on God, or they could be someone for whom the soil has been prepared, and they are waiting for just the right seeds.  Even if the person to whom we think we are speaking never comes to conversion, what we say, and how we say it, can have a profound impact on bystanders.
    Finally, we have been commissioned to preach the Gospel by Jesus Christ Himself (Mark 16:15 -16: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.  He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned").  It seems that our Lord wants to use us as his instruments, even though it is His power that changes hearts.  Perhaps that’s why he sends Moses, who says “since I am a poor speaker, how is it possible that Pharaoh will listen to me” (Exodus 6:30), so that it is clear that it is God, and not Moses’ eloquence, that wins freedom for the Hebrews.

Seeing our proper role here is the key.  Mother Theresa used to remark that she was called not to be successful, but faithful.  This is a good reminder for all of us, because we tend to take upon ourselves responsibility for the results, when all that is under our control is the effort.  Exodus reminds us that if we do what our Lord asks us to do, He can take care of the rest.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

St. Philemon the Actor: Martyr and Anti-Hypocrite

    Every day of the year the Liturgical calendar offers us the stories of a number of inspiring and fascinating saints.  Today’s primary saint is St. John of God, a man who led an amazingly varied life: he was, in turn, a shepherd, soldier, servant, laborer, book seller, and the founder of a hospital.  Under the many “identities” he took on over his lifetime, however, there was always the same loving soul who was always ready to sacrifice himself for the good of others.  He died as a result of trying to save a boy from drowning.

Mosaic of Tragedy and Comedy Masks from the Greek Theater

    One of the lesser-known of today’s saints, the intriguingly named St. Philemon the Actor, also followed an occupation that might not at first make us think of sanctity.   Philemon lived in Egypt at the beginning of the fourth century and, as his name suggests, he was an actor and performer.  One of his fellow performers was a Christian named Apollonius, who, according to some reports, was also a deacon. During the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, one of the Romans’ favorite methods of flushing out Christians was to force them to sacrifice to the pagan gods, and receive a legal document to that effect; the idea was either to force followers of Christ into apostasy, or to compel them to reveal themselves to the authorities who could then put them to death.  Apollonius seems to have lost his nerve when put to this test, and asked Philemon to obtain a certificate saying that both of them had sacrificed to the pagan gods.  Philemon instead professed his Christian faith and was executed.  Apollonius, shamed by his friend’s bold faith, also accepted the death of a martyr, and became known as St. Apollonius.
    St. Philemon’s story has some uniquely ironic twists.  Apollonius expected the actor to put on a show on his behalf, but Philemon took off his mask when what was needed was the truth.  Also, our word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word ὑποκριτής, which means “actor”.  It was because Philemon refused to play the actor that he revealed to Apollonius his own hypocrisy, and so saved both his own soul and that of his friend; as Jesus says, “the Truth will set you free” (John 8:32). St. Philemon has something to teach us as well, if we see in his story a reminder that we won’t be saved in the end by relying on our own talents or cleverness, but by putting our hope in Christ.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Mozart Requiem Introitus & Kyrie

From the manuscript of the Requiem, in Mozart's hand
     While it's not strictly speaking a Lenten composition, Mozart's Requiem Mass, which he was still composing at the time of his death, powerfully lends itself to the penitential nature of the liturgical season. 
     For more than two centuries a lively debate has gone on, and continues today, concerning who composed what parts of the Requiem and the somewhat murky circumstances of its commissioning and completion.  Notwithstanding the controversies both scholarly and fanciful (as in, for instance, the play and film Amadeus), Mozart's final work is a magnificent and moving composition.  
    The clip below, from a performance in St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna conducted by Sir Georg Solti, includes the Introit and the Kyrie.  When Mozart died he had finished the Introit; we have the composer's own notation for the vocal parts and portions of the orchestration for the Kyrie, which seems to have been put into its finished form by the composer's student Franz Joseph Süssmayr.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

What We Are Is More Important Than What We Have

     Which is more important, "is" or "has"?  In Gaudium et Spes the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from the Second Vatican Council, we find the following: "Man's worth is greater because of what he is than because of what he has." This line grabbed my attention immediately, because it casts light on something that has stood out in my ongoing discussions ("Hey folks, let's dialogue!") with atheists and others who take a materialist view of reality.

     An interesting feature of these conversations with materialists is the fact that their worldview doesn't permit them to discuss what we are: their philosophical outlook only admits the importance of what we have. We have bodies, for instance, which have needs, and so on, but in this conception of the universe all we can be is matter, no different, in essence, than the matter that makes up a dog, a rock, or anything else; after all, if matter is all there is, how can we assign any value to an abstraction like "human worth"?  In the materialist world view, human worth is a mere sentiment (if such a thing itself can be said to exist), nothing more.
     In the Catholic Christian world view, on the other hand, humanity is something special, both because we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), but also because Christ sanctified humanity through the incarnation. As St. John Paul the Great said in his 1995 address to the United Nations:

As a Christian, my hope and trust are centered on Jesus Christ . . . Jesus Christ is for us God made man, and made part of the history of humanity. Precisely for this reason, Christian hope for the world and its future extends to every human person. Because of the radiant humanity of Christ, nothing genuinely human fails to touch the hearts of Christians.

     The materialists want to pull us down to the level of mere things; Jesus Christ promises to lift us up to fellowship with God.  That is why the future of humanity belongs, not to the champions of "matter", but to Christ and His Church.

(An earlier version of this Throwback post was published on 8 February 2015)