Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.

Articles by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

A new model of Catechumenal formation needs promotion

Mar 12, 2015 / 00:00 am

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is one of the most successful features of post-Vatican II liturgical renewal. It replaced the old inquiry class model, in which the priest (generally a priest) taught the inquirer (or inquirers) on doctrine and morals. The place of formation was the classroom, the symbol was the blackboard, and the leader was a lecturer. This model continues in some parishes today.With the near demise of the inquiry class model after Vatican II, there emerged a second (and current) model which focuses on personal religious experience in a group setting. The model is akin to the therapy group (like that of Alcoholics Anonymous). The place of formation is the living room, the leader is a therapist, and the symbol is the mirror – in which one sees only oneself. In this newer approach, it is commonplace to hear an emphasis on personal experience over doctrine. Doctrinal formation is secondary to personal story-telling and group reflection.Without wishing to return to the old inquiry class format, or keeping the current experience-based model, there is, perhaps, a third way of viewing and practicing RCIA formation which would avoid the problems of the first and second models, yet incorporate the strengths of both.  Just over 30 years ago, the Yale University theologian George Lindbeck wrote a landmark book entitled, The Nature of Doctrine. While Lindbeck was not concerned with the RCIA, his theological insights are helpful in envisaging a more adequate model of RCIA formation.Lindbeck begins by showing how Christian doctrine can easily be locked into a rigid and excessively abstract mold, and it has great difficulty connecting with people’s experience. This style of theology is what is found in the first model of the RCIA.Lindbeck points out, however, that the newer style of theology (found in model two of the RCIA) that has emerged in recent decades is no less problematic because it tends to view truth as dwelling in individual hearts and minds, and to regard doctrine at best as a guide to the clarification of inner religious experience. This kind of theology is overly subjective and even anti-intellectual.Lindbeck proposes a style of theology that is neither strictly doctrinal nor strictly experiential. He calls it “cultural linguistic.” What this means at its simplest is that RCIA formation should focus on the history, symbols, art, language, culture, practices, devotions, spirituality – and most all the liturgy – of the Church. As a guide to this approach, I would identify Fr. Robert Barron’s outstanding series, Catholicism. RCIA formation in this model would help initiate catechumens into the rich and wonderful world of Catholic life. It would teach them how to learn the culture and speak the language of Catholicism. In this kind of formation, the locale of formation is the church building, the leader is the holy man or woman, and the symbol is the icon in which one encounters Christ.If the old inquiry class is out of fashion today and the experience-based model is becoming increasingly so, it is not because doctrine, on the one hand, and experience, on the other, are unimportant, but because they are set in opposition to each other. In the third mode, doctrine and experience, knowledge and spirituality, the rational and the intuitive are integrated.  Doctrine and experience clarify each other.What we need today is a form of RCIA formation that incorporates the strengths of solid doctrinal formation with the spiritual vitality that is such an important feature of Catholic life.

'God's Household' is a rich image of the Church

Mar 5, 2015 / 00:00 am

The Protestant scholar Paul Minear, in his book Images of the Church in the New Testament, identifies 96 ways of looking at the Church. Avery (later Cardinal) Dulles, S.J., (my one-time teacher) in his book Models of the Church shows how very important images are in understanding the Church.Of all the images of the Church my favorite is the “Household of God.” The understanding of the Church as God’s household is rich in meaning, and it allows us to view the broad panorama of Christian life in a relatively simple, manageable, and eminently human manner.Given the modern disposition to view society in great abstract, collectivist categories, the conception of the Church as a household has more than passing value. By its example, it can humanize cultures and reduce social alienation.St. Paul may be regarded as the great exponent of the theology of God’s household. He writes to the Ephesians: “You are strangers and aliens no longer. No, you are fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God” (2:19).Paul’s letters are full of concern for the good order of the Christian household. His preaching is about sisterhood and brotherhood, about sharing burdens and respecting the common life, about hospitality and treating strangers as relatives.For Paul, the basic qualification of a bishop is that he be a good household manager, and of the deacon that he be a dedicated table servant. And, in Corinth, at least, Paul saw the need to teach good table manners and sociability.Not only in Paul, but throughout the New Testament the Church and salvation are spoken about in terms drawn from family life. God is Father and we are his children. One of the most notable images of sin and reconciliation is familial: the Prodigal Son leaving home, and then returning to a father’s warm welcome.The early Christian writers made much of the mothering task of the Church. Baptism is the womb that gives us new brothers and sisters. At the Table of the Lord, the Church, like a good mother, feeds us. She teaches us, heals us, consoles us – and occasionally throws us out of the house until we get our acts together! Wedded to the heavenly bridegroom, she prepares us for the eternal feast and the endless play of the children of God.The image of the Church as a household allows a familial view of the divine/human and the human/human relationships. It enables us to see Church history as family history and former generations as our spiritual ancestors.Viewing the Church as God’s household presents a view of modern tensions, squabbles, and disagreements in the Church as, in all families, generally unavoidable, but capable of resolution. Above all, it invites recognition of the enormous resiliency and buoyancy of the Christian family.Finally, the image of the Church as a household acts as a helpful antidote to the modern heresy that we are all self-made people, all rugged individuals who can pull ourselves – even in matters of faith – up by our boot-straps. We need the Christian community to direct and shape our lives.There are, as Minear points out, many similar images of the Church: the Church as the Body of Christ and the People of God (favorite images of Vatican II), a nation, a race. These images are never mutually exclusive (unless one feeds them into a computer!). Each highlights important features of the Church and of Christian discipleship. Yet no one image ever exhausts the richness of Christian life.

Evangelization means the renewal of Catholic Institutions

Feb 26, 2015 / 00:00 am

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has been committed since Vatican II to a new and vigorous program of evangelization. However, discussions and writings on what this means have often suffered from inadequate clarity.The word “evangelization” itself may be part of the problem. While it clearly means proclaiming the Gospel, it is not always evident how this takes place. Perhaps the word “evangelization” is hampered by its association with evangelical Protestantism with its emphasis on Bible preaching and charismatic conversion processes.While this model of evangelization can be instructive for Catholicism, it is necessary to distinguish Protestant evangelization from Catholic evangelization. If Protestant evangelization is word-centered, Catholic evangelization is sacrament-centered. Catholic evangelization is properly guided by the affirmation of Vatican II that the Church has the character of a “sacrament,” a “sign and instrument” of God’s saving activity in the world. This calls to mind words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Christians must proclaim the Gospel by every means possible – and if necessary use words.” Catholic evangelization does not work primarily through preaching, but by doing.Accordingly, Catholic evangelization means, in great part, a practical renewal of the institutions by which the Church has traditionally maintained a saving presence in society.An evangelizing parish means one ministering within a defined portion of the diocese. (The Catholic parish does not incidentally mean only the local community of Catholics; it means everyone living within the parish boundaries.)  It means a parish church in which the liturgy is conducted in a truly public way and which is open to the whole community as a place of prayer and contemplation. Catholic churches are places for all people. Evangelization involves an excellent religious education program which reaches even beyond the Catholic community and serves as a forum for reflection and dialogue for the larger community.It requires an organized parish ministry serving the poor and suffering and offering comfort and assistance in times of need. Catholic evangelization involves a program of arts and humanities, keeping in mind Pope Benedict’s often-stated conviction that the two things most attractive to non-Catholics about Catholicism are sanctity and beauty.Catholic primary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities have always been outstanding media of evangelization. Through its colleges and universities, the Church’s influence has permeated the worlds of philosophy and education, the arts and humanities, medicine and science. The same is true of the institutions comprising Catholic Charities in every diocese (the name varies). Catholic Charities continues to have a magnificent record across the U.S. in ministry in the name of Christ to the poorest and most deprived. Catholic Charities and other institutions like it stand at the heart of the Church’s evangelizing ministry.Catholic hospitals have been among the most visible and effective means of evangelization. By their Christ-centered apostolate of healing, they have given Catholicism a powerful presence far beyond the Catholic community in evangelizing the world of medicine and health care. However, these institutions face today a crisis of identity. In one way or another they are in danger of becoming secularized. Church leaders need to lead them in a constructive way to a renewal of their original mission so that they will participate again fully in the Church’s mission of evangelization.The multi-faceted institutional presence of the Catholic Church in the U.S. since its foundation has been a monumental evangelical success and has rendered Catholicism the most visible, public religious denomination in the country. In a new era of evangelization we need to build upon and be guided by that history.

How priests and deacons should not give homilies

Feb 19, 2015 / 00:00 am

Fr. John. J. Conley, S. J., a professor of theology and philosophy at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, recently penned an article for the Jesuit periodical America entitled, “How Not to Preach.”Fr. Conley identifies himself “as a veteran of 60 years in the pews and 30 years in the pulpit.” His description of Catholic preaching is both amusing and disturbing. He sets out three dangers that homilists need to avoid. 1. The homily is all about you, the priest. “Keep the sermon strictly autobiographical. Your congregation is dying to know all about your last vacation. There’s no need to deal with that pesky reading about Abraham and Isaac and the knife.”Fr. Conley describes a homily he recently heard about the priest’s socks! “Father explained how difficult it is to keep pairs of socks together. He noted his preferred detergent for washing socks and the advantages of using a clothesline over a dryer, He said there was a controversy over whether priests should wear all-black socks or whether they could add stripes”--which was news to Fr. Conley.“We kept waiting for the spiritual punch line. Was the lost sock like the lost sheep in the parable of the Good Shepherd? It remained a mystery. The sermon concluded with the revelation that [the homilist] found doing the laundry difficult at times.”Fr. Conley continues: “On a darker note, I once heard a sermon in which the preacher discussed the problem of resentment. The theme matched the Gospel, which featured the apostles’ jealous squabbling among themselves. Warming to his subject, the preacher described his own resentment against his brother (the prize-winning athlete), his sixth-grade teacher (too critical) and then his dear mother (too distant). As we cringed into our missalettes, I wondered if Doctor Phil would rush from the sacristy to take over the bathos in the sanctuary.”Fr. Conley states: “You were not ordained to tell your own story. You were ordained to tell someone else’s.”2. Rely on the Holy Spirit. There’s no need to prepare.  “One of the popular homiletic genres these days is the Magellan sermon. In the space of 20 minutes, the congregation is treated to a tour of the world as the preacher unloads a catalogue of random, unrelated thoughts. In one recent Magellan improvisation, we learned that Samuel heard a noise like a whisper, that we should be patient with the hearing-impaired, that the turnout for the Christmas bazaar was just great (applause), that recent events in the Middle East are disturbing and that we should be careful about what we post on Facebook. And, oh, there’s a mistake in the bulletin. The second collection will be taken up today for our music ministry, not for scholarships for the grade school.”3. Keep the sermon light.  “Always prefer the sentimental to the doctrinal. Don’t bother the congregation with such complications as the Atonement. Keep it beige and soothing.”Fr. Conley desecribes an Easter homily in a packed church. “The preacher began by telling us that Christian hope means ‘Tomorrow will always be more beautiful than today.’ We waited for the theological development. The resurrection of the body? Immortality? The last judgment? We received only more of the same magical thinking, closer to Hallmark Cards than to the Gospel according to St. Luke we had just heard.”Can readers relate to this? How true a picture is it? Have you heard homilies like these? Is Fr. Conley exaggerating, or over-generalizing?Just asking …!

If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?

Feb 5, 2015 / 00:00 am

Of all the agonized questions posed to me over the years, none is more difficult to answer than the problem of suffering. Here is my attempt at an answer.According to the Book of Genesis, the world God created was the perfect world of paradise. But with the sin of Adam and Eve, the world fell from its original perfection, and the whole order which God created unraveled. Human history, both at the human and natural levels, has since then experienced suffering, evil, and tragedy.In his saving ministry, Jesus came to reverse the world of Adam and to restore humanity and creation to their original order of blessedness. Jesus did this through his death and resurrection, when he broke the chains of death and opened the way for the ascent of humanity and history toward the new creation.Humanity and the world live now in the “in between,” between the original paradise and the new creation of God’s Kingdom. Though evil and suffering continue in the world, they no longer have the ultimate word and are not the final chapter of human history. Human life does not end in the grave, and human history is not a tragedy; it has a glorious ending.Thus, we live today in an imperfect world in which creation is unfinished and incomplete. Suffering is part and parcel of creation groaning toward perfection. If God were to intervene in the processes of nature, he would short-cut the whole course of history, and he has chosen not to do that. This causes many to lose faith. The Christian can only conclude that God has his own good reasons for allowing suffering, and that in time we will fully understand God’s mysterious ways.If we cannot answer the question of why God allows suffering, we can answer the question of where God is in the face of  suffering. People often ask: Why has God abandoned me? Why does he let me and those I love suffer? The truth is that God is with humanity in the midst of suffering. When people suffer, the Son of God suffers. (A number of modern theologians have spoken of “the suffering God.”)We should not see Christ only in heaven at the right hand of the Father; we should see him in the pains of suffering humanity. The philosopher Blaisé Pascal could say that “Christ suffers until the end of the world.” Thus, we should not separate God and human suffering. They belong together and will as long as history continues. We can never forget that in Jesus Christ, God has taken suffering to himself. Calvary continues through history. But if Calvary leads to the resurrection, then the end of the world will be a glorious one in which all suffering will be overcome.That is why the image of Christ on the Cross is so crucial to Christians. Christ is not disconnected from human suffering, but is permanently in the midst of it.When all is said and done, what those who suffer need most is not a theological explanation about the role of God in human suffering. What they need is the solidarity of their fellow men and women. That is why the Christian response to suffering is not the provision of a theory, but the practice of charity, solidarity, and the practical alleviation of the pain of those in need. Christians are called to be the face and hands of God in times of suffering. 

Housework can be a source of profound spirituality

Jan 29, 2015 / 00:00 am

One of the projects I have been undertaking in my spare time over the past month or so is going through my library and separating the books I want to keep from those I want to, well, get rid of.One of the nice things about this project is rediscovering books that I read years ago but had forgotten. One such book is by Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi entitled, The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework. I recommend this book (published in 1982, but still in print) to anyone looking for an insightful understanding of housework and the task of homemaking.Rabuzzi’s thesis is that women who do housework are, whether they know it or not, doing something religious. Housework, she says, represents a participation in one of the most fundamental of human roles--that of bringing order out of chaos and turning the world into a more friendly and benevolent place.In the tasks of cooking, cleaning, washing, and ironing, the mother is ritualizing in a simple way the innate desire of the human person to bring order, harmony, and coherence to a universe in which chaos and disorder reign. She beautifies the home, and makes it good and holy. She is a maker of sacred space.As Rabuzzi sees it, the mother fights disorder and disharmony, and seeks to keep everything in its proper place. In cleaning up after the minor disasters that children wreak, she is ritually symbolizing the restoration of order--one of the goals all religion.Like the Church, Rabuzzi points out, the home is a place of refuge and protection from the chaotic world. The home is a symbol of salvation. People instinctively associate home with safety from all kinds of outside threats. Home is a place that keeps its inhabitants safe from the elements, from threatening people, and from fearful encounters.The home, in Rabuzzi’s vision, serves as a foundational symbol of human belonging. Being “at home” is synonymous with contentment and happiness. We commonly speak of being “at home” with ourselves, and with family and friends. By the same token, homelessness signifies not only a physical condition, but also a painful spiritual experience. Rabuzzi says that in her task of caretaking, the mother is functioning in a role akin to that practiced by priests in various religions. She is the source and maker of peace, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. She banishes fear, and casts out the “evil spirits” that inhabit the minds of children in the form of unwarranted fears.In the task of bathing and washing, there is a certain analogy with the Church’s practice of baptism. The mother’s role of cooking and feeding functions as an image of what the Church does in the celebration of the Eucharist.Rabuzzi is no sentimentalist. She does not cast the home or the tasks of housework in an unrealistic or idyllic light. Nor is she anti-feminist. Housework and homemaking are also the responsibility of fathers and husbands--and much of what she says can be applied to the role of men in the home. However, she holds that there is a distinctly feminine character to the task of making and running the household.This book can give encouragement to mothers who have chosen to remain at home and devote their full-time energy to homemaking. It is a wonderful exercise in the spirituality of the ordinary. It is particularly valuable in light of the cultural tendency to downgrade and undervalue the traditional role of homemakers.

Celebrating the Three Comings of Christ in the Advent Season

Dec 11, 2014 / 00:00 am

During Advent we celebrate what are sometimes referred to as the "three comings of Christ": the coming of Christ in Bethlehem, the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time, and the coming of Christ today in the sacraments and life of the Church.The first coming of Christ remains the central event of human history.  All time is dated from the birth of Christ.  The centuries leading up to Christ's birth are numbered B.C.: before Christ.  This year is officially the 2014th year since the birth of Jesus.  Even from a purely human point of view, no figure approaches Jesus Christ in significance.  No figure has had such an impact on the whole course of human affairs. The effects of Christ, and of Christianity in general, upon the world are incalculable.  Without Christ, the world would not be what it is in all its positive aspects. The world in which we live is by no means perfect, and it will not be so until all things are finally transfigured and perfected in Christ. But we should never underestimate the radical alteration of history that came about through the birth of Christ into the affairs of humankind.  Second, Christ will come in glory at the end of time (the “second coming”). The Advent scriptures and prayers draw our minds to the coming of Christ in glory. Indeed, all the way through Advent, the primary liturgical theme is of Christ’s return in glory. At the end of the ages, Christ will come again and the heavens and the earth will be united. It is important that we understand correctly the meaning of the return of Christ in glory. The end of all things will not be a matter of Christ returning to a world from which he departed at the ascension, but the appearance of Christ who is hiddenly present in the world as the latter continues on its journey.  What we are awaiting in Advent is the full blossoming of God’s grace working itself out in human history. Christ’s return will be, by God's grace, the marriage of heaven and earth.    The third coming of Christ occurs in the present:  in the vital, living action of Christ today in the community of the Church and in the lives of Christian believers. Christ comes today in the gift of the holy Eucharist in which we are privileged to share, in the sacraments of Christian life, in the living wisdom of the Christian tradition,  in the vocations consecrated for each of us in baptism, in the magnificent service and charity of Christian individuals, communities, and institutions across the face of the earth. Certainly the church and its people have had, and always will have, an ambiguous and imperfect history. (We need only remind ourselves of the horrendous sexual abuse crisis that has recently haunted the Church.) But what would the world be like if there were no more Christian believers, no more sacraments, no more charity in the name of Christ? What if Christianity were to disappear?  What if there were no more people like Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta? The world would become a very different place. We should never underestimate the power of Christianity in our own time.   These three comings of Christ are what we invoke during this holy season.  We call upon Christ's presence that we may know the effects of his historic birth; we await the saving power of Christ’s return in glory; and we look in faith to his sacramental presence now.

Is the Catholic Church Ready for the Mega Church Movement?

Dec 6, 2014 / 00:00 am

The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, originally affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, was probably the best-known megachurch in the U.S. Designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson, the church was founded and led for many years by its famed pastor, Robert H. Schuller. The largest glass building in the world, the church has a seating capacity of over 2,700 people.In 2010, the Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy, and the building, along with the surrounding facilities, was sold to the Catholic Diocese of Orange for $57.5 million and was renamed Christ Cathedral. The building is currently being adapted to the requirements of Catholic worship and will reopen in 2016.The Crystal Cathedral belonged to a relatively new category of Protestant churches called megachurches. These hold very large numbers of people and have an extraordinary array of ministries. The largest megachurch in the U.S., Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, holds 16,800 people. The largest megachurch in the world is in Seoul, South Korea, and seats 26,000 people.The advantages of megachurches are that they have a relatively high number of specialized clergy and a large body of well-trained lay ministers and volunteers who provide education for all ages, youth and young adult ministry, bereavement programs, and (extensive) charitable outreach.The principal disadvantage of Protestant megachurches is that often there is a megapastor whose personal charism (in preaching, particularly) is the foundation of the church. When the megapastor leaves for one reason or another (scandal, mismanagement, illness, age), the megachurch can experience crisis and even failure. (When the highly charismatic Robert Schuller reached his senior years he was no longer able to function at the Crystal Cathedral, with the result that the latter began to fail, hence the sale to the Diocese of Orange.)How the re-named Christ Cathedral will function as a Catholic church remains to be seen. Will it be able to incorporate the strengths of the megachurch and avoid the pitfalls? Can it become a model for the Catholic Church generally?I would answer yes to both questions. In dense Catholic population areas, for instance, a diocese could amalgamate, say, five parishes, sell the buildings, and in their place build one large centrally located church, holding perhaps up to 4,000 people.Instead of five parishes with five pastors, there would be one parish with five priests (even less, if the vocation shortage continues). Each priest could have a job description carved out according to his gifts and talents (preaching, counseling, education, etc.). Instead of a meager lay ministerial and administrative staff, the parish could have a more ample supply of expert personnel.A Catholic megachurch would have the resources for liturgical and musical excellence. It could have perpetual adoration, confessions daily, and be open twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for operating such things as crisis ministry. It could run a small medical clinic for the poor.What would a Catholic megachurch look like architecturally? Certainly, it would not take the modernist, functionalist Christ Cathedral as a model. On the other hand, a long, narrow basilica-style building like that of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (which holds about 3,000 people) would not work either. The floor plan that I favor would be more like that of St. John’s Abbey church in Collegeville, Minnesota, which is wide and short.In my opinion, the megachurch movement could serve the Catholic Church well. It would, of course, have its own particular problems. But that’s for another column. 

Is it ever acceptable to call a nun 'miss'?

Nov 27, 2014 / 00:00 am

This question is the least profound – and most peculiar – that your columnist has had to deal with recently.  In a world in which proper etiquette and protocol are going you-know-where in a hand basket, one learns to take such questions in stride. (The answer to the question is, of course, no!).As a firm believer that proper etiquette is one of society’s best defenses against rioting in the streets, I have selected from my imaginary mailbag the following ecclesiastical protocol questions. Q.1. I was recently scandalized to hear a priest introduce himself as “Patrick O’ Flattery.” Shouldn’t he have introduced himself as “Father O’ Flattery”?A1. Not necessarily. Normally, only persons in high ecclesiastical or public office (such as bishops and mayors) introduce themselves by title. Unless he is speaking to a young person or a group (or to what he regards as a member of the lower class), a priest may introduce himself by first name.  However, introduction by first name does not license the hearer to address by first name the person introducing himself.Q.2. I love informality and prefer to call our parish priests “Father Tim” and “Father Mike.” Is that okay?A.2. First of all, informality is a vastly overrated quality. Actually, it really means chaos and disorder. How would you like to have your dentist pull a wisdom tooth informally or the pilot on you next flight make an informal landing? Such modes of address as you mention represent an awkward mixture of the official and the informal. Furthermore, they belong to the same cultural category as “Miss Charlotte” and “Mr. Reginald,” that is to say, modes of address traditionally used by footmen, chambermaids, and stable-boys for their “betters.” Either call your priests “Tim” and “Mike” – if they invite you to – or else use their surnames.  Q.3. A finicky priest cousin of mine insists on the use of “The” before “Reverend.” Is he correct?A.3. As correct as can be. “Reverend” is an adjective, not a noun, and it must always be preceded by “The.” Thus a Catholic bishop, Guido Soprano, is styled “The Most Reverend Guido Soprano.” A simple priest (whatever that is) is styled “The Reverend” as in “The Reverend Barry Fitzgerald.”Q.4. What about the custom of addressing and referring to Episcopalian and Protestant ministers as “Reverend”?A.4. You must never refer to a Protestant or Episcopalian minister as “Reverend So-and So.” Charleton Drundge, an Episcopalian, is referred to as “Father Drundge” or “Dean” or sometimes “Canon” if attached to a cathedral. Ludwig Eckerstorfer, a Lutheran, is addressed as “Pastor Eckerstorfer.” Most other Protestant ministers go by “Pastor.” Q.5. Why do clergy insist on their own titles and yet commonly address lay persons (even elderly or distinguished ones) by first names?A.5. This is a carry-over from the days when clergy were thought to be socially superior to the unwashed masses of laity. Clergy who believe that their own titles should be respected should, in turn, be equally respectful of the right of others to be addressed as Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, Dr. (or Your Royal Highness or Your Ladyship, if applicable). Q.6.Who died and left you in charge of these matters?A.6. No one and I’m not. You will find these rules variously set forth in the Office of Protocol of the State Department and the Washington D.C.-based Emily Post Institute. Additional pointers may be found in Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. I hate to admit it, but this column is not infallible or binding under pain of mortal sin!

Christ the King celebrates the ultimate security of the world

Nov 20, 2014 / 00:00 am

The solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, brings the liturgical year to a dramatic conclusion. This Solemnity is of relatively recent origin. In fact, it was not declared a feast until 1925, during the reign of Pope Pius XI.  We might wonder why a Pope would go to the trouble of instituting such a Solemnity in the twentieth century--at a time when kings and monarchies were rapidly collapsing. We could ask: Is the solemnity of Christ the King not anachronistic?When placed in its historic context, however, the meaning of this feast becomes powerfully evident.  Consider what was happening in 1925 when Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King.  World War I had ended just a few years earlier--a war that shook Europe to its foundations.  Nothing would ever be the same again. The boundaries of Europe had been redrawn.  Massive political upheavals had occurred. Most of the kings and queens of Europe had disappeared or had been deprived of their power.But then in 1925, just when almost all the kings were gone, Pope Pius XI decided to inaugurate a feast calling Christ the "King."This gesture to some might seems meaningless, but, in fact, it shows the imaginative genius of Pius XI.  For the Solemnity of Christ the King declares the endurance of God's power, the permanence of God's plan over the comings and goings of all human regimes. The feast is then a great statement of faith in God's unending power and of hope in God's irrevocable promises. Christ alone is the security of world.Insecurity in the face of transience and change is built into all facets of human life from the most personal to the most political.  This is what Pope Pius XI knew and wanted to address when he instituted the solemnity of Christ the King.Because of the deep insecurity of our world and of human life generally, the declaration of Christ's kingship is full of meaning.  It proclaims that human existence, whether at political and social or at the personal and spiritual levels, is not finally a pathetic tragedy working itself out, but a glorious drama of salvation and love.Christ the King states that we are not born for thirty or sixty or ninety years, then to fade away into nothingness; we are born for eternity The value we have is not just the value we can make for ourselves in an unreliable world, but the value we are given by a God who never fails.When we come to worship, we stand already in the other world of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that will never pass away.  The liturgy foreshadows the Kingdom of God and already gives us a foretaste of it.  The whole purpose of the church's ministry is to make us into good citizens of the Kingdom. And the task for which we are sent forth from our worship to be living signs in our ordinary world, as best we can, of the new creation.As we end the liturgical year, we are invited to consider the truth that though kings and empires, republics and presidents, dictators and tyrannies come and go, the reign of Christ, the Son of God is eternal, everlasting, without end. Though we may often be frightened in heart, insecure in spirit, anxious in mind, God’s sure hand will uphold us at the end of life, at the end of the world.  Through Christ’s royal kingship we are all of royal blood.

The key to 'good' liturgy is good pastoral ministry

Nov 13, 2014 / 00:00 am

One of the mistakes made by clergy and pastoral ministers is thinking that all the keys to “good” liturgy are to be found within the liturgy itself. We think that if we improve liturgical presiding and homilizing, upgrade the music, have better-trained liturgical ministers, the liturgy will really be effective. As a liturgist and sacramental theologian, I would be the last person to play down the importance of good priestly leadership and homilizing, better quality music and singing, and well-trained ministers. However, these alone will not create effective liturgy.The fact is, the liturgy is not the Church. The warning of the Second Vatican Council is very much to the point when in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy it says: “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church. Before men can come to the liturgy, they must be called to faith and to conversion” (no. 9). The Council went on the point out that a dynamic relationship exists between the liturgy and pastoral ministry: “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows” (no. 10). Liturgy and the Christian life exist in a mutually productive and enriching relationship.There are three important implications to what I am saying here. The first is that liturgy alone will not build community – a much-prized value today. In fact, the liturgy has limited community-building ability. Community is built, rather, by the sustained interaction of parishioners in a whole variety of educational, ministerial, spiritual, and social activities. When parishes facilitate these activities in a constant and well-directed manner, then, and only then, will the liturgy have a strong communitarian character.The second implication is that the liturgy cannot be the forum in which the whole of the parish’s life is transacted. Often, the announcements period at Mass represents the only arena for parish business (and a fairly passive one at that). The special collection is the only mode of engagement with the great issues that face the Church at diocesan, national, and international levels.The third implication is that the liturgy cannot be the only place within which Christian education takes place. In many parishes, there is no adult education apart from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which reaches only a very small percentage of people. Formation in the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church often does not take place apart from the homily, but the homily is not able to proclaim by itself the whole of Christian faith.The fundamental problem here is that too much is being asked of the liturgy. The Church is expected to yield up all its riches on Sunday morning, and disappointment occurs when this does not occur and the liturgy collapses under the weight.The problem I am identifying exists not only with Sunday Mass, of course. It exists in relation to the whole range of the Church’s liturgical life. The full effects of baptism are not realized without effective ministry to parents. Confirmation programs need the context of sustained youth ministry. Sacramental Confession will suffer when Christian communities and parish ministers do not embody qualities of understanding, wisdom, and compassion. The Sacrament of the Sick loses its full power when the day-to-day needs of the old and home-bound are ignored. The means to “good” liturgy are not a big secret. They are to be found precisely within the ordinary round of solid, intelligent ministry at every level of parish life.

Church needs new language in explaining its teaching on sexuality

Nov 5, 2014 / 00:00 am

The recent Extraordinary Synod of Bishops convened at the Vatican to discuss the challenges facing the family today was, if the media be heeded, a gathering to discuss primarily sexual morality.Yet, the issues of ministry to homosexuals, Communion for those in invalid marriages, and cohabitation kept coming to the fore not because the bishops planned for this, but because these are today hot-button issues that could not be avoided.As I followed the Synod through the daily communications it produced and the commentaries of experts, I was particularly taken by the conviction of many bishops that the Church needs a new language when it speaks about sexual morality.Fr. Thomas Rosica, a liaison for English-speaking journalists stated: “Language appeared, many, many times. . . .There’s a great desire that our language has to change in order to meet the very complex situations” that people face.One bishop, whom Rosica did not identify, told the assembled bishops that “language such as ‘living in sin,’ ‘intrinsically disordered’ [the traditional language use for homosexual acts], or ‘contraceptive mentality’ are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to Christ and the Church.”Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin repeated this theme when he said: “To many, the language of the Church appears to be a disincarnated language of telling people what to do, a one-way dialogue.” He continued: “The lived experience and struggle of spouses can help find more effective ways of expression of the fundamental elements of Church teaching.”Even the “conservative” Archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris, a strong supporter of the status quo regarding sexual morality, stated that the Church must find “new modes of expression and modes of communication that will allow it to announce the good news so that it may be heard.”Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity had become something of a lightning-rod because of a talk he gave to the College of Cardinals before the Synod which proposed that the Church should make it easier for divorced Catholics in a second marriage without an annulment to receive Communion at Mass. He argued that “the traditional description of such couples as practicing ‘perpetual adultery’ is not pastorally acceptable. If you tell people who live in this way and they do so in a responsible way that they are living in adultery, permanent adultery, I think they would feel offended and insulted. We must be very careful . . . in our language.”Bishop Johann Bonny of Antwerp wrote a widely circulated letter to the Synod (although he himself was not a participant). He argued that couples living together outside of marriage, using [artificial] contraception, or resorting to in vitro fertilization (all activities prohibited by the Church) “deserve more respect and a more nuanced evaluation than the language of certain Church documents appear to prescribe. The mechanisms of accusation and exclusion . . . can only block the way to evangelization.”What may we expect when the Synod of Bishops reconvenes in 2015? I expect the emergence of a unified consensus on the issues of the Synod that just ended. While there will be no doctrinal changes, there will hopefully emerge positive strategies for dealing pastorally with difficult issues regarding marriage and sexuality.As has often occurred in the Church in the past in dealing with pastoral matters, the next Synod may take two steps forward and one step backwards--a realistic expectation for a Church that thinks in centuries.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Dark Night of the Soul

Sep 18, 2014 / 00:00 am

I have just finished reading a fascinating and engaging book that is both theologically profound and simple in style – a book I recommend highly to all readers. It contains previously unpublished letters of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and is entitled, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. The book is edited by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator of the cause of Mother Teresa’s canonization. The book made it to The New York Times best-seller list.The book reveals a side of Mother Teresa’s spirituality that was not generally known while she was alive, that is, that she experienced for much of her life what has historically been described as a “dark night of the soul” (an expression most notably associated with St. John of the Cross). Mother Teresa lived for long periods with an agonizing sense of God’s absence and emptiness of soul. This experience of divine absence accompanied her extraordinary mission which constituted one of the most remarkable ministries among the poor in Calcutta and throughout the world. In one of her letters, Mother Teresa summarizes her experience as follows: “There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God—so deep that it is painful—a suffering continual—and yet not wanted by God—repulsed—empty—no faith—no zeal. Souls hold no attraction. Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place.”This may shock people of a sunnier spiritual disposition, and has led some atheists (like the bombastic Englishman Christopher Hitchens) to accuse Mother Teresa of hypocrisy and to feel vindicated in their own lack of belief in God. She was, after all, they said, an atheist just like them.However, the “dark night of the soul” Mother Teresa experienced was as far from atheism as one can imagine. Atheists typically feel quite comfortable in their disbelief in God and are in no way troubled by it. Their sense of God’s absence is undergirded by the more fundamental belief that God does not exist and that religion generally is the source of the worst evils of the world.The Christian (or other religious believer) who experiences a sense of God’s absence in his or her life is often highly committed to the life of faith, has a strong belief in God’s existence, and—in the case of Mother Teresa—practices a demanding life of self-sacrifice and service. Do Christians generally share in Mother Teresa’s experience? Certainly not everyone does. My own experience as a confessor and spiritual director for over 40 years tells me that more people feel this way than is often admitted. To have doubts of faith, to experience periods—even long periods—of spiritual emptiness, is the lot of more people than we might think. More likely people who share Mother Teresa’s state of soul do so for briefer periods of their lives.As I mentioned, some people will look upon Mother Teresa’s self-revelations as an exhibition of hypocrisy. But, of course, they are not. To be a hypocrite is to say one thing and to do something else, to lack coherence between inner conviction and outward action.Mother Teresa’s extraordinary charity was driven by a deep commitment to finding Jesus in the poorest of the poor. Her prayers were profoundly sincere and represented a constant struggle to find Christ in the Eucharist and the other sacraments. Those who find spiritual darkness in their lives will benefit greatly from reading this collection of Mother Teresa’s touching and heart-searching letters (available from Doubleday, $15.99).

What does it mean to say that Jesus 'descended into hell'?

Sep 4, 2014 / 00:00 am

When the third edition of the Roman Missal was put into use in the U.S. in Advent 2011, Catholics were given the option of occasionally reciting at Mass the Apostles’ Creed instead of the more familiar Nicene Creed.In the Apostles’ Creed, it is said of Jesus that, after his death, “he descended into hell.” Since then, I have been asked many times by worshippers what this affirmation means. Surely, Jesus cannot have literally gone down to hell, the place of the Devil and the damned. And if he did so descend, what was the purpose: Surely the damned cannot be saved?In the context of the Apostles’ Creed, hell does not mean what we understand by the word today. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point as follows: “Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol –  in Hebrew or Hades in Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer (no. 633).Jesus was not going into the place of the damned, “but to free the just who had gone before him” (ibid.). Jesus went into hell to preach the Gospel to the dead.  As the Catechism puts it, “The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places” (no. 634).An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday (quoted in no. 635 of the Catechism) expresses powerfully the meaning of Jesus’ descent into hell. It reads in part: “The King . . . has raised up all those who have slept ever since the world began. . . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him—He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . . [Jesus says to Adam] ‘I am your God, who for your sake has become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’”The Catechism situates Jesus’ descent into hell in a larger context: “The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was ‘raised from the dead’ presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there” (no. 632).In early Christianity, then, hell had two meanings. It was, on the one hand, the place of the damned who had fundamentally rejected all that is good and just and condemned themselves to an eternity without God. On the other hand, it had a more neutral meaning as the place where the just who lived before Christ went to await salvation.

New Bible translation – The Message – is a notable achievement

Aug 14, 2014 / 00:00 am

Recently, I completed a 30-day Ignatian retreat in Los Angeles (I hope you are all impressed!). The central feature of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is intensive reading of key scripture passages on Jesus’ life a number of times a day. I must say that I often found the exercise hard going for the reason that I already knew the scripture passages almost by heart and could not find much new material for reflection.I told my retreat director about this, and he gave me a copy of a Bible translation entitled The Message, a new version in modern language that seeks to render the scriptures in a fresh and striking manner.  He said I should use it alongside the New American Bible I was using for the retreat.At first I was skeptical of a Bible version with the title The Message, never having been a fan of modern popular versions such as the Good News Bible.  But, I was won over. Reading the fresh and popular language of The Message, alongside the more formal style of the New American Bible, enabled me to find much food for thought.For example, this is how Psalm 23 is translated:God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.     You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from.     True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction.     Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.The Message is not well known among Catholics, as it was produced by Eugene H. Peterson, a respected Protestant scripture scholar and pastor, with the assistance of an impressive list of expert advisors. As expected, it lacks the additional books found in the Catholic Bible.However, a Catholic version has now been published, called The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition. This edition takes Peterson’s translation and adds the Catholic books missing from the Protestant Bible (including Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach, and additions to Esther and Daniel).The translator of the additional books is William Griffin, a Catholic friend of Peterson’s. Griffin said he used the New Latin Vulgate (the official Latin translation). As a Latinist, the Vulgate posed no difficulty for him; the challenge was in finding contemporary English words, expression, and idioms to complete the work.The Message has not been without its critics. Some have judged it watered down, distorted, and misleading--sometimes using language guaranteed to shock. Blogger J.R. Miller is highly critical: “By updating the Scriptures in modern street language, Peterson removes the historical and religious content, resulting in a book far removed from the day and culture in which it was written.”Peterson does not reject such criticism out of hand, but states that his purpose was to overcome his frustration as a pastor in trying to communicate the message of the Bible in language familiar to his readers, However, he told Robert McClory of the National Catholic Reporter:  “I do not recommend . . . [that]  passages from The Message  be read at church services, and I feel uneasy when I hear it’s been used in that way.”I recommend highly The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition, and find it very helpful for reading alongside The New American Bible, with which we are familiar from the liturgy. This edition is available from Acta Publications; the hardcover costs $28.87 and the paperback is $24.59.

A world-wide persecution of Christians is well underway

Jul 31, 2014 / 00:00 am

Recently, I picked up in Barnes and Noble a book entitled The Global War on Christians. My split-second reaction was that this was probably a work of hysteria and exaggeration.Until I saw the author’s name: John L. Allen Jr. Allen is one of the most respected religious journalists in the U.S., having worked for many years as the senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, and now for The Boston Globe. Allen is no purveyor of hysteria and exaggeration, but a sober and thoughtful writer.Consider the following examples of Christian persecution Allen details:• In Iraq, fifty-two people died recently when Islamic militants stormed and burned the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation; of the sixty-three Christian churches in Baghdad, forty have been bombed; in 1991, the Christian population of Iraq was at least 1.5 million, now most Iraqi Christians have fled the country, leaving less than 150,000 behind. (The Archbishop of Mosul said recently that his diocese has been virtually “wiped out.”)• In India’s northern state of Orissa, as many as 500 Christians were killed in 2008, many hacked to death by Hindu radicals; an estimated 500 Christian homes and 350 churches and schools were destroyed. • In Burma, Christians are considered political dissidents, and as many as 5,000 believers have been murdered; the government has given its air force authority to bomb Christians on sight.• In Nigeria, the militant Islamic group Boko Haram has been responsible for almost 3,000 Christian deaths since 2009. The group is determined to drive Christians out of the country completely.• In North Korea, considered the most dangerous place in the world for      Christians, roughly a quarter of the country’s approximately 300,000 Christians are believed to be living in forced-labor camps because of their refusal to join in the cult of the “dear leader.”Allen spends 299 pages detailing many more such hostilities toward Christians in China, Laos, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Egypt, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Belarus, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to name but the most flagrant.He states that his book “is about the most dramatic religious story of the early twenty-first century, yet one that most people in the West have little idea is even happening.” “Christians today,” he says, “form the most persecuted religious body on the planet, and too often its new martyrs suffer in silence.”Allen refers to the evangelical group Open Doors, devoted to monitoring anti-Christian persecution, which estimates that “one hundred million Christians worldwide presently face interrogation, arrest, torture, or even death because of their religious convictions.”He reports that Protestant scholar Todd Johnson, an expert in Christian demographics, “has pegged the number of Christians killed each year from 2000 to 2010 at one hundred thousand.” That works out to “eleven Christians killed every hour, every day, throughout the past decade.”Why are Christians in the West not aware of this terrible holocaust? For one thing the media do not report the persecution of Christians, and consider such news “politically incorrect.” Political leaders, for various reasons, are deaf to cries for help.I must say that I myself was shocked by Allen’s book, and wondered what Catholics parishes in the U.S. could do. I recommend the following: include persecuted and murdered Christians in the Prayers of Intercession every Sunday; encourage parishioners to buy Allen’s book and read it; sponsor parish lectures on the subject, and set up book-study groups; barrage local and national leaders, especially in Congress, to do something about the growing “global war” on Christians.

What is the defenition of a really active Catholic?

Jul 17, 2014 / 00:00 am

When you think of an active Catholic, what comes to mind? Probably, someone who, at least, attends weekly Mass, maybe prays a little each day, and does some reading on spiritual matters now and then.Yes, but what is a really active Catholic? Why, someone who also does one or another or a combination of the following: acts as a lector and/or an extraordinary minister of Communion, serves at Mass, sings in the choir, teaches Sunday School, works with the RCIA, belongs to the Knights of Columbus, sits on the parish council, helps with funeral lunches, etc.Is that description correct? Yes, of course. Parishes could not function without the investment of time and talent of a whole host of parishioners. And we rightly describe the really active parish as one in which many ministries and parish activities are up and running and involve a great many people.But the vast majority of Catholics do not and cannot take on the roles I have described. Many work long hours, maybe have two jobs, don’t have a lot of free time, and have to expend a great deal of energy on being good spouses and parents. Not being able to devote more time to the parish can make some Catholics feel like second-class citizens in the Church.Can one be a really active Catholic without involvement in parish ministries and activities? Certainly, one can. Many Catholics don’t know that there is a whole category of non-parish activities that come under the heading of the “lay apostolate.”What is a “lay apostle”? It is any Christian who brings his or her faith to bear upon their ordinary, everyday lives. A good spouse or parent who works hard at their family vocation is a lay apostle. A janitor in the local public school system who is an exemplary Christian, a doctor who seeks to bring Christian ethics to his or her job, a nurse who brings Christ’s love to sick patients, a good Christian lawyer who follows high ethical standards, a social worker who sees Christ in the needy, a cleaning lady in a motel who offers her work up to God, a Catholic politician who brings his or her faith to the political process--all these are lay apostles. They may only go to the parish on Sunday mornings, but they practice their faith 24/7.What I have just described makes it possible for everyone who is baptized to be a really active Catholic.What I am saying here comes from Vatican II and a whole host of Church documents since then. Pope John Paul II issued in 1988 a landmark document called “The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People.” The document promoted lay ministry and lay activity “within the Church,” and called all Catholics to take responsibility for the life of the Church.But it emphasized even more strongly the vocations of all Catholics to be lay apostles “in the world.” Every Pope since Vatican II has emphasized and promoted the lay apostolate, calling all Catholics to do their part in bringing Christ into the “secular” arenas within which they live and work. So, if you are a Catholic who cannot do much more than go to Mass on Sundays--but put your Christian heart and soul into your “secular” activities, then you are a really active Catholic.If you would like to read up on this matter, I highly recommend Ministry or Apostolate? What Should the Catholic Laity be Doing?  by Russell Shaw (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2002). This short book brings clarity to a complex subject and is eminently readable.

Are Pope Francis’ achievements substantial or mere symbolism?

Jul 14, 2014 / 00:00 am

More than one commentator has suggested recently that Pope Francis is all symbolism and little substance. I disagree. (For one thing, I think symbolism is  substance.)Here are six areas in which Pope Francis has made real differences which are unlikely to be overturned by a future Pope.1. The end of the imperial papacy. “Conservative” theologians never tire of saying that the Church is not a democracy. That’s true. But neither is it a monarchy, not mind an empire. It is, as Cardinal Avery Dulles said, “a community of disciples.”Pope Francis is no imperial figure. He does not live in the Apostolic Palace, but in a guesthouse. He has avoided much of the traditional papal regalia. He dislikes the idea of a papal court, with its myriad of ceremonial attendants. He travels in a modest car, even on occasion on a bus (with cardinals). 2. More effective communication. Traditionally, popes have spoken with extreme caution and avoided spontaneous comments. Now, Francis gives daily homilies off the cuff. He speaks freely to crowds--and never over their heads. His engaging and open style of communication has mesmerized the media, and it is often said of Pope Francis that “The world is listening.”3. Initial reform of the Curia (Vatican offices and departments). It has long been a complaint that the curia is too powerful and, yes, imperious. It has tended to boss bishops around.Recently, bishops have spoken about a new mood in (many) curial offices, one that is more respectful of local bishops and national bishops’ conferences. The bishops of Japan have, for instance, stated that Rome is now much more respectful of the authority of their bishops’ conference on liturgical matters, and is more willing to let them judge what is best for their country. Bishops’ conferences do not want a repeat of the Vatican procedures for approving liturgical translations, as occurred in the English-speaking world.4. Evangelical style. From the beginning, Pope Francis has said that he does not want a church that is introverted, turned in on itself. The Church, he believes, must stop being obsessed with itself, but must go out in mission. He wants a Church “for the world.” That includes getting away from internal obsession with liturgical matters.5. A spirit of openness. Some bishops have said that there is a new openness in the Vatican generally. Bishops needs no longer fear Vatican critique or correction when stating their opinions. Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna (always on my list of papal candidates) has said that a certain atmosphere of fear has evaporated and that there is a greater incidence of honesty and respect. Pope Francis has, for instance, shown himself open to the prospect of married priests in clergy-poor regions of the Church.6. Last but not least, themes of mercy, charity, forgiveness, solidarity, and compassion are now at the fore of papal teaching and speaking. This is not to suggest that previous Popes have failed in this regard, only to point out the extraordinary manner in which these themes stand at the heart and center of Pope Francis’ ministry. Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” question has made an extraordinary impression on the Church and on society at large.Pope Francis is not a man of empty symbolism, but of symbolism with real and concrete substance. He has achieved an enormous amount in his fifteen months as Pope. May he live long that we may see even greater achievements in the style (therefore, substance) of papal ministry.

Corpus Christi and the ‘Blessed Sacrament of the Mass’

Jun 23, 2014 / 00:00 am

Some time ago, I viewed with a small group a video by Fr. Robert Barron entitled, “The Blessed Sacrament of the Mass.” For a moment, I was taken aback by the title. Why would Fr. Barron refer to the Mass as “The Blessed Sacrament”? Surely, this terminology is used for devotions such as Benediction, Eucharistic exposition, processions, and congresses--but not for Mass.I came to realize that Fr. Barron is, of course, quite correct in using the expression “The Blessed Sacrament of the Mass.” The exalted expression, “The Blessed Sacrament” should indeed refer primarily to the Mass, from which all Eucharistic devotions flow and to which they return. What surprised me even more was that some members of the group--made up of liturgically well-educated and “forward-looking” Catholics--admitted rather sheepishly that they are often more attracted to Benediction than to Mass.There is certainly something problematic in this. Benediction should always be seen as secondary to the Mass, as a prolongation of the sacrament, and as a preparation for the next Eucharistic celebration. When Benediction takes priority over Mass in popular Catholic spirituality, there is a clear and urgent need for corrective catechesis.From further discussion, it emerged that what was attractive to those who spoke was that the style of celebration of Benediction is characterized by elements that are often missing in the celebration of Mass. The differences are as follows (I am summarizing here):• There is often more of an atmosphere of reverence in Benediction than is found in the celebration of the Mass;• “Traditional” music always accompanies Benediction, while much of the music at Mass nowadays is “too folksy”;• Silence and a contemplative atmosphere accompany Benediction more that they do Mass;• The focus in Benediction is always on the host in the monstrance, while many celebrations of Mass have distractions that scatter the mind;• The priest has a self-effacing role in Benediction, while at Mass there are many opportunities (inappropriate, of course) for the priest to draw attention to himself—and to talk too much (explanations, improper adaptations, etc.);• Incense is always used at Benediction, but rarely at Mass. Many people do not like incense, but the more “traditionally-minded” do;• Benediction is usually done with more beauty and solemnity (more candles, nicer vestments, and a consciously reverent handling of holy things) than is found in the average Sunday – not mind weekday –  Mass.  It would be spiritually unhealthy if Benediction were promoted at the expense of the Mass. But I agree with those who want to bring into the celebration of Mass many of the elements traditionally, and still today, found in Benediction.Yet, Eucharistic devotions are part of the liturgical heritage of the Church. Perhaps, we have gone from one extreme to the other: Before Vatican II, Eucharistic devotions seemed to have had undue emphasis in the Church; but since Vatican II, these devotions have been drastically curtailed. (Indeed, we are raising a whole post-Vatican II generation which has almost no knowledge of Benediction and other Eucharistic devotions.) There is, accordingly, a need for a new practical balance in Eucharistic theology and practice.Yesterday was the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), the occasion each year when periods of exposition, adoration, and Benediction are most common. This would be a good time in which to reflect on the practice of Eucharistic devotion – and to ask what the Church might learn from popular attitudes toward it.

Need a key to the Trinity? Start with Jesus

Jun 12, 2014 / 00:00 am

The Trinity is a mystery. (Popular translation: The Trinity is a complicated, inexplicable – and not particularly exciting or spiritually relevant – doctrine.) The Trinity is indeed a mystery, but not in the sense of being a giant theological puzzle, but – according to the theological meaning of the word “mystery” – a reality so rich, bright, multifaceted, and all-encompassing that we can never fully take in. There are many ways to begin to understand the Trinity. The starting point, I propose, is the historical life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The first thing we notice is Jesus’ intimate relationship with the God of the Old Testament, who was hitherto rather remote and distant. The term Jesus used to address this God was abba, a word which means something like “dear father.” The first disciples learned to call God “Father” from observing the intimate way in which Jesus prayed.This intimacy with the Father is the reason Jesus came to be called “Son of God” by his followers. His life and ministry were seen as God’s human presence. The Gospel of John succinctly summarizes this truth: “The Word was made flesh. He lived among us, and we saw his glory” (1:14). This led the Council of Nicaea to proclaim in 325 that Jesus himself is God.All in all, Jesus is relatively easy to understand. He was born, ministered, preached, suffered, died, and rose again. We have a record of his career and his words.When it comes to understanding Jesus’ relationship to the Father, we can call to mind artistic portrayals of Jesus kneeling in prayer to the Father, as in Jesus’ agonizing supplications in the garden of Gethsemane.Now, to the Holy Spirit. My rule about starting with Jesus when thinking about the Trinity applies also when it comes to understanding the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. For it is on the matter of the Spirit more than anything else that we get into a real Trinitarian muddle.We might begin by asking why the early Christians did not settle for God the Father, and Jesus, the Son. That would have made everything relatively nice and neat. The answer is that the disciples experienced after the resurrection – and particularly at Pentecost – a dimension of God’s presence and activity that belonged to a uniquely different realm from that of the Father and the Son.This other realm of experience was more mysterious – like air, breath, fire, energy, fragrance. It was mostly invisible and silent, yet powerful and thrilling.We are told that on Easter day, Jesus appeared to the disciples, “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:23). Bring to mind a picture of Jesus breathing his resurrected life upon his disciples and you begin to understand who the Holy Spirit is. In a certain sense, the Spirit took on the personality of Jesus. My rule about starting with Jesus when thinking about the Trinity is equally important here. Always think of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit is the great gift that comes to us from Jesus’ risen life. All the gifts of the Spirit are gifts of Jesus.Needless to say, much more would have to be added even for a cursory theology of the Trinity. On Trinity Sunday, however, we should not think we are dealing with a set of dry and dull abstractions, but rather with the great wealth and richness of God’s tri-fold presence revealed and experienced through Jesus in the communal life of the Church.