Thursday, December 23, 2021

Even Little Saints See the Face of God: St. Servulus, Tiny Tim, and the Nativity

 ". . . but Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." And he laid his hands on them and went away." (Matthew 19:14-15)

Antique St. Servulus Prayer Card
One understandable drawback to the great liturgical rfeasts, such as the magnificent celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord at Christmas, is that lesser observances can be overlooked in all the excitement. For instance, today (December 23rd) is the memorial of St. Servulus: he is worth remembering for his own sake, but his life also gives us some very fruitful matter for meditation on the penultimate day of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas itself. Let’s take a look at the story of St. Servulus, from the 1866 edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints (an account based on a homily by St. Gregory the Great): . . .

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Sunday, December 19, 2021

From Small Beginnings: the 4th Sunday of Advent

Samuel anointing David, by François-Léon Benouville, 1842

 "The New Testament in the Old is concealed, the Old Testament in the New is revealed," as St. Augustine once said.*  We can see the truth of these words in the amazing event that Christmas commemorates.  Consider the opening verses of the first reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent, from the Book of the Prophet Micah:

Thus says the LORD:
     You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah
        too small to be among the clans of Judah,
    from you shall come forth for me
        one who is to be ruler in Israel;
    whose origin is from of old,
        from ancient times. (Micah 5:2)

We can see this Old Testament prophecy (as well as other prophecies from Isaiah, et. al.) come to fruition in the New Testament in a literal way in the birth of Jesus the Messiah in Bethlehem.  As always, however, there are deeper and deeper layers of truth underneath the surface.  Bethlehem is so small as to seem insignificant, but it will produce the Christ, just as it had once produced the great King David (the last two lines of the verse above indicate that the Messiah will be of the line of David).  
Speaking of great things coming in small packages, David himself was something of a surprise.  When the Prophet Samuel comes to Bethlehem to choose a new king for Israel from among Jesse's sons, David is not with his brothers; he has been left behind tending the sheep in the fields, since, as the youngest and the smallest, he seemed the least likely to wield the sceptre . . . 

* a remark that sounds as snappy in Latin as it does in English: Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet (Quaest. in Hept. 2,73: PL 34, 623; cf. DV)

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The World Turned Upside Down, or, Cicero at the Gym

 Listen to me and you shall hear, news hath not been this thousand year:

Since Herod, Caesar, and many more, you never heard the like before.

Holy-dayes are despis'd, new fashions are devis'd.

Old Christmas is kickt out of Town.

Yet let's be content, and the times lament, 

you see the world turn'd upside down.

-From "The World Turned Upside-Down" Thomason Tracts (669. f. 10 (47)), dated 8 April 1646.


"The World Turned Upside-Down" is a ballad written during the English Civil War in the 1640s as a protest against laws passed by England’s Puritan-dominated Parliament banning traditional celebrations of Christmas .  The Puritans (as was their way) believed the Nativity of the Lord should be a solemn, serious occasion.  Making merry, decking the halls, hoisting steaming bowls of wassail, and so forth, simply smacked too much of paganism for the austere Roundheads.

“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,”
by Howard Pyle c. 1883

     "The War on Christmas," it seems, is nothing new. The writer of "The World Turned Upside-Down," however, might be surprised at just how upside-down the order of battle has become in the modern version of the conflict.  The Puritans wanted to take all the joyful and celebratory elements out of the observance of Christmas on the grounds that they obscured the holiday's religious significance.  21st century censors, on the other hand, want to take all the religion out of our celebrations of the Nativity (as is their way), leaving only things frivolous and indulgent. They are seeking, in short, to transform one of the holiest days of the Christian liturgical year into a sort of purposeless seasonal bacchanal.  Talk about the world turned upside-down . . .   

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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Be Sober and Vigilant: You-Know-Who is Prowling

      You wouldn't be wrong if you observed that it's becoming increasingly uncomfortable to be a professing Christian in our culture.  The good news is, being comfortable or safe has never been part of the job description for a follower of Christ (I'll bet you're feeling better already).  In fact, Jesus Himself is very emphatic on this point; this passage from the Gospel of John is just one example::

They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.  And they will do this because they have not known the Father, nor me.  But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you of them. (John 16: 2-4) 

Japanese Martyrs

    We can see that persecution, even in times and places that claim to be Christian, has been more the rule than the exception throughout the history of the Church.  Just take a look at the Saints for today (September 10th) at Catholic.org. There are 59 separate entries for today, most of them martyrs. While many of them are from the same persecution in Japan in 1622, a random sampling finds Saints suffering for the Faith throughout the history of the Church. Let's take a look and see how, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same . . .

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Has Tradition Become A Dirty Word?

      Picture Sunday Mass in a typical parish.  A mother comes up for communion holding a small child in her arms.  As she approaches the priest, she awkwardly holds on to her infant with one arm in order to free up the other to take the Eucharistic host and quickly pop it into her mouth before she drops it, or her squirming child, to the floor.  I’ve witnessed this scene on numerous occasions over the years, and I always wonder why the harried parent doesn’t avail herself of a simple and effective method of protecting both the safety of her son or daughter and the dignity of all the parties involved (very much including Christ present in the Eucharist): hold her child securely in both arms, extend her tongue, and receive the Body of Christ in the same manner as her ancestors did for centuries before her: the manner that is still, officially, the norm for the entire Church.

"Les Premières Communiantes" by Blanchard,
Musée de la Civilisation, Québec
    But let’s set aside, for the moment, the issue of Church norms. Why should the young mother holding her baby receiving communion, or any of us for that matter, care what our ancestors did?  That is to say, what is the point of tradition?



     The question of the value of tradition has been given a certain currency by Pope Francis’ recent motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, which seeks to restrict the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). G.K. Chesterton called tradition “the democracy of the dead” because it gives our forebears a “vote” in how we conduct ourselves here and now.  This is something unique to humanity . . .

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Sunday, August 15, 2021

Liturgy Wars: What’s Latin Got To Do With It?

 Seven years ago, in the run-up to the Synod on the Family, there was a mild controversy over the Pope's decision to remove Latin from its place of honor as the official language of the meeting. By the time the synod convened the language issue had largely been overshadowed by . . . other things.  Nevertheless, I don’t think the Latin question should be forgotten. I felt compelled to write the post below at the time, both because the Latin language is a particular interest of mine (as I explain in the article), but more importantly because the discussion of its place in the Church helps illustrate some important aspects of Catholicism.  Now, with a rumored return to the bad old days of restricted opportunities to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass (as I discuss here and here), it seems like a good time to rerun my old (slightly revised) post:

  

Lingua Latina Aeterna

Passing the literary torch: Virgil and Dante Meeting  
Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan by Nicola Consoni (c.1850)
Thus the Roman tongue is now first and foremost a sacred tongue, which resounds in the Sacred Liturgy, the halls of divinity, and the documents of the Apostolic See.  In this same tongue you yourselves again and again address a sweet salutation to the Queen of Heaven, your Mother, and to your Father who reigns on high.  This tongue is the key that unlocks for you the sources of history.  Nearly all the Roman and Christian past preserved for us, in inscriptions, writings and books, with some exceptions of later centuries, wears the vesture of the Latin tongue. - His Holiness Pope Pius XII's Address to the Student Youth of Rome, January 30, 1949   

  Over the last couple of days I have been watching two gentlemen going back and forth in the comments section about the Pope’s decision not to use Latin as the official language of the Synod of Bishops.  They both make some interesting points about the place and importance of the Latin language in the life of the Church. Their spirited discussion has got me thinking not just about the Latin language, but about some of the distinctive features of Catholicism . . . 

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Eucharistic Adoration: Sitting at the Feet of the Lord

     As Catholics, we are blessed to have some wonderful devotional practices that help us grow closer to Christ.  One of the most profound of these is Eucharistic Adoration.  My wife and I were recently asked to help encourage participation in Adoration in our parish, in the course of which we ourselves came to see dimensions of this great gift that we hadn’t considered before. 

     For one thing, we both thought immediately of scriptural connections. My lovely bride thought of the passage from First Kings (1 Kings 19:10-13) where the Lord tells the prophet Elijah to stand on the mountain, for “The Lord is about to pass by”.  There’s a mighty wind, an earthquake, and a roaring fire, but God is not in any of those things; instead, Elijah encounters the Lord in a “gentle whispering”. 

     Just as God does not appear to Elijah in any of the grand and dramatic forms we might expect, so Jesus enters the world as a tiny baby, and continues to manifest himself to us as a simple piece of bread.  Eucharistic Adoration gives us a chance to shut out all the storm and stress of our daily lives while we contemplate the infinite God embodied in that piece of bread, and hear his gentle whisper.

     My own first thought was the passage from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) where Jesus is visiting the sisters Martha and Mary.  Martha, who is “worried about many things”, is frantically bustling about the house, while Mary simply sits at the feet of Jesus . . . 

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Practical Apologetics: The Geometry of Faith

 Once upon a time I was a teacher in a (more or less) Catholic school, where I was occasionally called upon to teach an introductory theology course to the bright-eyed young men & women of the ninth grade.  Of the roughly 16 students per class there would usually be 2-3 Catholic students whose families attended Mass at least weekly, and a like number of non-Catholic Christians who were regular church goers.  The rest were raised in a secular environment, ranging from occasionally religious to explicitly atheist.  

     I soon found that most of these young people, even many of the regular church attendees, had been so indoctrinated into a materialist way of thinking by teachers, mass media, and society in general that I found it difficult to explain even basic religious ideas.  It was almost like speaking a foreign tongue.  Some of these students were fans of the then-popular "new atheists" (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.), and most had been affected to some degree by "scientistic" thinking, that it, the idea that scientific explanations were the only serious or valid explanations. I found that I had to get them outside of these narrow ways of understanding reality before they could even begin to understand the purpose of or the need for religious faith.

      Many of my blog posts grew out of discussions with these students, including some republished here ("Has Pascal's Wager Really Been 'Debunked'?", "God's Existence Isn't A Dark Matter").  The post below is another of these, in which I try to get my students to look at the world from a different - ahem - angle . . .

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Friday, July 30, 2021

The Bishops, the Politicians, and Abortion: What Would St. John Fisher Do?

 "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."


Joe and Jill Biden at Mass
     The quote above is often attributed to communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  There is no record of his actually having said it, but it's widely repeated because it pithily sums up a terrifying truth about the relentlessness of war.  In an age when a large and influential segment of the population wages political warfare on all who seem to stand in the way of their urgent drive to replace reality as it is with a vaguely envisioned utopia, we can amend that to "You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you."

 For a long time now the Catholic bishops in the United States have dabbled in politics, mostly in a manner that we would call "virtue signaling" today: a statement about nuclear war in the 1980s, expressions of concern about capital punishment in the 1990s, some hand-wringing about immigration in more recent years.  All issues with legitimate moral dimensions, it's true, but all likewise issues on which serious Catholics can have legitimate differences of opinion.  In none of them were the bishops confronting Catholics or others who were clearly advocating anything directly contrary to the moral law, or promoting an intrinsic evil.  And for what it's worth, none of them are areas in which Catholic bishops have particular competence.

  Over the same stretch of time there has been another issue looming, one which is indeed a matter of intrinsic evil, about which there is no room for prudential judgment, and which is very much within the competence of the episcopacy: abortion.

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Monday, July 19, 2021

Finding the Future in the Past: Why The Latin Mass is not Going Away

      The scene is a parish church.  A congregation has assembled for Sunday Mass. The opening hymn begins with a grand flourish.  The celebrant processes into the church amid alleluias and mighty blasts from the organ. We reach a mini-climax.  The music ends. Then, there is a moment of silence while the celebrant adjusts his microphone. He smiles.  And what are the first words out of his mouth? "Good morning, everybody" THUD! You can almost hear something collapsing . . . The church building, the music, and the celebrant in flowing robes all seem to to say, "This is a ritual," an event out of the ordinary.  Then, the "Good morning" intrudes itself and indicates that this is really a business meeting and not a liturgy, after all. -Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can't Sing

In Why Catholics Can't Sing Thomas Day takes a close and often acerbic look at what is wrong with the liturgy as it is all too often celebrated in Catholic churches. A major theme, as we can see in the excerpt above, is that reformers and others (both clerical and lay) who are responsible for planning and conducting liturgical celebrations ignore the importance of ritual - of sights, sounds, scents, and actions - in fostering our relationship with God.  While there have been some marked improvements since Day's book was first published in 1991 (most notably Pope Benedict  XVI's Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum in 2007, about which more below), we're nowhere near out of the woods yet.  

"David Bearing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem" by Domenico Gargiulo, c. 1640

     This is not just a matter of aesthetics, by the way.  Yes, a poorly celebrated or even a lackadaisical Mass can still be valid, and the Eucharist confected by an irreverent priest is still the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Mass, however, is more than just a delivery system for the Eucharist.  It is also the highest form of prayer. It helps us to find communion with our Lord on a number of different levels, and prepares us, ideally, to be properly receptive to the Grace of the Eucharist.  And, if we truly believe that the Mass is bringing us the Real Presence of the Second Person of the Trinity, well, can we possibly be reverent enough?

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