Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is

Articles by Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.

Untying Knots with the Mother of Mercy

Jan 6, 2016 / 00:00 am

The New Year fittingly began under the protection of Mary, the Mother of God. With so many other titles accorded her, this most famous woman of all time is praised and loved across cultures and religious traditions. Without her inspiration, the arts—poetry and music, painting, art and architecture, would be woefully impoverished. Countless are the Marian churches and pilgrim sites whose magnetism draws those seeking her intercession with her Son. Mary attracts young and old, men and women—people of all faiths and of none. Atheists amuse, proclaiming: ‘God does not exist, and Mary is his mother.’ Is she the softer face of the divine?   A mother’s love is unconditional especially when her children go astray.  Her tender mercy consoles like no other, and through her, the tightest of knots can be loosened and untied.   The Doors of Mercy have been opened across the time zones, and under her title, Mater misericordiae, Mary will exercise her role of mercy.  She will enlist our help in loosening and untying the most stubborn of knots wherever they exist.   Knots in Mary’s Life With the angelic message, Mary’s placid life at Nazareth was suddenly thrown into turmoil, as was Joseph’s. Once married, they traveled to Bethlehem to enroll in the census.  Where was the Child to be born? In escaping Herod’s wrath, they were filled with tension escaping to Egypt in the middle of the night like fugitives. Then there were predictions by Simeon and Anna about the Child’s future.  And what if they had been careless and lost him in the temple environs?  It was one stressful event after the other—a series of knots. Mary at Cana At the wedding at Cana, we see Mary untying a knot for the bride and groom, at least in its initial stage (Jn 2:1-11).  The wine has run out.  On a day when they should be rejoicing, they’re in great distress. What will the guests think and say?   Mary notices even before the guests and intends to do something about it.  Jesus sees but plans to remain uninvolved. They’re her friends, not his. Still, he will not refuse his mother’s request.  She knows this ahead of time.   ‘Now is not the time for a miracle,’ Jesus promptly responds.  She looks past him as though not listening. “Do whatever he tells you,” come the words to the servant. You have to love her cool, as our young people might say. Our Lady Intercedes in a Potential Divorce  The story of Our Lady who loosens knots begins in 1612 in Augsburg in Germany.  Wolfgang Langenmantel and Sophia Rentz, husband and wife and both of noble estate, were on the verge of a divorce.  Over a period of twenty-eight days, Wolfgang sought help from Jakob Rem, a Jesuit priest, together praying to Our Lady to untie the knots of their marital problems.  They prayed that she smooth out the ribbon that had bound them together at their wedding ritual. The divorce did not happen, and together the couple lived out their married life.  Years later, to commemorate this turn of events, their grandson, Fr. Hieronymus Langenmantel of St. Peter’s Monastery in Augsburg commissioned the painting, “Untier of Knots.”   Mary and Islam  To ask what Islam teaches about Mary is certain to puzzle many. We should admit that among otherwise well-educated Westerners, there exists a basic ignorance of the Islamic faith and the Qur’an.  Ignorance begets fear which in turn can paralyze persons, cities, and nations. When Islam came into being in the seventh century, Christianity and devotion to Mary were already well established in the eastern and western part of the Roman Empire.  Mohammed claimed he was the bearer of God’s revelation. Transmitted to him by the Angel Gabriel and the Spirit, the Qur’an is the final word of what Allah, the God of Abraham, Ishmael, and Jesus wished to communicate to humankind.  Mohammed is the final and most important messenger and prophet Allah sent.   Jesus in the Qur’an Jesus is mentioned in the Qur’an only twice without reference to his utterances and no mention of the Nativity narrative. There is no mention of Jesus’ public life or of the redemption because he was not crucified and was not resurrected from the dead.  Jesus who is not the Messiah appears only as a holy messenger who did perform miracles.  He is not God, nor is he the Son of God, a fact that in the Islamic belief-system would contradict God’s oneness (Sura 4:157, 159; 5:72).  Nor is Jesus Emmanuel, God-with-us.  God is not present or at work among us but remains outside of this world’s concerns.   Mary in the Qur’an The Qur’an negates the importance of Jesus while it extols the virtues of his Mother. However, she may not claim divine motherhood; she is not a Queen because Jesus is not a King, or rather the King of the Universe.   Mohammed names the mother of Jesus, as ‘the best woman ever to live.’  Several chapters in the Qur’an express an outpouring of love for her; she is mentioned thirty-four times, a far greater number than in the Gospels.  Given the fact that Jesus, Isa-bin-Maryam (the son of Mary), is spoken of so rarely contrasted with the many expressions of devotion to her, are we to conclude that the Mother is preferred to her Son? It would seem that Islam and the Qur’an present knotted doctrinal issues.   Mary, a Bridge Builder? With so many differences between the two faiths, Mary may very well be the only point of agreement between them—apart from their belief in one God.  The sheer outpouring of love for Mary in the Qur’an, especially in Surat Maryam (Chapter 19), proves that she is honored both in Islam and in Catholicism. Setting up a commission of Catholic and Muslim scholars would go a long way to begin a dialogue, with Mary as a point of agreement. Mary’s Mercy Becomes Ours: One Example Here is one person’s unusual interpretation of mercy during this Jubilee Year. When Stefan was a child, his biological father left him.  Eventually, he immigrated to this country from Latvia. Then his mother left him.  Today, at twenty-nine, Stefan lives with his grandmother, a pediatrician, in her basement apartment. He sleeps on a couch and forgoes any luxuries or even basic privacy.  In return for lodging and food, he takes care of her.  Once in this country, Stefan met a remarkable tutor who has recently become his benefactor.  Gifted artistically, Stefan could not have entered the graduate level program at Parsons School of Design without some financial intervention.  When the Federal Loans left him shy of $5,500 each semester, his tutor and benefactor helped to secure his future by making up the difference.  No strings attached, except to keep up good grades.  Stefan’s grades are almost all A's, and he has made the Dean's List.  Diligent to a fault, he submits superb papers and makes design presentations in class that win the admiration of his professors. What could be more salutary than helping to make a human life possible, promising, and fulfilling?  What better use of money?  Mary’s mercy must become ours, and our mercy must imitate hers. In this Jubilee Year, Pope Francis has exhorted each of us to walk through the doors of mercy with those in need of our support.  It need not be financial.  But any support must be sincere as each of us helps untie knots in the lives of others during this Year of Mercy.

Kneeling before the Mystery

Dec 23, 2015 / 00:00 am

It is the day before Christmas Eve and the Holy Night. The Church prays at Morning Prayer: Your light will come, Jerusalem; the Lord will dawn on you in radiant beauty. You will see his glory within you. After four weeks of Advent with its intense longing for the Savior, we now rest in the certainty of fulfillment.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, greatly desires to come close to every man, woman, and child and remain close to all. Crowned with Glory and Honor The doctrine of man and woman as made in the image and likeness of God is one of the most important and most beloved verses in all of Scripture (Gen 1:16).  Psalm 8 paraphrases Genesis: “You have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor” (v 5).  Paraphrasing the two previous verses, the Eastern Church Fathers never tired of summing up two great mysteries of Christianity: the Incarnation and the Nativity.  Jesus Christ assumes our nature, and we share in his: God condescended to become a human person that we men and women might become as God. In another well-known proverb, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d 2nd c.) proclaims God’s glory and the glory of his image: The glory of God is man and woman fully alive, and the glory of man and woman is the contemplation of God. St. John of the Cross, the great Spanish Carmelite, mystic, and poet, best expresses the mystery before which we kneel in two of his Romanzas, the Incarnation and the Birth.  They summon us to prayer as we kneel before the mystery of God-made-man.  The Incarnation Now that the time had come when it would be good   to ransom the bride serving under the hard yoke of that law which Moses had given her, the Father, with tender love, spoke in this way: “Now you see, Son, that your bride was made in your image, and so far as she is like you she will suit you well; yet she is different, in her flesh, which your simple being does not have. In perfect love this law holds: that the lover become like the one he loves; for the greater their likeness the greater their delight. Surely your bride’s delight  would greatly increase were she to see you like her, in her own flesh.” “My will is yours,” the Son replied, “and my glory is that you will be mine. This is fitting, Father, what you, the Most High, say; for in this way your goodness will be more evident, your great power will be seen  and your justice and wisdom. I will go and tell the world, spreading the word of your beauty and sweetness and of your sovereignty. I will go seek my bride and take upon myself  her weariness and labors in which she suffers so; and that she may have life, I will die for her, and lifting her out of that deep, I will restore her to you.”   Then he called  the archangel Gabriel and sent him to  the virgin Mary, at whose consent the mystery was wrought, in whom the Trinity clothed the Word with flesh. and though Three work this, it is wrought in the One; and the Word lived incarnate in the womb of Mary. And he who had only a Father now had a Mother too, but she was not like others who conceived by man.  From her own flesh he received his flesh, so he is called Son of God and of man.  The Birth When the time had come  for him to be born, he went forth like the bridegroom from his bridal chamber, embracing his bride, holding her in his arms, whom the gracious Mother laid in a manger among some animals that were there at the time. Men sang songs and angels melodies celebrating the marriage of Two such as these.   But God there in the manger cried and moaned; and these tears were jewels the bride brought to the wedding. The Mother gazed in sheer wonder on such an exchange: in God, man’s weeping, and in man, gladness, to the one and the other things usually so strange.

Beauty Rising from the Ashes

Dec 16, 2015 / 00:00 am

‘Holiday’ cheer is in the air. For weeks, the Hallmark channels have delivered it non-stop. Ubiquitous Santas make their annual promises to unsuspecting hopeful children. In shopping malls and other public places, the tone is guarded, uneasy, and apprehensive. ‘Holiday’ cheer—and fear—are in the air. The Advent readings, mostly from Isaiah, anticipate the Lord’s Nativity as the Prince of Peace. But a closer reading of Isaiah paints a different picture for the Jews who were living in a long struggle with darkness and constant fear. Given the Homeland’s current collective mindset, their situation may be able to shed light on our own. Isaiah Book One (ca 700-580 BCE; Is 1-39) Book One closes with the Jews experiencing great affliction under foreign domination. Gone were the glory days of nationalism under Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon (1000 BCE). Yet, Isaiah predicts that with the coming of the savior Emmanuel, their darkness will be turned to light. God will save them in a wondrous way as he did in Egypt. Sadly political in-fighting and worse, immorality sapped their spiritual strength paving the way for terrorizing invasions which came one after the other. First it was the Assyrians, then the Babylonians who exiled many Jews, followed by the Persians. Systematic deportation was a full-proof way of subduing conquered people. The Jews were divided; some lived abroad while other huddled near Jerusalem. Book Two: the Book of Consolation (ca. 580 BCE; Ch 40-55) The Book of Consolation is addressed to the Jews in exile, and the anonymous writer Isaiah speaks to them. Scholars call him Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah. Despite the ominous threat of the Persians, he wants them to return home. Only a small remnant of Israelites have been left behind under the heavy foot of dominating powers, and they must unite as one nation. When the exiled Jews (Diaspora) eventually return, sharp clashes arise between them and those who have stayed behind. Living in foreign nations, the Diaspora Jews have become more broadminded. Together with the small and fragile nation that have remained in Jerusalem, the primary focus of both groups of Jews is to restore and refine their national identity and restore their glory as one nation. Jew must reunite with fellow Jew. The Book of Consolation opens with the words: “’Comfort my people, console them,’’ says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her.” Year after year, we have heard the verses: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Arise, shine, your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you” (Is: 40:1f). “Go up on a high mountain, joyful messenger to Zion. Shout with a loud voice, joyful messenger to Jerusalem. Shout without fear, say to the towns of Judah, ’Here is your God.’” (Is 40:9). “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. Should you pass through the sea, I will be with you. Should you walk through fire, you will not be scorched, and the flames will not burn you. For I am Yahweh, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior” (Is 43:1-2). These sentiments prompted Winston Churchill to speak to his fellow countrymen in 1941: "This is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other. Ill would it be for us this Christmastide if we were not sure that no greed for the land or wealth of any other people, no vulgar ambition, no morbid lust for material gain at the expense of others, had led us to the field. Here, in the midst of war, raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart. Therefore we may cast aside, for this night at least, the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm. Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace. Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world." Britain’s Resolve in Its Darkest Hours The acclaimed 1942 movie, “Mrs. Miniver” comes to an end while England is still being bombed by the Nazis in World War II. Villagers, seated for Sunday worship in their burned-out, ash-ridden church, listen to the clergyman affirm with determination in a powerful sermon: "We in this quiet corner of England have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us, some close to this church. George West, choirboy. James Ballard, stationmaster and bellringer, and the proud winner only an hour before his death of the Beldon Cup for his beautiful Miniver Rose. And our hearts go out in sympathy to the two families who share the cruel loss of a young girl who was married at this altar only two weeks ago. The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There's scarcely a household that hasn't been struck to the heart. And why? Surely you must have asked yourselves this question? Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed? I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the People's War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us. And may God defend the right." Nothing was to shake British resolve in the face of evil. As the service came to a close, the congregation sang, “Onward Christian Soldiers” with courage, determination, and unwavering pride in their Homeland. Nothing could or would undo the English resolve to withstand the enemy even when the days grew more ominous and hope was dimmed to a flicker.

A Reflection on Doors

Dec 8, 2015 / 00:00 am

In Roman mythology, Janus represents not only the god of doors and doorways but also the god of beginnings and endings. Janus is a two-faced god.  One face looks to the past, the other, to the future. Thus, the month of January. Doors open, close, and revolve. There are holy doors.  An open door points to a new beginning, a way out, or a welcome to enter.  It may also show a path to what lies ahead.  A closed door may symbolize a dead end or imprisonment, or it may signal ‘do not disturb.’ In Dante’s  “Inferno,” Part One of his “Divine Comedy,” the frightening verse hangs over the gates of hell:  “Abandon hope, all you who enter here.” (Lasciate ogni speranza, voí ch’entrate, Canto iii).  Revolving doors signify mindless circular motion, no exit.   Doors and Psychoanalysis In the Hitchcock’s movie “Spellbound” starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, a man’s self-inflicted guilt from childhood must be interpreted.  This is done through psychoanalysis, the method by which modern science treats the emotional problems of the sane.  Analysts seek only to induce their patients to talk about hidden problems. Certain questions are posed to them: ‘Why are you repeating something that is self-destructive behavior?  When did it start, and why?’  Once patients can answer these questions, their locked doors can be opened, and they can begin the road to recovery. Biblical Doors For today’s Jews, placing the mezuzot to the right of their door posts reminds them of their divine deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  God was faithful to his promise and saved them in his way, not theirs. It was important for Jews never to forget that God is a God who saves. The mezuzah is a reminder of this great truth.  A Theology of a Holy Door  This long introduction about doors is meant to shed light on the meaning of a holy door.  Since the fifteenth century, a holy door or porta sancta has been used as a liturgical symbol for conversion of heart.  Pilgrims pass through the holy door as an expression of leaving behind and crossing the threshold from sin to grace, from slavery to freedom, and from darkness to light.  Here the link to the Jews is evident. For the Christian, the door derives its meaning from Jesus Christ who is the door, the gate, “the way” to life (Jn 14:6).   The Holy Door of Mercy The Jubilee Year of Mercy 2015-2016 began on Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. In Rome, Pope Francis opened the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica to mark the beginning of the Jubilee Year. Major events and celebrations are planned in Rome and throughout the Catholic world for particular groups. Jesus himself was the face of mercy.  His encounters and the parables reveal his mercy—the Woman Caught in Adultery, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Good Shepherd. At the end of a long day with crowds, he had compassion on them because they had nothing to eat or drink; he multiplied the loaves and fish.  His compassion extended to untouchable lepers as well as to the rich and powerful. His compassion embraced all and excluded none. This Holy Year of Mercy is intended to be lived as a pilgrimage. During the Holy Year of Mercy, men and women of good will are asked to intensify their prayer for all in need of mercy and for making personal sacrifices to this end. Making a pilgrimage, partially on foot, to a cathedral church is also encouraged.   Pope Francis has called Catholics and others to wear the mantle of mercy first toward themselves and then toward a world in need of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Furthermore, to practice them as Jesus did. Seeing Mercy in Action Mercy, Pope Francis has observed, is the heartbeat of the Gospels.  In fact, there are at least thirty-five specific references to the words ‘merciful’ and ‘mercy’ in the Bible with several more made to compassion and pity.  Some of these references are provided for the reader’s prayer: (Merciful) Gen 19:16; 1 Kings 20:31; Ps 86:31; Jon 4:2; Mt 5:7; Lk 6:36; Heb 8:14;  (Mercy) Gen 42:14; Ex 33:19; Deut 7:2; 1 Chron 21:13; Neh 1:11; Ps 51:1; 103:4; Jer 31:20; 42:12; Lam 3:33; Dan 2:18; Hab 3:2; Hos 6:6; Mt 9:13; 12:7; 15;33; 20:30; 23:23; Mk 5:19; Lk 1:50; 1:72; 10:37; 16:34; 18: 38; Rom 9:15; 9:23; 11:30; 2 Cor 4:1; Phil 2:27. When Pope Francis washes the feet of prisoners, or when he embraces patients with AIDS, what are we to conclude?  When he opens a 30-bed homeless shelter a few steps from the Vatican, when he builds showers for the homeless near St. Peter’s Square, and when he makes a barbershop available to men—what can we conclude?   When the Pontiff donates funds for the poor to enjoy cultural excursions to the Sistine Chapel and to the Holy Shroud in Turin, what are we to surmise?  He wants them to feel good about themselves and to feel their self-worth. Here we see mercy in action. Mercy prompts one to walk in the shoes of the neighbor, trying to grasp what that person is experiencing, and then, with heartfelt kindness, to help that person. Clearly, Pope Francis has the authority and the power to extend a special kind of mercy to the poor.  The Pontiff’s actions in Rome may have prompted leaders of a group entitled, #OpenTheseDoors, to send a letter to Cardinal Dolan demanding that the “real doors” of empty church-owned buildings be opened immediately to help alleviate the crisis of homelessness in Manhattan. Here, almost 60,000 people spend their nights in shelters. These advocates are responding to the Pope’s recent call for adequate housing for the homeless.  For this reason, their strident tone may be excused and interpreted as zeal for a worthy cause.  Shakespeare’s Mercy Portia’s sonnet from “The Merchant of Venice” gives us Shakespeare’s thoughts on mercy: The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God's When mercy seasons justice. 

Remembering the American Churchwomen Martyred in El Salvador

Dec 2, 2015 / 00:00 am

Editor's note: This column originally posted Nov. 30, 2015 by mistake. We regret this error and are reposting it on the correct date, Dec. 2, 2015. Thirty-five years ago today, four American Catholic churchwomen—four  missionaries—were  tortured, raped, shot, and murdered in El Salvador by National Guardsmen of the military-led government.   Two of the women, Sisters Ita Ford, M.M. and Maura Clarke, M.M. were members of the Maryknoll Missionaries, ages 40 and 49, respectively.  Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U., age 41, belonged to the Ursuline Order (Cleveland, OH), and Jean Donovan, age 27, a lay missionary, was Sister Dorothy’s associate.  In the spirit of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the women served the poor, training catechists, preparing programs, and caring for the many practical necessities of daily life for those unable to care for themselves.  As with the Archbishop, they had been under close surveillance by the government.   Events Leading Up to the Murders The chilling events leading up to the murders were carried out quickly, decisively, and with savage brutality—the essence of assassinations.  Below is a summary account of those events. December 2nd Sometime after 9PM The two Maryknoll churchwomen, Ita and Maura were returning to El Salvador from a two-month regional conference in Managua, Nicaragua. Dorothy and Jean drove to meet them at the airport.  They were in a white van. The flight was scheduled for arrival at 9:11 PM. Shortly thereafter, the four left the airport, headed down the main road, homeward bound.  Five uniformed assassins, who changed into civilian clothes, waited for the women in the stealth of night.  About fifteen miles from the airport, the attackers stopped the white van and took the women to a semi-secluded location.  There they executed the well-planned orders of their commander.  The massacred bodies lay exposed at the side of the road. Local peasants who saw the white van only later reported that they had heard machine-gun fire followed by single shots.  The five men fled the scene, reported the peasants.  The lights in the van were on, the radio blaring.  The van was then set on fire at the side of the airport road. No further details were available. December 3rd Early Morning Some local residents found the women’s bodies.  The authorities, a judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders, forced the men to bury the women nearby in a common grave.  The local peasant men obeyed, but they informed their parish priest, Fr. Paul Schindler, of the murders. He himself had inquired about Jean and Sister Dorothy.   News of the assassinations was dispatched to the local Catholic bishop and the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White. Curiously enough, it was the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, the great missionary saint. December 4th  The bodies were exhumed in the presence of fifteen reporters, other missionaries, and Ambassador White.   Sister Madeline Dorsey, M.M., from a nearby mission and an eyewitness, describes the scene in her own words:  “Then came the painful extraction of the four—piled one on top of the other.  Jean was the first, her lovely face destroyed.  Dorothy had a tranquil look.  Maura’s face was serene but seemed to utter a silent cry, and last little Ita.  I went forward to wipe the dirt from her cheek and place her arm at her side.  We Sisters fell to our knees in reverence.  I felt it was a Resurrection moment.  Yes, their dead and abused bodies were there, but I knew their souls were with their living Savior.” December 5th  A Mass of the Resurrection was celebrated by Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas.   December 6th  On the next day, the bodies of Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. were flown back to the United States for burial.  In keeping with the tradition of the Maryknoll Missionaries, the bodies of Sisters Ita Ford, M.M. and Maura Clarke, M.M. were buried at their mission in Chalatenango, El Salvador. Accountability In 1984, four national guardsmen were convicted of the massacre and were sentenced to thirty years in prison.  Their immediate superior was also charged and convicted of the murders. Some of these were subsequently released from prison.   Sister Ita Ford’s brother and attorney, William, has spent more than twenty-five years in the U.S. court system attempting to obtain justice for his sister and the other three slain women. A legal battle has ensued to have these men brought to the United States.  The case is not as yet resolved.  Who Were These Churchwomen? Jean Donovan, raised in an upper middle-class home, was educated in fine schools.  On completion of her master’s degree in business from Case Western Reserve University, she took a position as a management consultant in Cleveland.  She was engaged to a young physician but felt the call to volunteer for youth ministry with the poor.  After completing her training as a lay missionary at Maryknoll, NY, she went to El Salvador in 1977 with Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U.   Some weeks before she died, Jean wrote to a friend:  “The Peace Corps left today, and my heart sank low.  The danger is extreme, and they were right to leave. . . . Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador.  I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity.  Who would care for them?  Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness?  Not mine, dear friend, not mine.” Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. first taught in Cleveland and then did missionary work among the Papago Tribe in Arizona.  She felt the call to join the mission team of the Diocese of Cleveland.  Both she and Jean Donovan worked in the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Dorothy was known as “an alleluia from head to toe.”  She and Jean worked not far from the mission of the Maryknoll Sisters. Sister Ita Ford, M.M. was the cousin of Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, M.M., the first seminarian to apply to the newly-established Maryknoll Fathers, founded in 1911.  He went to China as a missionary and in 1952 was martyred in a Communist prison camp. Ita Ford was taught by three religious institutes before entering the Maryknoll Missionaries, the semi-cloistered Visitandine Sisters, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary.  Prior to entering the convent at Maryknoll, Ita worked as an editor in a publishing company for seven years.  As a missionary, she served in Bolivia, Chile, and then finally in El Salvador where she ministered to the needs of the poor.   At the closing Liturgy in Managua, Ita had read a passage from one of the Archbishop’s final homilies:  “Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies:  to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive—and to be found dead.”   Sister Maura Clarke, M.M. was the oldest of the four slain churchwomen.  She had spent seventeen years in Nicaragua working against the dictatorship there and was assigned to El Salvador only months before her death.  “If we leave the people when they suffer the cross, how credible is our word to them?” she wrote only weeks before her death.  “The Church’s role is to accompany those who suffer the most, and to witness our hope in the resurrection.” The Martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero The murders of the women missionaries occurred some ten months after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero by a similar death squad. He was shot in March 1980 while celebrating Mass and just as he completed a homily on the government’s oppression and civil rights violations against the poor.  Archbishop Romero’s cause for canonization was opened in 1997 by Pope John Paul II.  On May 23rd, 2015, Pope Francis beatified him. Like the Archbishop, Jean, Dorothy, Ita, and Maura were martyred for their faith.  Like him, they are worthy to have their cause opened for canonization.  As martyrs, two miracles would be waived since they died “in perfect charity.”

An Uneasy Pause

Nov 25, 2015 / 00:00 am

On this weekend, Americans pause to give thanks for our bountiful gifts. Yet, the homeland is on edge with our collective eye riveted on Paris, Brussels, and beyond.  The Cathedral of Notre Dame  Two weeks ago, the French began their response to the Isis attacks in a way that spoke volumes to the question, “Where is God?”  The bells of Notre Dame in Paris tolled 129 times for the repose of the 129 souls, most of them Parisian youth, massacred two days earlier in the Isis attacks.  As of this writing, that number has risen to 130. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is not only the heart of Paris; geographically, it is also the central point in France. Since its foundation in the twelfth century, the cathedral has exercised a central role in political events.  In times of national distress and mourning, Parisians have flocked to Notre Dame for consolation, for the liturgical services and homilies, for its beautiful music and visual splendor—graces poured out on the congregants. Though the French Revolution defined France as a secular state with no official ties to the Catholic Church or any faith, Notre Dame has remained the mother-church of France, always there to comfort her children.  On that November 15th Sunday evening, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois celebrated Mass in the cathedral with more than 9,000 attendees inside and thousands more standing outside in silence. The Liturgy was offered for those killed or wounded in the attacks. Cardinal Vingt-Trois’ homily rang out with a plea for hope and not hate.  In somber tones, steady and strong, he condemned the attacks. While he acknowledged the suffering palpable among the congregants, he asked those who could to enter into their anguish and pray for strength.  It was a moment of grace that revealed deep love of country by France’s citizens who were embraced by Our Lady in her own home. The New Year of Grace This Advent Sunday, the Gospel of the new liturgical year paints a dark picture of a world gone mad.  It cautions the faithful to be alert, vigilant, and wise in the face of imminent danger.  One might be tempted to read into the Lucan passage current events and those yet to come.  Advent is the richest of all the liturgical seasons—rich in hope, rich in beautiful music and symbolism, profligate with God’s love to be revealed on Christmas Day.  This Sunday during the Liturgy, the Church Universal will pray the psalm refrain: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (Ps 25).  For tomorrow, the Preface of Thanksgiving Day captures the Lord’s goodness and our response in gratitude for all gifts from above:  “Through your Word, you called all things into being,  that you might bestow on us your love reflected in the vastness of the universe and the bounty of this earth. You placed creation in our care, Yet you alone sustain all life with the gentle dew of your Word And the life-giving breath of the Spirit. Your gifts of nature have not exhausted your goodness, For the fullness of your love is revealed in the sending of your Son. Our hearts are moved to thankful praise . . . .” 

From 'Sister Act' to Christ the King

Nov 18, 2015 / 00:00 am

Occasionally popular songs express words of wisdom that attract a wide and diverse audience.  Four of them are: “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “My Favorite Things,” “Sabbath Prayer,” and “To Life,” from “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” respectively.   From “Sister Act” . . . .  The 1992 comedy “Sister Act” features two songs, “Follow Him” and “My Guy (My God)”   whose flippant lyrics shock the Mother Superior (played by Maggie Smith) when they are sung in church by the choir of sisters led by Sister Mary Clarence/Delores Van Cartier (played by Whoopi Goldberg). Yet, as we shall see, they capture the core meaning of this Sunday’s grand feast, Christ the King:  “Follow Him”  Verse: “I will follow him, follow him wherever he may go. There isn’t an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep me away. Refrain:  Love him, I love him, I love him. And where he goes, I’ll follow, I’ll follow, I’ll follow. Verse: I must follow him, ever since he touched my hand I knew that near him I always must be and nothing can keep him from me.   He is my destiny. “My Guy (My God)”   “Nothing you could say could tear me away from my Guy (my God);”  “Nothing you could do could make me untrue to my Guy (my God);”  “No muscle bound man could ever take my hand from my Guy (my God);”  “There’s not a man today who could take me away from my Guy (my God).” . . . to Christ the King Whether it was the Scribes, the Pharisees, Peter, the crowds, or Caiaphas, they were all taken aback, fascinated by his aura and by the power that went out from him.  Who was this man Jesus? Where did he come from?  How did he get the power to touch the lives of so many?  Caiaphas asked if he was a king.  What the Jews Thought of Jesus As a youth, Jesus taught in the temple and impressed the Scribes with his maturity. In his public ministry, he attracted the curious and the devout.  His holiness had a magnetic pull that was hard to resist.  “As an “exceedingly attractive man as handsome as a man can be” is the way Psalm 45:2 aptly describes him  It was out of the question for a Jew to think of God in human form.  Yet to many, Jesus possessed the quality associated with their notion of God’s glory.  Perhaps their thoughts were precocious about the fulfillment of the Scriptures.  Few remained indifferent to him.  To some, he was a fraud, to others, the promised Messiah.  For these, he was the noblest example of Jewry, he spoke the truth, went about doing good, and even to his death by crucifixion, he lived lovingly. He was the epitome of divine glory.  He was God, the king of glory. Peter’s Faith and Ours  Though Jesus knew his identity as the Son of God, he refrained from revealing his divinity.  Boasting was not his style. Neither did he prompt others to praise him or believe in him. Instead, as if to test one’s faith, he followed up questions about his identity with predictions of his passion and death. Who would want to be a companion of a disgraced man, one who had failed utterly and completely? When Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am,” he refrained and gave Peter no clues.  No miracles either.  He wanted Peter’s free response.  By the time Peter blurted out: “You are the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of the living God,” he had had some experience of Jesus’ holiness (Mk 8:29; Mt:16:16).    Peter knew that the Lord’s holiness was on an altogether different plane.  Perhaps this is why he refused at first to have the Master stoop to wash his filthy feet. Perhaps this is why his betrayal caused an outpouring of bitter tears.  (Peter’s anguish is vividly captured in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  The accompaniment to his aria twists and turns symbolizing his half-crazed state of mind (‘What did I do? Why did I do it?’), while his tears drop to the ground symbolized by the unrelenting beat in the cellos and double basses). As for Jesus’ divinity, only after the stone was rolled back would Peter have such proof.  Catholic Christianity is nothing without professing Jesus Christ as King. To be a companion and disciple of the Lord is to abide in his presence and ‘wear’ his holiness. We follow him as disciples. “It is he who leads” (Ps 48:14). Or, “he is my destiny.”  Further, to do so with joy and magnanimity of heart.  There is always more, following him more closely, and serving him more completely.   History of the Feast of Christ the King  The Church’s celebration of Christ the King has assumed a new urgency.  Why so?  In 1925, Pope Pius XI proclaimed this feast to overcome the prevailing errors of the time—materialism, secularism, and relativism.  Today, unbelief, religious indifference, a neo-paganism, and an unabashed atheism have been added to the list.  Taken all together, they pose an assault on a moral and a Christian way of living.  These false teachings have already found a place in the attitudes and behavior of our youth who are searching for cogent reasons to follow Christ as “my Guy, my God” and to live as devout Catholics. Reverence for the Name of Jesus Ours is a Christophobic culture.  Except perhaps for purposes of swearing, the name of Jesus Christ has been banished from polite company and from the public square.  Mention the name Jesus Christ more than once, and you are branded a “Christ-er.” Most conversations barely tolerate the name of God, not to mention the name of Jesus Christ.  No one should take the name of Jesus Christ in vain. “Godspell” The 1971 Broadway musical “Godspell,” opens with the Voice of God spoken by Jesus Christ who declares his Godhead: “My name is known: God and King. I am most in majesty, in whom no beginning may be and no end.” The most famous song in the musical is “Day by Day,” a paraphrase of one prayer in the Ignatian Exercises. Expressing the essence of the feast of Christ the King and the Incarnation, the lyrics read as follows:   “Day by day, day by day Oh, dear Lord, three things I pray:  To see thee more clearly,  Love thee more dearly,  Follow thee more nearly,  Day by day.”  Finally, the feast of Christ the King boldly affirms the providential care of Christ over persons, families, the culture, the state, and the entire universe.  Great figures in history have built a better world, but only “Jesus Christ, our sovereign King, is the world’s salvation.”  He is the answer to the question:  “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” 

Reflections on Veterans Day

Nov 11, 2015 / 00:00 am

November 11th belongs to the veterans of our armed forced and their families.  In other part of the world, especially in Europe, it is Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.  At the 11th hour of the 11th month of 1918, the Armistice with Germany went into effect thereby ending major hostilities of World War I.  The signing took place in a railroad carriage at Compiègne, France. In 1954, the United States changed the name to the current Veterans Day with appropriate ceremonies, but it is not to be confused with Memorial Day when the nation honors those who died in battle for their country.   Artistic Depictions of War  In this country, some war movies have consistently received high ratings for their artistic depictions: “Fighting Sullivans,” “The Longest Day,” “The Battle of Britain,” and “Saving Private Ryan,” to name a few. The television series Downton Abbey vividly depicts how World War I forever changed life in Britain.  No artistic depiction however can ever capture the true measure of war. Ravages of War The cost of war staggers the mind. In World War I, 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians lost their lives.  The number of fatalities in World War II is much higher, estimated at between 50- and 80 million combatant deaths.  The higher number includes those who died from disease and famine.  Between 50- and 55 million civilians died.  About 19- to 28 million were related to disease and famine.  ‘No more war’ is the cry of every generation. Forgotten Heroes How many priests were killed in the World Wars is still an open question, but they numbers in the thousands.  In France, clergy were required to serve in war alongside their fellow Frenchmen.  World War I took the life of the French Jesuit, Father Pierre Rousselot, S.J., a brilliant theologian writing in the field of dogmatic theology.  He was only thirty-seven.   In 1914, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. was also required to serve in the war and did so as a stretcher-bearer.  For his valor, he received several citations, including the French Médaille Militaire and the Legion of Honour.  During this time, he developed many of his thoughts in his letters, which he penned to his cousin Marguerite Teilhard-Chambon.  She later edited them and had them published under the title, “Genesis of a Thought.” During World Wars I and II, thousands of priests and other clergymen ministered to the wounded and dying in Asia and in Europe, regardless of the side on which the combatants fought. Military Dogs  Dogs are chosen by humans for a variety of reasons: for play and companionship, for safety, as guides for the homebound, for sporting or herding.  Working dogs have traditionally been chosen for their bravery whether their protection is focused on people, places, or livestock. Instinctively, dogs give their utmost loyalty to their masters, especially in military situations or as companions that help in healing our veterans.   At the outbreak of World War I, dogs were used to pull carts of milk and other perishables.  Belgians used dogs to pull their large guns on wheeled carriages and supplies or reportedly even the wounded in their carts.  Dogs were often used to carry messages in battle, a task that required the dog to be loyal to two masters instead of one. Thousands of canines have been trained at the dog training school in Fort Benning, Georgia.  The most common breeds to serve in police-type operations are the German Shepherd, the Dutch Shepherd, and the Belgian Malinois. It is reported that, as of 2011 at least 600 U.S. military dogs were actively participating in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a Belgian Malinois who stood with the Navy Seals in the raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound. It is said that “no breed of mammal is so diverse as the one that has gained the title of man’s best friend.”  The Theater of War:  What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today Much has been written about veterans: their experience after war, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veterans are prone to higher risk for other disorders such as drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illness.  These problems affect both male and female veterans, and they richly deserve their benefits, not the least of which is rehabilitation of body, mind, and spirit.   Recently the theater director Brian Doerries published a personal account of an innovative public health project that produces ancient Greek tragedies to restore mental health and healing to those affected by war.  Cynicism about war is giving way to healing veterans who have never come to terms with their wounds, however expressed. The Theater of War:  What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today has won high praise for its power to bring the wisdom of the Ancient Classics to the broken lives of veterans, returning soldiers, addicts, tornado and hurricane survivors, and others.  To date, Theater of War Productions has presented over 300 performances of Sophocles’ plays for wounded warriors struggling under the weight of psychological and physical injuries.  The plays help to restore their dignity, identity, and honor.  The project “is a testament both to the enduring power of the classics and to the vital role art can play in our communal understanding of war and suffering.”  The shared pain helps veterans validate the truth of what they have suffered whether it’s physical debility, sense of isolation and loss. Today Americans thank our veterans for their unstinting service whether or not they have served in active duty.  They gave themselves for their country. In return, we must care enough to give them our very best.

Personal Prayer

Nov 4, 2015 / 00:00 am

“I’m not a religious person, but I am a spiritual person.” So goes a common protestation among young and old alike.  Their spirituality has little or nothing to do with organized religion.  It makes no burdensome demands. It suits their lifestyle preferences in a kind of creative spirituality.   The search for the Transcendent is one of the great thirsts of our age.  Psalm 63:1 puts it this way.  “O God, you are my God, I am seeking you, I am thirsting for you. I am like a parched land, lifeless and without water.”  The late Marianist spiritual director, Father Thomas Dubay, S.M., comments on each phrase: –  The universal I: All of us are voraciously thirsty for the infinite and unending.  This includes everyone, the religious and irreligious, the rich and poor, learned and unlearned. –  “For you are my God:” we all want endless life,  endless delight and pleasure, a life only God can fill. –  Dostoyevsky once observed that ‘everyone kneels before something, either the real God or an idol.  To live without God is a torture.’   –  “My soul thirsts for you.”  Plants and animals get thirsty, but they cannot thirst for God.  Only a spirit in the flesh can thirst for God. This Living Water is the only kind of refreshment that satisfies one’s parched tongue.  Prayer in the Catholic Tradition Perhaps our religious education has taught us about Jesus Christ but not about encountering him in personal prayer.  Before all else, the Catholic faith is a relationship with Jesus Christ, Living Water that quenches all thirst.  He invites everyone to be his companion and, in the process, to become his disciple.  And then like those first followers, to go out to our world where “Christ plays in ten-thousand places.” Personal Prayer Friendship with the Lord is far more important than any other.  To cultivate a close relationship, it’s essential to spend time alone with him in personal prayer, the time when Jesus transforms us from self-centered individuals into his friends, his companions, and his disciples. Personal prayer is familial conversation with God. Jesus tells us how to pray:  close the door, do it in secret, and pray in a few words (Mt 6:5-6; 7-13).  A good place to start is the verse in the Johannine Gospel (6:68):  “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life,” in the Matthean Gospel (11:28): “Come to me, all you who labor and are weary, and I will give you rest. . . .”   Some Considerations Honesty in prayer is all that is needed. In a metaphorical sense, we stand naked before God to make all our needs known.  Nothing is held back.  Our physical and emotional needs are brought to prayer, our fantasies, our memories and imaginations, fear of failure, fear of commitment, fear of being betrayed, unfairness and injustice to me and in the world, being passed over, feeling minimized.  If we are serious about friendship with the Lord in prayer, we will allow Divine Providence to guide our lives and even to re-arrange them.   Prayer is the spiritual power of our active lives, for Jesus tells us: “I am the vine, you are the branches.  If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit. But apart from me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).   Mothers and fathers with constant demands of family life cannot be expected to spend long periods of time in prayer.  Whenever possible, they must seize those moments—and they are moments—when short prayers become gems of prayer.  They may express relief, thanksgiving for a favor received, or help at that moment to restrain our tempers. In prayer, God will tell us how to begin.  God will teach us how to pray.    Muslims pray five times a day: ‘Allah is great, there is none greater.’ Their devotion edifies those of us who may protest that there is little or no time during the day for prayer.   Priests and those in consecrated life should be able to arrange their time for prolonged periods of prayer in addition to spiritual reading, praying The Liturgy of the Hours and the daily examen.  The monastic vocation is largely one of spending long hours in personal and liturgical prayer. Jesus withdrew from the crowds and spent long hours in prayer with his Father. He prayed before making a decision, after apostolic work, in Gethsemane and on the cross.  Other Considerations “My work is my prayer” holds true if there is also prayer which is not work.  It is unrealistic to expect our lives to become one ceaseless act of prayer unless there are also regular times when worldly occupations are laid to one side to remain with God alone.   If we do not find God in prayer, we most assuredly will not find God in others, in our work, and in the unexpected events that befall us.  Prayer is the soul of any true spirituality.   Praying with the silent music of chant in the background may help one to pray, but most music tends to distract and call attention to itself.  “The Great Exchange” As one progresses from meditation to deeper prayer, the individual speaks less and listens more.  God will communicate to the individual through delicate promptings meant only for the one at prayer. Below, readers will find some scripture passages Father Dubay recommended for prayer in what he liked to call “The Great Exchange:” Prayer transforms us into godly people. This is expressed in Ezechiel 16:14ff: “You were exceedingly beautiful with the dignity of a queen; you were renowned among the nations for your beauty perfect as it was because of my splendor which I had bestowed on you, says the Lord  God. They were crude and rude; you were renowned for your beauty because of my splendor which I bestowed on you.”   This people were transformed by God.  God gives a splendor that we cannot achieve ourselves except through prayer in which we are called to perfect beauty. God’s beauty is what we reflect, expressed in  2 Corinthians 3:18:  “We, with our unveiled faces reflecting like a mirror the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect; this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit.”  We are transformed from one glory to another, i.e., in the transforming union beautifully expressed by St. Gregory of Nyssa in his Life of Moses. We are pinnacles of God’s creation expressed in Ephesians 2:10:  “We are God’s work of art created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning He meant us to live it.”  Finally, in Ephesians 3:20, we read: “He whose power is at work in us is powerful and more than powerful to carry out his purpose beyond all our hopes and dreams.”

Days of Special Remembrance

Oct 28, 2015 / 00:00 am

As October makes way for November, the feasts of All Saints and All Souls bring home in a special way our belief that nothing and no one is ever finally lost.  These are days designed to remember in prayer our deceased and sainted loved ones.    Feast of All Saints In the early Church when it was a crime to be a Christian, a crime punishable by death, the word saint and martyr were synonymous.  Such a person had been persecuted, tortured, and put to death for the faith. The bodies of these martyr-saints were buried in places where the Eucharist could be celebrated with the Christian community to inspire those who would come after them.  This is why the main altar where the Eucharist is celebrated has a saint’s relic imbedded in it. In the eighth century, the feast day of martyr-saints was changed to November 1st. Eventually Christians who had led lives of heroic virtue were often acclaimed and canonized after their death by the local church.  Today canonizations take place because every age calls men and women to new struggles that require heroic virtue. The feast of All Saints recognizes all holy men and women of God whose names remain largely unknown. It must be quite an arabesque of color. The saints in heaven intercede not only for those in purgatory but also the faithful on earth who have honored the saints in heaven and sought their intercession. Honoring the saints means imitating the virtues these saints represent.  This is the reason for naming a child after a saint at the time of christening.  Biblical names remain popular.    On the feast of All Saints, the gospel reading is that of the Beatitudes, each, beginning with “Blessed.”  The gospel verse reads:  “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest, says the Lord” (Mt 11:28). Feast of All Souls Praying for the dead is an ancient custom that dates back to the Hebrew Scriptures:  “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins” (2 Maccabees 12:43-46).  St. Augustine (d 430) is one of the earliest saints to mention the practice of offering the Eucharist for the Dead.  The feast has been officially celebrated since the eleventh century. The Entrance Antiphon for this feast reads as follows:  “Just as Jesus died and has risen again, so through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep; and as in Adam all die, so also in Christ will all be brought to life” (1 Thess 4:14; 1 Cor 15:22). The theology and the celebration of the two feasts emphasize the bond between those Christians already with God, those saints-in-waiting, and the faith on earth.  The feasts point to our ultimate goal—to be with God. The Daily Remembrance of the Communion of Saints It is not as though the Church sets aside two days each year to remember our deceased loved ones.  This remembrance happens at every Eucharistic liturgy.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Communion of Saints brings us all together as one body, the body of the faithful on earth, the faithful in purgatory, and the faithful in heaven.  This arabesque intertwines in a spectrum of color to make up the Communion of Saints. In the Canon of the Mass, several commemorations are made.  First, the intentions of the living are remembered.  This is followed by recalling the memory of Mary and Joseph, and the apostles.  The Lord’s Paschal Mystery is recalled followed by the commemoration of the Dead in these words:  “Remember also, Lord, your servants [N.] and [N.] who have gone before us with the sign of faith and rest in the sleep of peace.  Grant them, O Lord, we pray, and all who sleep in Christ, a place of refreshment, light, and peace.”  Finally. . .  On November 1st and 2nd, memories of our deceased loved ones fill our hearts in a special way. So many encounters recalled, laughter, tears, hopes and fears, good wishes, disappointments, expressions of love—all fixed in our memories and brought to life, if for a few moments.  Praying to our loved ones and for them manifests the common life we all share together in this beautiful mystery, the Communion of Saints.  In every Eucharistic liturgy, heaven and earth are joined together calling us to live fully in the present age in anticipation of the next. As God’s pilgrim people, we are daily united with those who have preceded us: our loved ones, sainted women and men, known and unknown, who pray with us in the heavenly court.

Celebrating All Hallows' Eve: Part Two

Oct 21, 2015 / 00:00 am

Editor's note: Part one of this series can be read here. Next to Christmas, Halloween is the most commercial and the most anticipated festivity of the year. Like Christmas, Halloween captures the American mindset long before the actual date.  Whether or not the commercial world wants to admit it, Christmas is primarily a Christian religious feast celebrating the Nativity of the Lord’s birth.  The commercial world probably has little awareness of the religious history of Halloween. Like most cultures, the Judeo-Christian tradition is guided by cycles of time.  Though distinct from civil time, sacred time is not separated from it but gives it meaning and makes it sacred. God is present and at work in history, and it is through the two concentric circles of civil and sacred time, that we live and work out our salvation. The Jewish liturgical year is highlighted by the holydays of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah; the Muslim, by Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. Overview for All Hallows’ Eve Catholic education is committed to have its students live the liturgical year as an integral part of their schooling. Celebrating All Hallows’ Eve is a splendid way for doing so. Diocesan committees on liturgy should join with school principals, teachers, and student leaders to plan well ahead of time for its students to celebrate the vigil of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively. Today, our youth look up to super-stars as role models.  Some are worthy of admiration. The Church can boast of its own success stories of men and women who are worthy not only of admiration but also of imitation.  Parents, teachers, and catechists can find countless success stories within the Judeo-Christian heritage.  Donning period costumes of times when saints lived makes learning about one’s faith an enjoyable experience.  It’s fun to dress like kings, queens, biblical heroes, Native American saints and saints who immigrated to this country.  It’s fun to dress like those who befriended and worked among Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants, teen-age saints, and founders of religious orders. Modern-day martyrs have suffered and died for their faith in lands all over the world. There are martyrs such as the four Maryknoll women missionaries and the Jesuits slain in El Salvador, Asian martyrs, and those who continue to be martyred for their faith in Syria and other Mideast countries.    The Canonization of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Parents Youngsters may choose to dress up like their own mothers and fathers, their grandparents or other revered relatives.  We should note that this past Sunday and during the ongoing Synod on the family, Pope Francis canonized Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.  They are the first-ever married couple with children to be canonized in the same ceremony.  Let us anticipate that more married couples will soon be canonized for their fidelity to such a difficult vocation, especially today with the sacredness of marriage under attack.  Their example and recognition are much needed in today’s Church. All five of their daughters entered religious life.  In March of this year, the Pope recognized a miracle attributed to the French couple. They have been described as “an extraordinary witness of conjugal and family spirituality.” They lived a fervent Christianity, attending daily Mass, practicing asceticism, and visiting the elderly and the sick, even welcoming the poor into their home. Planning Group Activities A group’s creativity will vary as the members consider what activities will be chosen for All Hallows’ Eve. Children love to compose haiku, limericks, and poems.  They may choose to write short paragraphs about their choices.  Skits may be presented.  Some children may want to dress up dolls in costumes, keep them, donate or sell them at a benefit for children in need.  For the more ambitious, a marionette skit may be possible drawing together a number of saints in lively repartee.   Some families may want to host a party on All Hallows’ Eve featuring foods that include pumpkin in recipes—cupcakes, pie, bread, or fritters; doughnuts; apples and other fruits for dunking.  With adult chaperones, children may process around their neighborhood in their saints’ costumes.  These are only a few ideas that will perhaps spark others. If children see educators earnestly planning for All Hallows’ Eve, they will gladly receive the Church’s celebration as an integral part of their Catholic education. Children instinctively recognize what is good, wholesome, and beautiful in contrast to what is sleazy and dangerous.  A Word of Caution Despite the positive tone of this essay, some readers may feel that my suggestions have little chance against the ghoulish display of Halloween parades.  They will still lock their doors each year and pray that it all quickly disappears, that they all retire to their homes without incident.  My response:  Above all, we continue to educate our readers and hope for changes in attitudes and activity. The Church’s Year of Grace It is the mind of the Church that through the course of “the Church’s year of grace,” all of us celebrate not only the mysteries of Jesus and the Mother of God but also the feasts of the saints in heaven.  In his 1947 encyclical, Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII wrote: “Through the course of the liturgical year, . . . the Church is always striving to set forth examples of holiness for the faithful, that they, being moved by these examples, may adorn themselves with the virtues of the Redeemer Himself.”  Proud to Be Part of the Religious Minority If devout Jews and Muslims proudly and publicly observe their liturgical holydays during the year, are they not prompting us Catholics to proclaim our faith as well?  We are missionaries of a beautiful faith. As “the Church’s year of grace” is repeated one cycle after the other, it becomes the primary way in which Catholics can sacralize the year, the week, and the day—and All Hallows’ Eve.

From All Hallows' Eve to Halloween: Part I

Oct 14, 2015 / 00:00 am

Halloween fever is just around the corner.  In two weeks, many children and adults will don costumes of all designs and descriptions.  PetSmart has designed an elaborate Halloween web site for dogs, cats, and other pets. At Halloween parties, adults will primp their outfits while children will ring doorbells ready to blurt out “trick or treat.”   Ask the meaning of Halloween, and most people will give you blank stares. Children will shrug their shoulders hoping that their ignorance will not deprive them of a treat from the questioner.  The short answer?  In the Middle Ages, Halloween was marked on the Christian church calendar as All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Saints’ Day, formerly known as All Hallows’ Day.    With every passing year, October 31st grows into a mega-business.  It is set aside for images of devils and evil spirits, witches, goblins, ghouls, oversized cats, bonfires, Jack-O’-Lanterns, trick or treating.  You may argue: What’s the harm in having a few hours of fun once a year?  Fun is fast turning into vandalism and violence.  Some parents keep their children close to home instead of risking their safety to go trick or treating without an adult.  Others chaperone their children lest they be deprived of the enjoyment linked to the night’s festivities.  What’s the harm in getting dressed up in Halloween costumes once a year?   The response to this question will come in Part Two of this essay. The Devil in Music The musical composition, “Danse Macabre,” by Camille Saint-Saëns is traditionally played on Halloween.  It suggests the presence of the devil and evil spirits by highlighting the ‘devil’s interval,’ a tinny sound of two notes that jar the ear as though someone is harping on wrong notes.  This sound is never (never) permitted in classical composition except to make a point.  Clearly, the point of “Danse Macabre” is to mimic the devil in music.  How did we get from All Hallows to Halloween?   Pagan Origins  Hundreds of years before Christ, the Druids of Celtic lands made mischief by heckling others with mean tricks and scaring them into offering fruits and sweets. They were prompted by the long nights and early darkness of winter months.   In contrast, Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and gardens, was celebrated on November 1st.  In the Roman Empire, the custom of eating or giving away fruits, and especially apples, became popular. The Christian Celebration As with Christmas and Christmas Eve, the Church sacralized a pagan celebration.  In this case it Christianized the mischief of the Druids and the practice of the Roman goddess Pomona.  From the seventh- or eighth century, the Church marked October 31st as All Hallows’ Eve, the eve of All Saints’ Day.  The day recalled men and women who had died as Christians but were not officially canonized.  By the eleventh century, All Souls’ Day, the day after All Saints’ Day, was dedicated to the commemorate all the faithful departed.  All Hallows’ Eve was then linked to the two feast days. In Ireland and Great Britain, the end of October marked the end of the fall harvest and the beginning of the barren winter, and the faithful were reminded of the call to sainthood as well as the reality of the Four Last Things, death, judgment, heaven, or hell.  Depending on where one lived, All Hallows’ Eve was celebrated by praying that all would attain sainthood like all the saints.  At the same time, prayers were offered to the dead whose prayers, in turn, one sought.   In her book, The Year and Our Children, Mary Reed Newland writes:  “Late in the evening in the country parishes, after supper was over, the housewives would spread a clean cloth on the table, set out pancakes and curds, and cider.  And after the fire was banked and chairs set round the table for the returning loved ones, the family would recite Psalm 129, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (De Profundis clamavi ad te, Domine) and then go to bed. The English custom of knocking at doors began by begging for a soul cake. In return, the ‘beggars’ promised to pray for the dead of the household.  The refrain sung at the door varied.  It could be as short as  “a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake”  to a later version:  “Soul, soul, an apple or two,  If you haven’t an apple, a pear will do,  One for Peter, two for Paul,  Three for the Man Who made us all.”     Advent of the Doughnut    With the soul cake came a new development and an ingenious variation—the doughnut.  To remind people that life on earth was but a passing reality, a hole was carved out of the middle of the cake so that those who ate the cake were reminded of eternity. Later on, charades, pantomime, and mini-dramas were developed on the reality of life after death and the means of attaining salvation.  With the remembrance of a saintly life came images of evil and scary creatures like those mentioned above.  Cats were ancient symbols of the devil.  Still, the familiar and seasonal harvest fruits such as apples, cornstalks and pumpkins were given out to beggars.  Christian art depicted death by skulls and bones to remind Christians of death.  Pagan and Christian symbols existed side by side. It is not definitively known to what extent there was a link between the practices of the Druids and the people of Ireland and Great Britain.  Nevertheless, Christendom cast its thoughts from the end of temporal life to thoughts of death, sainthood and the departed souls.  The saints in heaven and those suffering in Purgatory are part of the full and complete Body of Christ, the Church.  In 1955, All Hallows’ Eve was stricken from the Church calendar.  Since then, the religious significance of October 31st has disappeared.   What remains is a day of devilish antics. To be continued next week.

Some Reflections on Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton

Oct 7, 2015 / 00:00 am

In his address to Congress last month, Pope Francis mentioned four exemplars of the great American enterprise: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.  The first two men, protagonists for the liberty and full equality of African-Americans, were assassinated for this cause.  Prior to their conversions to the Catholic faith, Day and Merton led meaningless lives.  After their conversions, they embraced a new vision with new direction and new energy. Because of them, the world has been made a better place. Dorothy Day (1897-1980) Dorothy Day was an American journalist and social activist-turned-pacifist.  Up until 1920, Dorothy had lived a bohemian life that included failed love affairs and an abortion. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Tamar Teresa, Dorothy met Sr. Aloysia, a Sister of Charity who not only encouraged Dorothy to have her daughter baptized.  She was also Dorothy’s mentor in the faith and stood as her godparent when she herself was baptized. Conversion In 1932, Dorothy met Peter Maurin and through him was introduced to the Church’s social teaching. Maurin, a French peasant-philosopher and teacher, had read the writings of the Church Fathers and the papal social encyclicals of Leo XIII and his successors. They gave Dorothy a keen understanding of the plight of the poor.  From then on, her life was completely dedicated to them.  In 1933, with Maurin, Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement, a community of laypeople from all walks of life that stressed the value and dignity of every person. She embraced voluntary poverty and established a house of hospitality and founded a series of farming communes in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.  One of the earliest farming communes, The Peter Maurin Farm, was located in Tottenville, Staten Island, NY, a place that attracted high school students in their free time to explore a rural way of life.  After their manual work, they prayed the equivalent of the Liturgy of the Hours and sang Gregorian Chant from the Liber Usualis not only at Mass but outside of Mass as well.  The hope was that some of these teenagers would eventually join the movement. Attempting to make a newspaper available to every individual who desired it, Dorothy founded The Catholic Worker to announce a Catholic presence and concern for the poor and the oppressed.  To this day, the paper sells for one penny. The Catholic Worker became the principal competitor of the Communist Daily Worker, which advocated class warfare and violent revolution.  Instead she favored the ideal of Christian communism.  She was largely misunderstood and was opposed by Cardinal Francis Spellman, then the archbishop of New York.  Still she attracted writers such as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the Jesuit priest-poet Daniel Berrigan, S.J. From her publishing enterprise, she was able to establish a house of hospitality on the Lower East Side, a shelter that provided food and clothing to the poor. Conclusion In 1955, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement committed themselves to pacifism and to non-violence.  They were part of the American Catholic peace movement that supported a number of peace organizations and causes. She was among other Catholic leaders opposed to the Vietnam War.  The Catholic Church has opened up the cause for Dorothy Day’s possible canonization. Currently, the Church refers to her as Servant of God.  On February 13th, 2013, toward the end of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI quoted from Dorothy Day’s writings and said: “The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nonetheless.” Thomas Merton (1915-68)  By the time Thomas Merton was twenty-seven year old in 1942, he had lived a life both aesthetically-rich and hedonistic. Born into the Episcopalian faith, Merton had observed Catholicism from a distance.  His father, a painter, was not shy in criticizing it as they traveled from one European city to the next before and after World War I.  In 1931, Merton’s father died of a brain tumor. At boarding schools, the youth began sowing his wild oats.  He studied little and drank much. Virtually all biographies mention that his year at Cambridge was a moral wasteland that included fathering a child with a young woman he had met there.  According to Paul Elie who, in 2003, wrote about four modern American Catholic writers, the child’s name has never been disclosed.  The legal action was discreetly settled by Merton’s guardian who promptly ordered him home. Merton next enrolled at Columbia University where he studied English literature and was introduced to Communism there.  He briefly joined the Young Communist League and also became a member of Alpha Delta Phi as well as the Philolexian Society, a literary and debate group.   In 1937, Merton began to take notice of Catholic churches and started to read Catholic literature.  He had bought a book by Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, which he thought would help him in a medieval French literature course.  Apparently, the title did not betray its Catholic orthodoxy.  Little did he know what an influence it would exert on him!  The poetry of Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins also made a deep impression.  Shortly after, Merton asked to be baptized at Corpus Christi Church located near Columbia University. Following his baptism, life took on a new meaning.  He was drawn to the priesthood.  But where?  Could he cope with “the pitch of active intensity and military routine” of the Society of Jesus? Perhaps the Franciscan Order?  He took a teaching position at the Franciscan-run St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY.  In 1941, Merton made a weekend retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown, KY. At long last, he had found his home.  In 1942, he was accepted as a novice-monk.  His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, not only became an instant best-seller but also attracted many young men to the Trappist Order.   In religion, he was known as Father Louis, O.C.S.O, but to the world, he was always Thomas Merton, writer, poet, contemplative and activist, and Trappist monk. During the next twenty years, Merton expanded his writings from strictly religious topics such as contemplative prayer, asceticism, and aesthetics to controversial issues such as violence and war, matters of social justice and ecumenical dialogue. Thomas Merton’s Influence Merton also gave conferences to the younger monks, and many of the conferences were preserved in his own voice and remastered for CDs.  They are from the archives of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY.   One might expect Merton to speak in ethereal, sentimental platitudes.  Nothing is farther from the truth.  Merton’s voice is sharp but resonant and decisive with a no-nonsense style of delivery.  His lexicon ranges from the sublime to the colloquial, yes even to slang—“that’s baloney.”  It is emblematic of an erutdite man who once lived a deeply flawed worldly life while enjoying a broad classical education.  He is a savvy spiritual master who gets down to gutsy realities. Thomas Merton’s Legacy In December, 1968, Merton was in Bangkok attending an ecumenical conference of monks.  As he stepped out of his bath on one of those sweltering South Asian days, he died from heart failure due in part to an electric shock.  In his speech to congress last month, Pope Francis said that “Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.  He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between people and religions.”

Recapping the Papal Visit

Sep 30, 2015 / 00:00 am

Last week, Pope Francis held much of the nation riveted on his presence, words and gestures. Millions gladly stood for hours in long lines to see him pass by in his Fiat and pope mobile if only for a few seconds.  Political leaders anticipated his reflections on global concerns.  Children, families, the imprisoned, victims of sex-abuse, and those in consecrated life awaited his encouragement and consolation.   Cuba, Washington, New York City, and Philadelphia—four different places with four different responses.  Liberals and conservatives interpreted his words as they wished. Though not a theologian by training, Francis used images and gestures in other ways to express a theology of God and a theology of God’s People.  The handshake, the embrace and kiss, the blessings offered to the infirm—our young people will interpret them. The crushing schedule seemed to invigorate rather than exhaust him.  It was a lovely week in Northeastern America.  The Papal Message Pope Francis conveyed a few underlying themes during his visit. Cuba of course claimed his special attention, and he will pursue the Church’s interests there with focused concern. His overall message in this country proclaimed that God is our Creator, and we, his creatures.  Not the other way round.  He spoke as much to skeptics, agnostics, and atheists as he did to believers.  Perhaps even more so. “If you cannot pray for me,” he asked of them in caring tones, “then please wish me well.”  Other faiths formed an integral part of his focus captured poignantly at the ecumenical prayer service at Ground Zero. Pope Francis has enormous respect for the senses.  See Christ, contemplate him in prayer.  Do not speak about Christ; encounter him in prayer.  Listen to God’s voice in the silence of your heart.  If there was any doubt about his keen sense of touch, look at the pictures of this tactile person.  The pope rises at 4:30 a.m. and, before beginning the day’s activities, spends a few hours in prayer.  For him, prayer is the power that drives his actions.  We don’t see it, but we know it’s there. His actions return him to prayer.  This is the delicate balance of prayer for the sake of the apostolate and action for the sake of prayer—the finding of God in all things. He speaks of listening to others.  It is the art of being present to the other as other.  In the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius wrote of the three levels of being present to others:  attentive respect, reverence, and devotion.  This means recognizing that God is present and at work when we encounter the other. For St. Ignatius Loyola, the resolution of every human encounter should be the discovery of God’s presence. Everyone is called to missionary discipleship.  For most of us, it will not be that quiet companionship of the cloister or monastery but in the city.  It is said that St. Benedict loved the valleys, St. Bernard, the mountain tops, St. Francis of Assisi, the towns, but St. Ignatius preferred the big cities.  For him, God was everywhere but especially in the city—the city of God and the city of man.  All of which leads to mission. The Mission Mission is the centerpiece of discipleship. I am impelled to go out and spread his message of mercy and love in whatever way if possible.  People come before programs, and programs exist for the sake of people. Discipleship allows others to make demands on my time, energy, and patience.  A personal note.  It is true that the corporal works of mercy are essential and prior to all else.  Still, in the long run, the greatest service to the poor is to educate their minds that seek truth.  It is the key to lift the poor out of poverty.  The Cristo Rey Schools best demonstrate this fact.  The Golden Rule is the yardstick by which we will be measured. In the words of Pope Francis, the time to make the human condition better cannot be delayed.  The time is not tomorrow but now in “the sacrament of the present moment” where God is always at work renewing the face of the earth.  We are to care not only for one another but also for all creation.  The pontiff’s view of the environment is not a trendy cause but is rooted in a biblical theology where God enjoins on everyone to care for the blessings of the earth. Conclusion On the plane returning to the Vatican, Pope Francis noted the warmth, receptivity, and piety of the American Church.  He reiterated his concerns for conscientious freedom and religious freedom. Victims of sex abuse and their victimizers shielded by the bishops greatly disturb him, and visibly so.  “It is a terrible thing. God weeps,” he summarized. On a number of occasions and not just on the plane, the pontiff praised women in consecrated life, and it is clear that their popularity in the American Church made an impression on him.  There is widespread agreement that without the sisters and laywomen, the Church would effectively come to a halt. Smiling, he said that “the people of the United States love the sisters.” Women rarely receive credit for the work they do in the Church.  Pope Francis further reflected on the plane: Though priesthood for women is “still not a possibility, it is not because women don’t have the capacity.”    From his dealings with sisters at the Vatican offices, he knows how efficiently they work.   His thoughts about women in the Church will hopefully translate into appointing religious sisters and laywomen to leadership positions with executive responsibility in every sector of the Church.  It was a lovely week in Northeastern America.

Pope Francis: Missionary of Mercy and Peace

Sep 23, 2015 / 00:00 am

The warm familial approach of Pope Francis imitates the way Jesus was present to others. The early disciples followed Jesus because he spoke the truth with mercy, a message of compelling beauty.  They followed Jesus because he went about performing deeds of mercy while offering a message of compelling beauty.  His disciples were willing to die for him and his message. This week Pope Francis will experience the eagerness of public figures who will jockey with others for a place near him, if only for a few minutes. They will see the greatest moral leader in the world today speak of this world gone mad, engulfed in violence, rancor, and bloodshed.  He comes as a missionary of mercy and peace. The Orchestral Conductor Compared to the Roman Pontiff  A symphony orchestra is made distinctive by its conductor, who, though part of the orchestra, acts primarily as its public face and official spokesperson. As the symbol of the orchestra’s structure and stability, conductors lead, direct, govern, and coordinate the orchestra.  The conductor functions like a director of traffic and learns the entire map of the musical highway.  The orchestra looks to the maestro for direction to make beautiful music.   In the final analysis, all breathe together as one with the maestro’s interpretation as the final word. The conductor leaves his imprint on the orchestra’s reputation thus separating his orchestra from all others.  Can a Symphony Orchestra Die? The mission of the symphony orchestra is to uplift its audience and inspire it by the beauty of its musical expression.  If a sluggish, off-key orchestra ceases to play beautifully, it dies because it has failed to fulfill its mission. The Church’s Maestro Like his predecessors, Pope Francis is to the Universal Church what a maestro is to a symphony orchestra. As the visible head of the Body of Christ, the Pope governs with his bishops.  Instead of speaking out about difficult social and doctrinal issues, Pope Francis prefers a pastoral emphasis that places compassion before judgment.  Though he has a global reputation for speaking bluntly, there is neither edge nor rancor in his words. His emphasis is on yes instead of no, do rather than don’t, honey, not vinegar. His message for the whole world is simple: ‘God loves you.  Love others by performing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. God forgives you. Return home to God.’ This hopeful and attractive message has not escaped the satirist Jon Stewart who is quoted as saying: “I’m converting. I love this guy.” According to reports in the Washington Post, while most Americans admire Pope Francis, the same cannot be said of the Church. Catholics note the stark difference in style between Francis and other clergymen.  Scandals have given the Church bad press, so bad in fact that, to this day, they remain burning issues for the secular media. The analogy of maestro to the Roman Pontiff is important.  There are millions of former and disaffected Catholics across this country.  “The Francis effect” will do much to restore the Church so that it uplifts, inspires, and attracts. Can the Church Die? Can the Church die from within or be destroyed from without?  Jesus assured Peter, the rock on which he built the Church, that the powers of death would not prevail against it (Mt 16:18). Still, the human element can turn it into a lifeless and introverted entity. Ours is a beautiful Church that assures eternal happiness.  Catholicism that becomes deformed and disfigured can only risk more defections, weaken the Church from within, and invite ridicule.  The Church’s mission then is to draw others by proclaiming its truth and goodness with mercy, active compassion—and to do so beautifully.  


Sep 16, 2015 / 00:00 am

Mercy is active compassion.  This concise definition from the Encyclopedia of Catholicism drives the Hebrew Scriptures where the title “Lord of Mercy” is often ascribed to God.  In the Christian Scriptures, mercy assumes wide meaning from “God the Father of mercy” to the mercy we must offer to one another.   Pope Francis has worked among the poor, serving and accompanying them, advocating and defending them.  His witness of mercy speaks volumes. And the world has taken notice. This Pope of mercy is about to make his first-ever visit to our country.   Works of Mercy   Isaiah 58:6-10 provides the scriptural basis for the Matthean works of mercy (25:34-40).  The corporal works of mercy enjoin on us as the Lord’s disciples to:  feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, elderly, and homebound, bury the dead.  The spiritual works of mercy also ask us to: admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, to pray for the living and the dead.   One Family, One Shining Example   Last Sunday, the New York Times Sunday Business featured an interview with Patty Stonesifer who is currently the chief executive of Martha’s Table, a provider of food and clothing for low-income families in Seattle.  She and her siblings were raised to participate in the soup kitchen.  After work, her father would pick up excess food from the local grocery market, repackage it, and distribute it to the needy.  On Sundays he drove a bus for the deaf children who were coming to Mass.  Here is one contemporary example of doing the corporal works of mercy.   Poverty of Soul and Mind    In addition to the physically poor, there are other kinds of poor among us.  The poverty of the rich is not always apparent but no less needy.  Yet it is the wealthy who are among the Church’s financial donors to raise up the physically downtrodden.   Then there are the intellectually poor many of whom no longer believe in the human capacity to know truth.  These may be found on college campuses, in graduate and professional school, and especially in law schools.  Politicians, most of whom are lawyers, are also part of this group.   Today, Catholic educators worry that our greatest problem is the poverty of the mind. Worse, our whole educational system has failed in training the mind to seek truth.  Empty minds cannot generate wisdom.  If we do not educate the mind, we perpetuate physical poverty. You cannot preach the Gospel to someone who does not believe in the capacity of the mind to know the truth,’ they say.  There is further concern that our youth lack the desire for truth and learning that nourishes the mind.  Instead, the social media, indulging in drugs, risky behavior have claimed their time and attention.  Their motto?  “Whatever!”    Recently, in Crisis Magazine Online, Father James Schall, S.J. wrote an essay, “Why Silencing Christians Will Continue.”  In it, he notes that truth is basic to virtue.  He observes that “we no longer want to hear speech if it ‘offends’ someone’s feelings or self-defined identity. We have become infinitely tolerant of anything but truth itself.  Speech is not directed to truth or falsity of an issue but to the ‘sensitivity’ and ‘compassion’ of those who hear it.”  Without truth, there is no virtue, no sensitivity, and no compassion.   Poverty of the Emotions   Americans suffer from the poverty of emotional maturity.  Too many of us live with the erroneous assumption that emotions are the best guide of human behavior. ‘Emotions can’t be controlled.’  ‘We can't be chaste.’  ‘We should admire people who simply let their hearts rule their heads.’     In 1936, Edward VIII abdicated the British throne and followed his heart to wed the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. The whole world watched as emotivism was caught up in its own needs.  The whole world watched as Edward’s brother, George VI accepted the burden thrust on him during World War II.     Reason and faith are the twofold engines that should drive emotional maturity.    Mercy in Action: Cristo Rey (Christ the King) Schools   Last week, Pope Francis spoke with the students at Cristo Rey Chicago via satellite. What are the Cristo Rey schools?   In the mid-nineties, Cristo Rey, a Catholic college-prep school serving low-income students, took shape as the creation of Father John O. Foley, S.J. and a few other Jesuits in Chicago.     The scriptural text that inspired the Cristo Rey vision was that from Acts 9:6:  “[Paul], get up and go into the city where you will be told what you must do.”  Like the Apostle, the Jesuits went into the streets, but of Chicago’s Pilsen district and asked the residents how they, the Jesuits, could best respond to the unserved needs of the Mexican and Latino immigrants living there.  The response was unanimous.  They wanted their children to attend a college-prep high school that would educate them for a better future.  In August 1996, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago was born.     Every Cristo Rey school is permeated with Catholic faith and values with biblical and Catholic social teaching forming the centerpiece of the celebration of Mass, retreat experiences, and community service. It is Christ the King who leads the way.   Genius of Cristo Rey: High School and Going to Business at Fourteen   The parents of Cristo Rey schools cannot afford large tuition bills, but herein lies the genius of the Cristo Rey plan.  The schools function as a vast work-study agency in which clusters of five students each rotate working as interns one day a week at a job in a business like Pfizer and American Express. Part-time salaries cover a portion of each student’s tuition. Parents pay approximately $1,000 a year to defray some of the cost of that tuition.  Here they are, young people, beginning to build their resumes at age fourteen.  Business ‘boot camp’ calls for wearing suitable attire, learning telephone etiquette and skills, team work, precision, accountability, technical skills, and how to conduct oneself in business. The other four days of the week, students are immersed in a rigorous course of academic studies.   In this way, study and work are integrated, and tuition is covered. Students gain exposure to the corporate world while receiving a first-class education in a thoroughly Catholic environment. Of the 9,000 students enrolled in Cristo Rey schools across the country, 40% of them are not Catholic and need not convert to Catholicism.      Enterprising Sponsors   In addition to the Jesuits, many religious groups endorse and run Cristo Rey schools. Each is independently owned, each is explicitly Catholic in mission, and each has received official Church approbation. From the endorsing group to the president, principal, and teachers, down to the youngest freshman,  a common four-fold mission is actively  promoted:  (1) commitment to the Catholic character of the school, a character that permeates the curriculum, (2) admitting only students from lower income families, (3)  using a college-prep curriculum,  (4) work-study.     Currently, there are approximately twenty-eight schools in the Cristo Rey Network, but new schools are in the planning.  Empty buildings are being bought up and  renovated for the 400-600 students who will study there and from there go to business one day a week as interns.  The Cristo Rey Network based in Chicago ascertains that all the schools are adhering to the four-fold mission.     Course of Studies and Transforming Urban Education   Students in Cristo Rey schools have a longer school day and year. What course of studies do the students follow? Across the United States, the college-prep, academic curriculum is rigorous experience. Students take four years each of English, mathematics, religion, and science, three years each of a foreign language and history, two plus years in health and physical education, at least one year of the arts, and computer science.     Cristo Rey schools are transforming urban education through Catholic values through Catholic values, rigorous study and student-internships.  By 2001, Cristo Rey’s education model became known to educators and community leaders throughout the country.  As of 2014, twenty-eight Cristo Rey schools have enrolled 9,000 low-income students, and every year, every student is accepted into college. Many of these college graduates are asked to give back to Cristo Rey, by teaching in the very schools that lifted them out of poverty.   The primary long-range goal of Cristo Rey schools is to have their students enter and graduate from college.  Eight goals emerge from Cristo Rey schools:   I. Academic excellence and lifelong learning are essential.  As important keys, they unlock doors to a meaningful future for the students. II. Importance of well-trained teachers equipped to engage their students.  As leaders, they must be committed to the Catholic vision. III. Character is developed largely through faith experiences.   IV. All-in. Every person is committed to the program. V. Belief in every student that he or she has the ability to enter and graduate from college.  This attitude prompts students to believe in themselves. VI. The importance of community—students together with parents. VII. Importance of data.  Test scores are used by the schools themselves to improve their programs and by outside groups to assess the impact of Cristo Rey education.  VIII. Cristo Rey pursues a culture of high expectations of everyone. (Adapted from Megan Sweas: “How a Jesuit Network Is Transforming Urban Education”).   Conclusion   Catholic education gives human beings a vision of the Transcendent as well as an appreciation of their lives on earth. Thus, they can realize their destiny in the life to come.  A Catholic education that attempts to achieve less than this is an incomplete Catholic education and short-changes those students enrolled in a particular Catholic school.   Cristo Rey schools have fast become a cherished institution of the American Catholic Church.  They are leading young men and women to fulfill their potential as God’s works of art.     The inherent generosity of Americans and of American Catholics will not escape the Pope’s recognition when he visits us next week.   

Catholic Education IV: Grace under Pressure

Sep 9, 2015 / 00:00 am

Catholic education is pedagogy of values and principles that prompt our students to aim high for excellence.  It also prepares them for inevitable setbacks that come to all of us. Hardships and even tragedies always surprise, they bewilder, and seem undeserved, especially when they befall children.  Where Grace under Pressure Abounds   Grace under pressure can form part of this week’s lessons of inspiring narratives. The attacks on Sept. 11th, 2001 saw police, firefighters, and first responders help thousands escape death even while thousands were perishing in horrific manner.   Today is the feast of St. Peter Claver (16th-17th c), the Spanish Jesuit missionary who befriended slaves and became their patron.  He is the patron of the Republic of Columbia and of African-Americans. As of this week, Pope Francis has urged the European Church and the Vatican itself to take in desperate migrant families in preparation for the Year of Mercy.  Grace under pressure. Ludwig vanBeethoven  By all predictions, Beethoven should have grown into a bitter and even destructive misanthrope. Instead he is a universal and shining example of courage. Born in 1770 into a lower-class dysfunctional German family with an alcoholic and abusive father and a sickly mother, his future held little promise. As the oldest of three boys, he supported the family by working at musical odd jobs.  Having been deprived of even a basic education, he never learned to spell or write legibly.  Deafness Shatters a Promising Public Career  A remarkable pianist, Beethoven began to attract the Viennese aristocracy.  At twenty-nine, he was winning their respect and was on the road to success.  What more could he want?  The year 1801 however marked the onslaught of deafness, and its inexorable progress accelerated a profound inner struggle. The years from 1815 to his death in 1827 were spent in virtual isolation.  He communicated by scribbling on notepads.  Deafness, a symbol of universal loneliness, became his constant companion.   The Five Stages of Loss In her book, On Death and Dying, the Swiss physician, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, identifies five stages of loss experienced by terminally-ill cancer patients:  denial and isolation, anger and rage, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Amazingly, these stages are found among Beethoven’s 400 personal letters, written more than a century before Kübler-Ross’ publication in 1960.  In 1801, writing to his physician-friend, Franz Wegeler, Beethoven expresses the five stages in one long letter: “For the last three years, my hearing has become weaker and weaker, and for almost two years, I have ceased to attend any social function just because I find it impossible to say to people, ‘I am deaf.’ I beg you not to say anything about my condition to anyone:  I am only telling you this as a secret.  Heaven alone knows what is to become of me.  Already I have cursed my Creator and my existence.  . . . I will bid defiance to my fate . . . .  We must wait and see whether my hearing can be restored.  O how happy should I be now if I had perfect hearing.  Sad resignation to which I am forced to have recourse!  I will seize fate by the throat!”  To his pupil, Countess Josephine Deym:  A private grief has robbed me of my usual intense energy. . . . For a long period, a certain event made me despair of ever achieving any happiness during my life on this earth, but now things are no longer so bad.  I have won your heart. (Isolation, depression and bargaining, joy through suffering).   To a personal friend, Countess Anna Marie Erdödy: “We finite beings who are the embodiment of an infinite spirit, are born to suffer both pain and joy; and one might almost say that the best of us obtain joy through suffering.”   To the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, Beethoven is more candid:  “Notwithstanding my healthy appearance, I have, all this time, been really ill and suffering from a nervous breakdown. (Depression)  On March 14th, 1827, Beethoven wrote his last letter to Ignaz Moscheles, pianist, conductor, and composer. In it, Beethoven’s struggle to cope with his deafness is integrated with resignation and acceptance:  “On the 27th of February, I underwent the 4th operation and there are visible symptoms that I shall have to suffer a fifth.  What does it tend to, and what will become of me if it continues for some time longer?  A hard lot, indeed, has fallen on me!  However, I submit to the will of fate and only pray to God so to ordain it in His will that I may be protected from want as long as I have to endure death in life.  This will give me strength to bear my lot, however terrible it may be, with humble submission to the will of the Most High.   . . . I remain with greatest respect ever,  Your friend,  L. van Beethoven.” Beethoven died from a liver disease on March 26th, 1827.  His burial took place at St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna where his “Miserere,” written in 1812 for All Souls’ Day, was performed.  Thousands attended his funeral.  Female Companionship If men of genius delight in warm and lasting friendships with women of superior minds and culture, Beethoven was no exception to this rule.  Yet he never married.  His deafness, his unattractive, pock-pitted face, his uncouthness, careless attire, and the rigid class distinction, dashed his hopes of ever marrying. The fascinating narrative of Beethoven’s “immortal Beloved” is a story for another time. Beethoven’s Spiritual Development through Suffering   Beethoven spared no human effort to restore his hearing. Though cursing his fate, he relied on Providence for inner strength to cope with his cruel hardship. His creative process was the result of intense inner conflict and of great powers of concentration. It was his personality and indomitable will that drove him to speak, and with his great gift of music, forever changed the course of music history. The Beethoven of the Fifth Symphony (1807-08) achieves meaning in life despite suffering.  Suffering is an enemy to be defied.  The famous first movement in C Minor pounds out ‘I will overcome,’ but the final C Major movement, the key of victory, proclaims ‘I have overcome!’   The worst was yet to come. The Mature Beethoven: the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, String Quartet, Op. 135 Beethoven’s last period (1815-27) is marked not only by isolation but by intense creativity as well. Some scholars refer to this last period as mystical.  If the Fifth Symphony (Op 67) finds meaning in life despite suffering, the Ninth Symphony (Op 125) discovers meaning through suffering.  Suffering becomes enlightenment.   In the final movement, “To Joy,” Beethoven unites himself with the universal human family, children of a heavenly Father.  The refrain of the text, written by Frederick Schiller reads:  Alle menschen werden Bruder wo dein sanfter Flügel weit, (All men shall be brothers under your protective wing). Shouts of freu/Freude/Freunde, joy and friendship convey his inner joy.  The phrase, mit Gott (with God), climbs to the heights in a vision of God.   At the conclusion of the premier, the audience stood to give Beethoven a rousing ovation.  Though he had kept the rhythm going throughout with an assistant at his side, his back was to the audience.  He couldn’t hear the thunderous applause.  The leading soprano stepped down, led him to the edge of the stage where he could see for himself. The tears in his eyes said it all! Missa Solemnis The Missa Solemnis (Op 123) is a work of intense subjectivity in which Beethoven proclaims the meaning of the Mass texts.  He pours himself out in the word Credo.    In his apartment, in order to feel the rhythm of the first text-word, the totally deaf composer repeatedly stomped his feet to the rhythm of Cre-do, Cre-do, Cre-do, Cre-do represented here by long and short lines  (______  __, ______  __,  ______  __, ______  __ ).  His furious landlady could not have imagined that the pounding above her declared this man’s protestation of naked faith in God:  I believe, I believe. Another touching anecdote. Grace  under pressure. Beethoven’s Final Composition: the String Quartet, Number 27, Op. 135 On October 30, 1826, Beethoven writes to his publisher, Maurice Schlesinger: “Here, my dear friend, is my last quartet.  Indeed, it has given me much trouble, for I could not bring myself to compose the last movement.  In the end, I decided to compose it.  And that is the reason why I have written the motto:  Der schwer gefasste Entschluss! [The decision taken with difficulty.].  At the end of his life, Beethoven expressed his state of soul when composing his last string quartet.  He wrestles with two themes, a question—‘must it be/did it have to be,’ and a response—‘it must be/it had to be.’ [Muss es sein? and Es muss sein!].   What was it that had to be?  Beethoven’s living death recalls the response of the risen Jesus to the two disciples at Emmaus, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory” (Lk 24:26)?   The question is composed in such a way as to grate on the ear and to sound ugly.  In fact, it screams with pain.  The response has a rhythmic lilt to it.   It skips.  In the middle section, Beethoven inserts conflict between question and response.  ‘Must it be/did it have to be’ locks horns with ‘It must be/it had to be.’  Death threatens to vanquish life.   In the end, the response reappears with determination and vigor. The throbbing heart rejoices with Beethoven. Es muss sein! skips all the way to the finale of the final movement of his final composition.  In the end, Beethoven is transported to the pinnacle of glory.   Beethoven and the Comic Strip “Peanuts” Beethoven’s life has provided raw material for cartoonists.  In the comic strip, “Peanuts,” Lucy presses Schroeder, “I’m looking for the answer to life.” He shouts back, “Beethoven, clear and simple! Do you understand? Beethoven!”  The cartoon “Dr. Helmholtz” is convinced that “there is more truth in a single Beethoven string quartet than in an entire encyclopedia of philosophy!”  In 1977, a recording of the fifth movement of the string quartet, Opus 130, with its deeply expressive sounds, was rocketed into outer space with the two unmanned Voyager probes. Conclusion Beethoven’s Catholicism expresses itself in one man’s view of universally-held beliefs: the inalienable dignity of men and women, their filial devotion to God’s Providence, acceptance, and even joy in the face of suffering, and finally, inner peace. When the first sounds of the new millennium began to ring out in the Far East and across the continents, it was Beethoven’s ode “To Joy” that pealed majestically to a world in need of hope, but not of this world.  It’s the age-old wonder—grace under pressure. 

Catholic Education III: Fully Alive for Virtue

Sep 2, 2015 / 00:00 am

“I have come that they may have life, life to the full (Jn 10:10),”—the assurance of Jesus.  In the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons gave the Church an equally-beautiful verse echoing that of the Jesus:  “The glory of God is man and woman fully alive, and the glory of man and woman is the contemplation of God (Against Heresies 4:20).”  It has been quoted countless times through the ages. To be fully alive is to develop one’s gifts within the context of a virtuous life.  The end goal is life eternal.  What Is Virtue? “Virtue,” writes Kenneth Woodward, “is a quality of character by which individuals habitually recognize and do the right thing.” Virtuous living is moral living.  Children learn virtue in the family and from role models in schools.   The reality of ‘fully alive for virtue’ may be seen in one of the greatest composers of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach.  You ask, “What does Bach have to say about education, if anything?” A glimpse into his life will give us some insight.  A Composer for All Seasons:  Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) The German word Bach means stream or brook, and Sebastian forms the deepest part of a long flowing stream of minor and amateur musicians, none more prominent than himself. “Not Brook but Ocean should be his name,” adds Beethoven. Bach belongs in the Lutheran religious family, but his earlier Thuringian ancestors, beginning with Günther Bache (ca 1372), would have been Catholic prior to the Protestant Reform sparked in 1517 by Martin Luther. Bach’s mother and father died before he was ten, and the boy went to live with an older brother who cared for him like a son.  The youngster attended the Old Latin Grammar School in Eisenach where Martin Luther had once been a pupil.  There the expectations were high for those studying reading and writing, Greek and Latin grammar, a great deal of scripture, and singing in the choir. At the school, laziness was a non-existent word.  Bach’s beautiful soprano voice won for him a scholarship in the choir of a nearby monastery. In addition to his formal studies, he studied musical composition and copied music, a habit he cultivated his entire life.  Bach worked at several different musical posts, the last one at St. Thomas School in Leipzig for twenty-seven years.  There he achieved the status of music director.  He was chief organist, choir director, and composer.  His musical output is a sheer wonder, a treasure trove of more than 1,000 compositions. Disappointments and Setbacks Bach’s life was far from rosy.  In all of his appointments, one thing was certain: If he wanted to keep his current position, he was forced to adjust to his employers’ demands.  With a large family to support, he could not afford to incur their dissatisfaction. Keep in mind that, until Beethoven broke the mold in the nineteenth century, musicians were considered servants and subject to the patronage system.  If appointed to a court, they and their families were given room and board plus a stipend that depended on their talent and docility.   Bach’s appointments came with irritating demands. He didn’t relish the idea of having to keep detailed reports on the good order of the organ and other instruments, teach Latin in the choir school, and work for low pay.  He was always asking for a raise for the sake of his growing family.  He complained endlessly to the municipal authorities about poor working conditions and sycophantic dedications to royal personages.  Flashes of anger, continual vexation, envy, and persecution would often interrupt his train of musical thought and keen sense of order. In 1717, while at Weimar, he fell out of favor with the authorities. As a result, he was jailed for a month before he was unfavorably dismissed.  The grinding stress of composing music for every Sunday’s four-hour liturgical service took its toll. The ink was barely dry on the manuscript paper before it was performed by the choir, soloists, and congregation.  Faith, Industry, Hard Work, and Self-Discipline   Is there any composer able to match Bach’s output before his death at the age of sixty-five years?  Perhaps Mozart, had he lived another thirty years.  Perhaps.  Who could be so prolific without a keen sense of responsibility and purpose, hard work and industry?  Once when he was asked how he had set about to master the art of music to such a high degree, he replied:  “I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.”  Laziness was not in the Bach playbook. At the top or at the end of every composition, Bach inscribed sdg, soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone be glory.”  Today, students are still encouraged to place a cross at the top of their work pages or amdg, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, “all for the greater glory of God.”   When One Door Closes . . . From 1720 to 1723, Bach won a music position at Clöthen.  His Calvinist employer favored more instrumental music than music for worship. With one musical door closed, he was gifted enough to open another.  He concentrated on instrumental music, and this is the fruitful period when most of it was composed: the six delightful Brandenburg Concertos, the keyboard concertos, the concertos for harpsichord and orchestra, and the monumental Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II.  Here imaginative flights of fancy paired with highly-structured fugues are composed in every key of the twelve-note scale, both major and minor—forty-eight in all. The so-called Bach “Ave Maria” is the very first prelude of forty-eight gems. In 1720, Bach was required to travel with his employer, and he was away from home for four months.  Imagine the shock on his return home to discover the tragic news that his wife Maria Barbara, who had been in perfect health before he left home, had died and had been already buried in his absence.  Four children were left for him to raise.  A year later, he married a singer Anna Magdalena.  Their happy family increased to thirteen children in all, four composers among them. The Fifth Evangelist The word mediocrity was neither part of Bach’s vocabulary nor of his effort.  On this point, Claude Debussy once noted:  “If we look at the works of Bach, we find a god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity.” From start to finish, Bach aimed high because all of his works were imbued with a deeply-felt religious faith. He cultivated the habit of perfection.  The sacred works are monumental in scope:  the great St. Matthew Passion, the Passion according to St. John, the B Minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio to name a few.  Then there are the hundreds of cantatas he composed every Sunday for worship at St. Thomas in Leipzig. Is it any wonder that he has been dubbed “the Fifth Evangelist?” Bach died in 1750 of a stroke brought on by an unsuccessful operation on his eyes.  Copying and composing music contributed to his eventual blindness. His reputation was virtually buried with him. Had it not been for Mozart who, as a boy, played duets in England with Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, and Felix Mendelssohn who conducted Bach’s works in Berlin perhaps Bach might have remained a regional composer.  These two composers revived his reputation and thrust him forth as one of the grandest stars of the musical constellation.  With an eye for sharing him with the rest of the cosmos, astronauts have wished more than once that the complete works of Bach be placed in a time capsule and sent out into space. Bach’s Greatness Bach was a great composer not because he was a devout Christian.  The goodness of art is ordered to the perfection of the work itself, irrespective of the good life of the artists who are concerned exclusively with the perfection of their work.  But that perfection in its turn does not depend essentially on the moral and spiritual condition of the artists. With Bach, the perfection of his gift and his own personal goodness were realized together.   Bach is a musical craftsman of the first order.  At first, his music can disappoint because it seems like a series of rambling notes.   Gradually patterns emerge. The fecundity of his ideas seems endless. He is never stale, never boring.  His music skips and dances, walks, marches; it weeps and wails, comforts and prays.  The Baroque beat keeps beating. With him, life seems ordered and good because he and his music are ordered and good.   He does it all, and all we can do is marvel at this composer who never traveled beyond a 100-mile radius. Yet, his music has touched all ages, all musical taste of all nationalities, the devout as well as the lapsed.  Listen to the philosopher Alain de Botton: “Most contemporary music is about the love between two people.  What makes Bach’s music particularly striking is that it’s about the love of God.  This should present a hurdle for someone, who like me, doesn’t believe in God—but doesn’t.  What I appreciate in Bach is his ability to suggest to me what a belief in God feels like.  His music seems to me to be about devotion to a perfect ideal—something purer, better, higher.”   Michael Torke, an American popular composer writes: “Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?” With a touch of hyperbole and a flair for the dramatic, William F. Buckley opines:  “If Bach is not in heaven . . . I am not going.” 

Catholic Education II: Quality and Non-Quality

Aug 26, 2015 / 00:00 am

In November 1980, Barbara Tuchman, a noted historian and twice-winner of the Pulitzer Prize, published a controversial essay in the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Decline of Quality.”  Her piece commands attention for all associated in any way with the education of our youth. Tuchman argues that, despite our improved material progress, the decline of quality permeates our culture.  Not a politically correct statement to make outright. Craftsmanship, the arts, morals, politics, and worst of all, education, have deteriorated in quality.  This is due to the era of the mass output, she contends.   We are a culture dominated by commercialism, directed to popular consumption rather than to the taste of the most discerning.  To describe this phenomenon, Tuchman suggests a system of Q and non-Q, quality and non-quality.  Quality in human achievement resists mediocrity, taken to mean less than good.  Non-quality implies mediocrity of purpose or effort.     What Is Quality? The word quality may be understood in two ways.  First, the nature or essential characteristic of something.  A healthy apple shows forth its quality and its beauty. An apple turning brown lacks quality and beauty. Second Meaning of Quality The second meaning of quality deals with man-made efforts to express the form’s excellence.   Since the first appearance of “60 Minutes” in the 1970's, the TV magazine program has won numerous awards for its outstanding reportage.  Every Sunday night, about fourteen million viewers watch the program.  What has made “60 Minutes” such a success?  First, the form is simple, clear, and concise:  the sole and solitary ticking of a stop-watch that begins and ends the program, two or three in-depth interviews, each with commercial break.  Next, the internal structure is set-up with point-counterpoint, and narrative talk-over.  Finally, the program is highly regarded for its well-spoken journalists; truthful, unbiased journalism; its scoops, probing interviews, and popular appeal.  Through the years, the form has remained unchanged because of its high standards of excellence.  No one has as yet suggested doing otherwise.    Other examples. We value quality of character by taking the measure of a person. Through the intuitive eye, every day we size up people because character is expressed in word and action.     Don’t we value quality time with family and friends? Quality time for rest and relaxation?  Quality in food and in clothing? Quality was an essential to the great artists, for they aspired to the highest standards. A building, a picture, a piece of music, whether sacred or profane, is said to be defective, even ugly, if it lacks quality. Gregorian Chant is a treasury of sacred music as yet unparalleled in quality. Most of us cannot quite define the second meaning of quality, but Tuchman does so in a clear and practical way as outlined below: “Quality is the investment of the best skill and effort possible to produce the finest and most admirable result possible.   Its presence or absence characterizes every man-made object, service, skilled or unskilled labor–laying bricks, painting a picture, ironing shirts, practicing medicine, shoemaking, research and scholarship, writing a book. And, of course, teaching in our schools. You do it well or you do it half-well. Materials are sound and durable, or they are sleazy.  Apply this to education. Quality is achieving or reaching for the highest standard as against the sloppy or fraudulent.  Quality is honesty of purpose as against catering to cheap or sensational sentiment. It does not allow compromise with the second rate.  Quality can be attained without genius.   Quality is that attribute inherent in a given work, and not in the eye of the beholder.  Most people know the difference between what is quality and what is slipshod—between New England white-steepled churches and Howard Johnson’s orange-roofed eateries, between Fred Astaire and Johnny Carson.  We may add: between PBS and Comedy Central, between Bach and Rock/Rap.   Every day we experience sloppy performance in manual, clerical, and bureaucratic work.  “Much of it is slow, late, inaccurate, and inefficient, either from lack of training or from lack of caring or both.”  Why bother? Why knock yourself out? Non-Quality Education Tuchman concedes that America has some superb schools, public and private, but the dominant tendency in them is toward non-quality.  “Education for the majority has deteriorated for want of demanding effort.”  Put another way, we settle for less when we should be aiming for more. Again, why knock yourself out? A prevailing attitude has seeped in to both teaching and learning.  Children, it is argued, should not be corrected for fear of harming their self-esteem. Competition is bad. Learning must be fun.  Students must be allowed to study whatever they like; therefore, courses are listed as electives.  Read the curriculum, and you will see how little is required by way of substance. Children are permitted to fritter away their time instead of learning the discipline of studying.   Quality in Teaching the Catholic Faith The Church will not have an intelligent, well-informed, and devout adult membership if we do not proclaim the beauty of the faith to our students, and to others, for that matter.  And it is beautiful:  the beauty of men and women as images of God, the beauty of prayer and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and through him the Father and the Holy Spirit, the beauty of our Creed and sacraments, especially Eucharist and Reconciliation, the beauty of living the liturgical year, the church’s ‘year of grace,’ lifelong devotion to the Mother of God and St. Joseph who willingly assumed their roles in the history of our redemption.  Our children must be taught personal piety that is integrated within the Body of Christ. “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” In the musical, “My Fair Lady,” there is a song that pokes fun at those whose native language is English: While the English can’t teach their children how to speak, “the Scots and the Irish leave you close to tears.  There are even places where English completely disappears.  In American, they haven’t used it in years!”   The next privilege in providing a quality education to our students is to teach them good communication skills.  Developing a love for reading makes their world grow larger. The mechanics of proper speaking and writing are more essential than ever at a time when proper English is well under assault in social media. What does it mean to be well spoken?  It includes proper diction, the choice and use of grammatically-correct words and phrases in speech and writing.  Clear enunciation avoids swallowing words and garbled speech, as so many do on television news programs. Teaching quality communication skills will prove to be a gift for the future success of our students. In the musical, “My Fair Lady,” Professor Henry Higgins places marbles in the mouth of Eliza Doolittle to improve her pronunciation from unintelligible cockney to that of an English lady.   His action recalls the fourth-century orator Demosthenes, who as a young man, suffered from a speech impediment.  It may have been a stutter or an inability to pronounce the “r” sound, or both.  He devised a series of exercises for himself to improve his speech by practicing with stones in his mouth.  This forced him to work extra hard at getting the sounds out with clear diction.  When his diction became clearer, he discarded the stones and found he was able to enunciate must more effectively than before.  He also practiced reciting speeches over the roar of the ocean waves. Professor Higgins prods Eliza, entreats Eliza:  “Think of what you’re trying to accomplish. Think of what you’re dealing with—the majesty and grandeur of the English language—the language of Shakespeare and Milton. It’s the greatest possession we have.  The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary imaginative and musical mixture of sounds.  And that’s what you’ve set out to conquer, Eliza.  And conquer you will.”   And conquer she did. Eliza Doolittle was transformed from a common flower girl with a Cockney accent into a radiant “Hungarian princess” who spoke beautifully and impressed the dignitaries at the ball.   Hard work, a labor of love, and a new life for Eliza and for Henry. This article is part of a series on Catholic education. To read the first part of this series, click here.

Catholic Education I: Jesus the Teacher

Aug 19, 2015 / 00:00 am

The new academic year is just around the corner. For the next few weeks, this column will address some topics concerning the education our children and young adults irrespective of the type of school they attend or their grade level. All of them deserve a quality education second to none. They are our national treasure, the future of this country.  Their education must be our highest priority, and no child must be left behind. Not one. Christian educators look to Jesus the teacher as their Exemplar. The Icon of Jesus the Teacher From the beginning of the third century, Jesus has been depicted in several guises, for example, as a young shepherd dressed in a simple tunic, as Jesus the Teacher, and as Christ the Pantocrator, the majestic Ruler of the world. Jesus in his humanity is the visible presence of the hidden God. One of the earliest and most beloved icons of the universal Church is that of Jesus the Teacher, located in Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mount Sinai on the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.   In the icon, a bearded Christ wears a brownish-purple imperial tunic and a dark blue cloak. His head is encircled by a halo. His oval face, emphasized by the circular contour of a well-trimmed and full head of hair, radiates quiet strength. The light of God’s glory illumines his face and is depicted by a warm copper glow.  His penetrating eyes are in direct contact with the viewer. He is looking at you and me. To show that his senses are disciplined, his nose and mouth are small and pinched.      The left hand holds a jeweled book, the Book of the Gospels. If it is opened, a consoling scripture verse is printed across its pages: “I am the light of the world,” or “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart” (Jn 8:12; Mt 11:29). His right hand is strong and secure. The fingers, elongated and thin, are arranged in a stylistic way: the thumb, fourth and fifth fingers touch and are curved inward toward the palm. The index and middle fingers are raised and symbolize the two natures of Jesus, the human and divine.  With this pose, he blesses the viewer. This icon depicts an attractive and even handsome Christ. Jesus, the Model for Educators Modern pedagogues have written much about the education of our children. Yet, Jesus’ approach with others merits prior consideration.  What were some of the qualities of this perfect teacher?   Authenticity. He taught not only by word but by example as well. People experienced his honesty, truthfulness, and integrity.  Today young people turn their backs on those who display artifice or insincerity. They are searching above all for truth and honesty in their elders. Compassion. Jesus showed compassion to others, especially to the least in the crowd. Attention to the individual. Jesus dealt with the individual according to his or her needs.  Centuries later, Jesuit pedagogy would give this the name, cura personalis, the care of the individual person. In the parable of the talents, everyone was enjoined to develop the talents given them by the master.  They were not to bury even one talent, as a servant in the parable did. The individual sitting in classrooms awaits the adventure of learning, that of being led out from the darkness of ignorance in to the light and joy of knowledge. How many images can be used to describe each child? Each is a temple of God, an icon of God, an unfinished symphony. Each is a garden of budding flowers.  All are works of art in progress. The teacher is the essential mover who opens up new possibilities for those under his or her care.   Respect. Even when Jesus was admonishing others, he respected them. Our students expect to be corrected, but in the process, they also expect to be respected because they are deserving of respect. Jesus never ridiculed others, not even those who argued for his death. Quality. Can you imagine Jesus dealing in mediocrity, or that he didn’t care? Can you imagine Jesus deciding that he was too tired to spend himself for the last person waiting to speak with him? There is no more vivid biblical curse against mediocrity than the sharp words in the Book of Revelation (3:16):  “Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Those who gave scandal to children Jesus denounced. Inspiration and vision. Jesus inspired others and gave them a vision for life. He set out to form disciples who would establish the kingdom of his Father.  He breathed inspiration into their lifeblood. Our students should be able “to taste and see the goodness of the Lord” in every educator who stands before them.  Here begins education worthy of its name. (To be continued)