I remember how it happened, just like it was yesterday. I was sitting in my office at home. I was surrounded by theological books. I had "reverted" back to the faith only months before, and I found myself rereading St. Augustine’s Confessions as a man with nascent faith, breathless at the beauty of such mystical reflections. Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you (St. Augustine, Confessions, X. xxvii).
A few weeks ago, I attended a high school football game—something I haven’t done since I was in high school, so I was excited to have the opportunity. The teams playing were part of a special league for private schools: mostly religious including some home school families.
In my last column, I began a "Top-10" list of spiritual books. This column is a continuation and a conclusion of that list. You might be surprised by the more contemporary selections, and perhaps you will be reassured by the classics! In any event, I hope you enjoy the recommendations:
It’s the doldrums of August. The kids are already running around the parking lot for the parish school, both excited and horrified that school has begun again, and I am nearing the end of my summer assignment. A few days ago, a friend asked me an interesting question and I thought I would turn it into a column: “What are the top ten spiritual books, in your opinion?”
This summer, one of my regular duties is to visit the hospital down the street from the Cathedral. I have had the singular experience of doing so with a veteran priest from our diocese, Fr. Richard Morrow. He really makes me want to be a priest.
Dressed in cassock and surplice, I stood in the work sacristy of Christ the King Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia on June 26. The air conditioning was either broken or was so tepid that the room was approaching eighty-five degrees. The humidity was high, the Cathedral was full, and the sacristy was packed with seminarians and Masters of Ceremonies. Six men, one after another, knelt in front of the bishop, who placed his hands on them. Then they knelt as some 100 priests from around the diocese solemnly processed by, placing their hands on their heads and sharing with these young men the great gift they had received. The bishop then recited the consecratory prayer and these six men stood, now conformed permanently to Christ the High Priest.
Light and darkness are major themes in the Scriptures. This semester, I have been taking a course on the Johannine Literature at my University. It is my last biblical course before I receive my degree. Johannine writings include the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the Book of Revelation. Particularly in the Gospel, but certainly developed elsewhere, the idea of the light entering into the darkness is prevalent. It begins with the famous Prologue to John’s Gospel: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5).I had these words were particularly in my mind as I visited the Cathedral of Chartres on a recent trip to France. Chartres is famous for two things: its mismatched bell towers, one Romanesque and one Late French Gothic, and its well-known stained glass. I was most interested in this glass, which is purported to be the best in the world.On a brisk French morning, I approached the Cathedreal of Chartres, which, because of the city that has grown up around it, cannot be fully appreciated from a distance. There was scaffolding on the façade of the entrance, and the day was a bit cloudy—not my idea of the best conditions for a visit that requires bright sun. The outside of the side portal to the Cathedral is decorated with a series of statues showing figures from the Old and the New Testaments. These figures line the portal to the Church, leading the faithful to enter deeply into the mysteries contained within, just as the Scriptures continue to do today.Inside, Chartres is an enigma. The Cathedral is undergoing a long cleaning process. The walls are blackened with centuries of soot caused by incense, candles, and most egregiously, heating oil residue. Looking at the massive blackened walls with their strong vertical lines drawing the gaze of the faithful upwards—being lifted to God in contemplation—the contrast of the explosively colorful windows is striking. With three rows of windows, aided by the famous flying buttresses which allowed Gothic architecture to introduce large gaps (making room for windows) into the support structure of churches, and with three magnificent rose windows, Chartres is truly the cathedral of light.This light, the ordinary light from the sun, is transformed by the careful workmanship of artisans who faithfully transferred their beliefs into glass—glass that tells the story of salvation and calls all people to conversion. But more than the story depicted by the windows, I was rather moved by the play on light and darkness caused by the shifting sun outside. As the clouds broke intermittently, one section of windows or another would burst into flames of color, sending streaks of light across the cathedral: “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.” (Jn 1:9). The light was shining in the sooty darkness, and it was inspirational. The light that was coming into the world—caused by the sun—was transformed by the windows. This image brought to mind a number of beautiful truths about our faith. Jesus is often called the Sun of Justice, which refers to the light of justice and truth that Christ brought to Earth. The sun is often used as a metaphor for Christ. The light of the sun is in the world. We have done nothing to deserve it; it comes and it goes, shining first directly and then indirectly, reflected by the moon, often a metaphorical sign for Mary, who perfectly reflects the light of the Son. But this physical light in Chartres was transformed into a spiritual light—illuminating the faith. It was transformed by human actions—by human works—the works of artisans. We all know that “faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:26) and that works apart from faith are empty, meaningless, and non-salvific. For no one can earn their salvation without the grace of God. Before me in Chartres were works of men that transformed the light. The light was made to illuminate truth based on the faithful understanding of the artisans. Through the interpretations of these artists, the light was being transformed into the transmission of the faith. It was a pretty powerful metaphor for the Incarnation. The truth was illuminated in works, but faith was still required from the faithful who saw the fruits of their labors.God was in the world before Jesus was incarnate. The Israelites were not without some personal experience of God; one need only look to Moses to see this. However, God was not in the world as a person. In the person of Jesus Christ, faith in God takes on a new color—a tri-personal color which reveals Him more perfectly. It is in the person of Christ that we have access to the Father: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” (Jn 14:6). But the only way we can come to Christ is through the mediation of the Church, which transmits revelation from generation to generation. If the Church had not preserved the Scriptures and the Tradition with which it has been entrusted, we would know nothing of Jesus Christ. True, the light would still be in the world, because no action of man can negate the action of God, but it is the particular form of revelation we have received—Scripture and Tradition—that focus the light and mould it into something understandable from generation to generation.This is what I saw in Chartres: windows making the light of Christ accessible to new generations. The mediation of the Church is the artistry of the windows. The brightly burning sun is Christ, and the darkness of the stone church is the world. The light shines brightly in the windows, and the history of salvation and the promise of eternal life shines through the darkness of the world, bringing hope to all people. My visit to Chartres was an incredible experience. The most beautiful thing is that I don’t need Chartres to have this experience. It has already been given to me in the Sacraments. And as often as I avail myself of their grace, I too experience the light of the world burning brightly in my soul.
I admit that I have always had an affinity for Clint Eastwood. My Dad was a huge fan of his movies, so I grew up with Dirty Harry making my day, all things good, bad, and ugly, including zany orangutans, pink Cadillacs, and no shortage of raspy guttural one-liners. I remember seeing “Unforgiven” in the movie theatre. As a kid, I hated the movie—it was the non-Western—some sort of move to show realism, and I didn’t like it one bit. As I got older, I came to appreciate it, and now I love it.
About two weeks ago, I had the extraordinary opportunity of seeing the Shroud of Turin. During the summer I spent in Jerusalem, I learned a great deal about the Shroud. At the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem, there is an exposition on the various scientific investigations of the Shroud. Without fail, a tour through that well-designed display deepens the experience pilgrims have of their encounter with God. In learning to give tours of the exhibition, I developed a keen interest and devotion to the Shroud.
About a year ago, I was in the Amalfi region with some friends. The Amalfi Coast is famous all over the world for the fantastic views from its sheer cliffs that rise out of the turquoise Mediterranean. For some reason, we decided we wanted to drive down to the water. So we began descending through largely unmarked labyrinthine streets, twisting and turning as they dropped hundreds of feet. In a small town at the beach, we found a little pizza joint where we sat and enjoyed the spectacle. The little town was called Sirenica. In Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, the Sirens are mythical creatures that sit in lush fields amidst the flowers and sing an irresistible song each time a ship nears their shore. Odysseus had been warned that men will sit and waste away listening to the song of the sirens. Men who become entranced by the Sirens like this eventually die without realizing it. During his journey, Odysseus avoids being ensnared by plugging the ears of his men with wax. He leaves his own ears unplugged, however, because he is curious and wants to hear the song of the sirens. He has himself lashed to the mast of his ship so helpless to act on the uncontrollable impulses that thunder in him at the sound of the tempting melody. Sirenica is the place where all of this is supposed to have happened.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew is truly a masterpiece of the oratorio repertoire. I listened to pieces of it all through Holy Week. The Passion is often performed with two separate choruses and orchestras, which finally come together in a triumphant but haunting final meditation. The partial orchestras, sometimes without strings, sometimes without bass, often in minor progressions which are difficult to understand and evocative of a desperate situation, resolve into unity and end with these words:
I was recently driving back from the U.S. Naval Base in Naples, and dusk was quickly approaching. As the wide blacktop wove gently through the lush valleys separating ridges of mountains, we suddenly found ourselves confronted by a panoramic vista of the sky over distant Rome. The sun was setting, and the fiery hues were the most spectacular I had ever seen.My breath was literally taken away. I gasped at the beauty of the colorful panoply spread before the windshield like an invitation from God. The whole of the sky had mellowed to a hazy rose, with streaks of magenta and fiery red blended in. A cirrus band of clouds reflected a range of colors from violet to light purple, and the sun was radiating a mellow warmth that added a depth to the colors like a classic Monet but with a watercolor finish. The spectacle of it was almost surreal. The conversation stopped, and we drank in the splendor of creation.And I started thinking. The Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles, California, is widely regarded as one of the best places in the world to watch a sunset. The reason LA sunsets are so magnificent is that they are catalyzed by pollution. The chemical particles emitted by factories and by automobiles—found by the millions in LA County—create a refraction environment in the air above the city that contributes substantially to the beauty of the sunsets. The introduction of foreign pollutants in the air creates a variety of red-orange-violet hues not regularly possible. During the 1980s, pollution reduction programs helped to curtail the growth of harmful pollutants. However, since the city continues to grow, the sunsets are still astounding.Here in Rome, we have the same situation. Rome is a dirty city. Black soot accumulates everywhere. Emission standards are low, and Rome is surrounded by mountains, so there is nowhere for the dirty air to go. As a result, we see spectacular sunsets regularly.God draws straight with crooked lines. Despite the long intro, this is not a column about pollution. Seeing that spectacular sunset on the way back from Naples made me think of a profound truth of faith. God does not cause evil, but God uses evil to bring about good.It’s not like I don’t know this already. Most people who have experienced a trauma in their lives have heard this or something like it. I have heard it myself. I have said it myself. But every once in a while, God smacks us in the face with the beauty of his love for us.I don’t think anyone would argue that pollution is a good thing. But it is the presence of pollution that makes those spectacular sunsets possible. In some weird, perhaps twisted way, do I have pollution to thank for that gasping epiphany I experienced on route A1 outside of Rome?The answer is no, but it kind of depends on how you look at it. I have God to thank for making the best of the canvas with which he had to work. But the fact that we humans have polluted the air gives God something to work with that he did not have before. It’s not that he lacks any power or goodness or knowledge or anything, but he does lack evil. I’m certainly not saying that cars and factories are evil; rather, they are good. But, in operating them for the good, we have to accept some secondary evil, and that evil is pollution. We should work to minimize that evil to the extent that we can, but there will probably always be a slight negative effect on the environment from manufacturing and driving.But God, in his goodness, takes that evil and manifests his glory in the midst of it. This really is an amazing thought—that something objectively bad (pollution) can be used to show how good God is (marvelous sunset). This is a mystery—it cannot be explained, but only pondered. The same principle is at work at times in death. When my mother died a few years ago, God manifested his goodness and glory through her death. God didn’t create death. Death is an evil. It only came into the world on account of sin. But it’s here now, and God is going to make the best of it.But he doesn’t just “make the best of it.” He makes it better. I would venture to say that the world is a better place because of the manifestation of God’s glory in a pollution-enhanced sunset. It’s not a better place because of the pollution, but God’s action turns the pollution into something inexpressibly wonderful.In the Easter Vigil, the Church sings one of its most profound hymns: the Exultet. It is the proclamation of Easter, the resurrection of Christ. One of the lines is as follows: O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!Read those lines again! O happy fault? Are we really supposed to be happy that sin entered into the world? Well, yes and no. It depends on how you look at it. We are not happy with the sin itself, but on account of sin, Jesus Christ entered into the world. On account of sin, he died for us and manifested the profound love that God has for us. On account of sin, we have become children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus himself. The mystical saints say that this joyous result in some way allows us to actually be grateful for that first sin. Again: we are not grateful for evil itself, but for the way God manifests his glory through it.Evil is a mystery. God’s glory is a mystery. I cannot hope to explain it to you or to myself. But I find myself in some way happy that Rome was particularly polluted that night, because through that pollution I saw the glory of God. So maybe I too can say “O happy fault…”
I recently found out that after almost two years, I am changing apostolates at the North American College. Our apostolic work in Rome is carried out in a variety of fields. Some men are chaplains to university programs. Others give tours of St. Peter’s Basilica. Yet others give tours of the excavations under the basilica. There are those who visit hospital or prisons. Some work with military bases. There are others who do street evangelization. My apostolate has been giving tours of St. Peter’s Basilica and I have loved every minute of it. It is perfectly normal, and even desirable, to change apostolates regularly while in seminary, so I can’t say that I am surprised.But the thing is I really love my assignment. I love the experience of being with people as they either encounter St. Peter’s for the first time or rediscover a place they have known for years. The apostolate is absolutely incredible.Recently, I was reminiscing with a priest about his first experiences in the Holy Land. I was in Jerusalem when he arrived and we ended up riding together to the Galilee region on the first full day of his time in Israel. Our mission was to accompany some journalists from South America. I soaked up his reactions. As we moved along, I would point out little things. Over there is Damascus Gate. That is the shrine of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. This is the Judean Wilderness where John the Baptist wandered and preached. This particular priest was visibly moved by the experience. He reminded me of my first visit, and watching him experience the most amazing place in the world for the first time was like experiencing it anew myself. He displayed raw wonder at the sheer enormity of the land and its importance to our faith. I’m always sure to warn my St. Peter’s groups “don’t look at anything!” Well, in a manner of speaking. As we approach the front doors of the Basilica after about an hour of history and explanation outside, I generally stop and ask who among the pilgrims has never been inside. Usually the majority of the people tentatively raise their hands. This is actually the most humorous part of the whole experience. They are reluctant to admit that they have not been in. I think they usually suspect I am going to put them on the spot or—worse yet—sell them something! Instead, I encourage them not to look. In the balcony area just outside the Basilica, there are windows over the doors that give you a little glimpse of the baroque decoration inside. I counsel that it is best to either keep their eyes closed or to concentrate only on the floor until they are completely inside the Basilica and can soak in its grandeur all at once. That is the way I think it was meant to be seen. My line is, “You only get one chance to see St. Peter’s for the first time, so make it count.”Then I shoot through the doors before all of them and position myself so that I can watch their faces. They may love it or they may hate it, but the pure grandeur of St. Peter’s demands a response. I have never seen someone confronted with the splendor and glory of St. Peter’s Basilica without betraying some sort of emotion. Each time I watch such a reaction on a pilgrim’s face, I feel like I am seeing St. Peter’s for the first time again.My first visit to Rome was in 2000. It was the Jubilee Year and when I went to St. Peter’s, the Holy Door was open. I didn’t know the first thing about the Holy Door or why it was so important, but there was a long queue to enter through it. Being the sort of guys who do not like to miss out on a good thing, my group of friends got in line. As we approached the door, I noticed (with no small amount of shock) a pilgrim group of older people struggling to crawl through this door on their knees. Now, I was a reasonably adventurous fellow back in those days, but the temperature was Sahara-like and I was wearing shorts so I had no intention of bruising my knees to crawl through a door I had just waited in line for an hour to enter.We finally approached the door somewhere in the middle of the group, and I began to gallivant through on my feet when, with surprising aggression, I felt a set of hands grab my shirt accompanied by a cacophony of foreign-sounding and obviously angry gibberish lobbed in my direction. I turned to face the cackling hoard of barbarian octogenarians only to discover that I was about to be drawn and quartered for my transgression. I was slightly pushed, but mostly shamed to my knees by a severe woman with a devilish hand at wielding her walker as a weapon, and I soon found myself attempting reentry in a more reverent position.Once inside, I was awe-struck. I staggered to my feet, hardly noticing my tender shins (bruised not by the kneeling but rather by the impressive World Cup striker-like blows I had taken from an irate Italian grandmother—for whom I am decidedly grateful). I had never seen anything like it. The experience completely escapes words. Try to remember the last time you gasped at something too wonderful to describe, and then extend that feeling for two hours, and you have some inkling of what I am talking about.Every time I give a tour, I get to watch other people have this experience. It is a privilege and a grace from God, because I am witnessing the Lord communicating to a soul through splendor and beauty, and to witness this work of God is a true blessing.It will be hard to give up such a rewarding apostolate. But my new apostolate of teaching in a local school should have its own set of interesting challenges and opportunities. I will always be thankful for having experienced the grace to witness people being truly struck with awe at a majesty that can provoke only one true reaction: prayer.
On Ash Wednesday, earlier than usual, more solemn than usual, with anticipation, excitement, and perhaps some dread, the seminarians of the North American College in Rome awoke to prepare for their annual Lenten pilgrimage. Groggy but determined, the men prepared themselves, perhaps choosing a pair of shoes a bit more accustomed to the cobble of the ancient streets, selecting a jacket that could protect from the inevitable rain, palming their familiar rosary. They assembled just before 6 a.m. to recite an ancient litany invoking the help of Christ the Lord. Quietly and intently, they began their long walk.New men—those in their first year at the college—were of divided reaction: what was the meaning of this abrupt change to their schedule? Where were we going? Why did we leave so early? Old men were remembering Ash Wednesdays past: perhaps with joy, perhaps with a bit of fatigued distress. Across the city they marched, past the swirling brine of the river, past Trastevere, the earliest Christian quarter in Rome, founded in the early 40s A.D., past Tiber Island where a humble church contains the relics of St. Bartholomew, around the back of the Palatine Hill, overlooking the prison of Peter and Paul and the site of so many early martyrdoms, through the shadow of the great Coliseum, site of the gladiatorial games and the gruesome slaughter of not a few Christians, past the Circus Maximus—that bastion of barbarianism where hundreds were sometimes killed at once. The seminarians ascended the Aventine Hill, passing ancient walls, narrow streets, and countless graves. They entered into the Church of Santa Sabina, named for a widow who converted to the Christian faith and was martyred under the emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.). A few minutes later, Mass began, and the seminarians found themselves meditating on their impending death and the fact that they were being called to repentance.Santa Sabina is the first of the Lenten Station Churches in Rome. Station Churches are part of a tradition that has uncertain roots, but, by some estimates, dates to the 3rd Century A.D. In early Christian Rome, the Eucharist was normally celebrated by a bishop. As such, the faithful would process to the site of the celebration to be in union with the other faithful in the city. It is not known with certainty which of the churches in Rome constituted the first of the station churches (from statio or stare—a standing together, a gathering). But, after the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, the stations in Rome began to be more defined. Today, the tradition has developed into a Lenten pilgrimage. For each of the days of Lent, there is a station church somewhere in the city. Almost all of the Churches are on the seven ancient hills, and most contain important relics of our faith. Some are the burial places of important martyrs, those early witnesses to the faith. The North American College offers a Mass in the station church of the day, so each morning, seminarians arise early and march across the city praying rosaries or meditating on the Christian mysteries, braving the miserably cold rainy season which seems to continually dump buckets of water during the walk to the church. Then we celebrate Mass in a place where it has been celebrated for centuries—the very places that have shaped the tenor of our faith over the years.One who attends all of the station Churches will see quite a bit of history: relics of the apostles Peter, Paul, James the Lesser, Philip, Bartholomew, Simon, Jude, Andrew, Matthias, Thomas, St. Timothy, St. Mark the Evangelist, the entire list of martyrs in the Roman Canon, the chains that held St. Peter, pieces of the Holy Cross, the thorns from Jesus’ crown, the notice Pilate affixed to the cross, the manger in which Jesus was lain after his birth, the table upon which the Last Supper was celebrated, countless Popes, saints, not to mention numerous priceless works of art and beautiful Churches. It is a pilgrimage through the history of our faith—a history that lives and continues with us.Going to the Station Churches is really an amazing experience. The North American College has a very informative website on the tradition, and I recommend you visit it to familiarize yourself with this venerable tradition of celebrating Lent with the early martyrs of the Church. It is difficult to wake up early every morning—especially knowing that for 90% of the stations, it will be cold and raining the entire time of the walk. I usually arrive with cold and soaking feet. The church is almost never heated, and there are never enough seats. Afterward, we have to rush off to school for the day, which will be particularly unpleasant, because as anyone knows, it takes much longer for shoes to dry than they do to get wet. Despite all of this, I have noticed that the seminarians who attend the station Masses—especially those that brave the foulest weather—spend their Lent constantly smiling. I find myself joyful with an uplifted spirit, even though it can be difficult to stay attentive in my first class or so. And it’s not just me. I see it in all the men who make the daily pilgrimage. We constantly hear that Lent is supposed to be a “joyful season” (which seems sort of logical paradoxical to me), but I generally find that the more faithful I am to penances and to self-mortification—even in something as simple as walking across this magnificent city every morning in the rain—the more joyful I am.I suppose the reason is simple. If we actually follow the command of Ash Wednesday to repent and believe in the Gospel, we really can do nothing but grow more joyful, since to grow closer to God is to grow closer to joy itself. Joy is not the natural product of penance. However the fact that penance makes us become holier brings us closer to Christ, the source of our joy.So I wish you a joyful Lent. I pray your penances bring you closer to God, and I hope that each of you will take a moment in Lent to remember those glorious martyrs who assured our faith with their lives.
It is not often that I read a book and find myself engrossed in a process that I suspect will alter my world view. I enjoy reading, but most books are not enduringly memorable. Right now, I am reading one that I think will change the way I think. In fact, since Christmas, I have read two books that have fundamentally challenged the way that I look at the world, my own personal holiness, and the very possibilities for holiness in our world. My guess is that most of you have not heard of either of them.
Last Christmas, I woke up early in the morning and drove with a small group from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. We made our way into the Basilica of the Nativity, finding the sacristy to prepare for Mass. I was somewhat alarmed at how quiet and empty the church was; after all, was this not the very place where our Lord came to dwell among us, in a cave on the hillside of the City of David? We processed quietly and solemnly to the grotto, careful on the steps not to trip, and found ourselves at an altar built just over the spot where the manger in which Jesus was lain was located. During the beautiful Mass, I was transfixed by the spot on the ground traditionally believed to be the location of the manger.In my last column, I took up the idea of devotions to saints—an idea that is troubling to some, and confusing on a basic level to, perhaps, most. As I was reflecting on our upcoming Feast of the Nativity of Jesus, I began wondering about locations—why is it that Catholics have such interest in actual places and things? We know that none of these things are necessary for our salvation, although we certainly receive graces from pilgrimage or relic devotions. Somehow, though, the places seem to matter. They certainly seemed to matter to the earliest Christians.In fact, two of the most influential places in my life can be attributed in part to St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. It was St. Helena who visited the Holy Land in the 4th Century, collected many of the holy relics, and brought them to Rome. It was she who brought the holy stairs and the manger to Rome. It was she who ordered the construction of the Basilica of the Nativity which still stands today. It was she who oversaw the construction of the first Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. No place has been more influential in my life than the Holy Land—particularly those places where St. Helena saw fit to construct a church. The second point of contact between my life and that of St. Helena is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The original basilica, now completely replaced with the 16th Century treasure we have today, was constructed over the site of the tomb of St. Peter, who had been martyred in 67 A.D. during the merciless persecution of Christians perpetrated by Nero following the great fire of Rome, which had been fallaciously attributed to them. Beneath the modern Basilica, in a humble room, one can see the bones of Peter, the Rock upon whom Christ has built his Church. Millions of people come every year to St. Peter’s to see this very thing and to be close to that Prince of the Apostles. Back to the question: why? The Holy Land and St. Peter’s Basilica are unique points of intersection between physical location and saintly devotion. Does it matter to my faith that the altar constructed in the grotto of the Basilica of the Nativity is in exactly the right place? No. Does it matter whether the bones I have seen are actually St. Peter’s? No. The funny thing about relics and pilgrimage locations is that we could really go through each one and claim that it is not important whether or not it is real or accurate. But as we do that, paradoxically, it seems like we are trampling on something very important: the historical fact of Christianity. If we share a religion that is based on fact—on the real intervention of God in history—then this same God should have left actual historical footprints, just as you or I would. Though any one of them might not be completely accurate, some of them must be, I would think. If we cannot pinpoint with any reasonable degree of certainty historically reliable data of the reality of our faith, then are we not being asked too much? Aren’t we constantly assured that Jesus really did walk on this earth? Did he not heal real people? Did he not wear real clothes? Did he not lie in a real manger? If we cannot point to anything that gives us concrete certainty, then are we not being asked by the Church to ignore a central aspect of who we are: beings with senses who experience the world rather than simply think it?When I give St. Peter’s tours, one of the most popular discussion topics is the “incorrupt saint.” One such saint that you can see in the basilica is Pope Innocent XI, who died in 1689, some 320 years ago. His body is still intact. You can actually see it—he is truly flesh and bone. There are other saints you can readily see in Italy as well: St. Clare of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, and Pope Pius X, to name just as few. These are real people who lived real lives of sanctity, and you can see their actual body—still flesh and bones after so many years. With these bodies, you can have certainty: not only are you looking at a miracle—a body that does not decay as it should—but you are looking, and praying to, one who has fought the battle well and has won victory in Jesus Christ. There is some comfort here for data-seekers. Jesus Christ was truly born. He was born in Bethlehem in a cave, because there was no room at the inn. He was seen first by his parents, Mary and Joseph, and then he was revealed to lowly shepherds, the Shepherd seen by shepherds. He was visited by great kings of empires who brought him gifts. Did it all happen in the spot where we celebrated Mass last year? I don’t really know for certain—but I for one believe it did. I put more faith in the saints that have come before us than do some, and since the birth of Christ, that spot has been venerated as the place where God came among men, to live with them, to love them, and to save them. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Enjoy celebrating Christmas—it is the feast of the reality of God, a God who became flesh to embrace man, who even today continues to embrace us.
Once a year, the Atlanta men take a fraternity weekend away from Rome. This year we traveled to Padua in the northern part of the country.
With less than a year (God-willing!!) until my ordination to the Diaconate, I have been reflecting on the promises that I will make during the liturgy when I stand before a genuine successor to the Apostles and offer my life to God in a definitive way. In the Rite of Ordination, the bishop asks, “Do you promise respect and obedience to your Ordinary?” If the seminarian isn’t looking for an extraordinarily awkward public conversation, he replies, “I do!” This promise is repeated again at his ordination to the priesthood, and it must be made individually before the bishop.One of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council contains a beautiful reflection on the relationship of the priest and the bishop: “By reason of [the] sharing in the priesthood and mission of the bishop the priests should see in [the bishop] a true father and obey him with all respect. The bishop, on his side, should treat the priests, his helpers, as his sons and friends, just as Christ calls his disciples no longer servants but friends” (Lumen Gentium §28). The priest is the son of the bishop, the brother of the bishop in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and the friend of the bishop in the same way that redemption has made us friends of Jesus. If we take this document seriously, the relationship of the priest and the bishop should be quite familial, and it behooves both the bishop and the priest (or seminarian) to strive toward that ideal. After all, respect and obedience are a lot easier and more satisfying when the parties involved have a strong relationship.My Ordinary, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, was chosen to serve in the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Africa. The synod started in early October and finished on the 25th. For three and a half weeks, the seminarians from Atlanta who were studying in Rome had a very unique opportunity: we saw our bishop almost every day, enjoying the opportunity to greet him and to hear about his many experiences.His time here was an exceptional privilege for us. I really appreciated the opportunity to spend time with the spiritual father of my Archdiocese. I also had the opportunity to grow in love for my bishop, who truly and genuinely cares for his seminarians as his sons. Throughout his stay here at the North American College, seminarians from other dioceses repeatedly commented on Archbishop Gregory, especially on how close he seemed to be to his seminarians. As I heard these comments, I realized how nonchalant I have become about the extraordinary relationship I enjoy with my bishop, a bishop who quite clearly wants the absolute best for me and seeks God’s will for me so that I might be abundantly happy and that I might share some of that happiness with the people of Atlanta one day.One evening during his visit, I was in the chapel praying during Eucharistic Adoration. I noticed that the side door to the chapel was open. Then my bishop walked in. Archbishop Gregory hurt his leg several months ago while exercising and has had a long recovery; in fact, he is still doing physical therapy exercises. Over the course of his visit, I noticed repeatedly that at the end of a day, having trekked over the cobblestones of Rome, his limp would be greatly exacerbated. When he walked into the chapel, his limp the worst I had seen yet. My heart immediately ached for him because his suffering was evident.He slowly made his way to an empty spot on the end of a row, genuflected, and knelt before our Lord. I sat across the chapel watching him for perhaps twenty minutes. I was transfixed by the sight. I knew he was tired. I knew that his leg was bothering him even as he knelt. But he stayed there, praying intently. After Benediction, he prayed Vespers with the seminarians and continued on about his evening business. His spirits were never down, and he never had anything less than a jovial and kind word to say to any of the seminarians he met. He ate lunch with us faithfully every day, and he prayed with us whenever his schedule allowed.Sometimes I think the term spiritual fatherhood has become overly fragmented from the actual idea of fatherhood—the kind of father my brother is to his son. Now I don’t get the time from my bishop that my nephew gets from his Daddy, but I do have a spiritual father that prays for and with his sons, eats with his sons, shares stories with and listens to his sons, and spends each day seeking their well-being and happiness. All of this produces in my spiritual father a joy so tangible that it compels others to comment upon it. From my perspective, and my experience, spiritual fatherhood and fatherhood don’t actually differ that much. I am grateful for the office of my bishop, and I am grateful for the person of my bishop. Perhaps what I am most grateful for is that I am never given any reason to think about the difference.
The North American College is back in session, classes have resumed, and the long transition period when the seminarians are in Rome but without a regular schedule has been replaced by the day-in day-out rhythm of life. After a hiatus from writing, conditioned primarily by the haphazardness of my own availability, Led Into the Truth is entering a new phase. I am less than one year from my ordination to the transitional diaconate, God-willing, and suddenly the place to which I am being led is emerging from the misty haze of an uncertain future and is becoming more concrete each day. I have so very many things to write about and I will hopefully cover all of them in the coming weeks, but as my third year of theological study begins (my fifth year of study in total), I would like to reflect on two recent experiences that tie into the anticipation and excitement of what awaits me at the end of this year.
A few weeks ago, the Atlanta seminarians gathered for a retreat. My favorite activity was sitting with friends on the porch engrossed in deep conversation. One topic that came up was the nature of the vocation to the married life. A group of five or six of us reflected on our own family lives growing up. Several of us (me included) had divorced parents, and all of us know people who never met their father. We were trying to understand the necessary grace involved in the married life and its difficulty in our modern culture. It was a powerful conversation.