Thursday, February 28, 2019

Schmemann in Paris.

It strikes me that it has been a while since I've written about Alexander Schmemann on this blog. Though it may be said that Schmemann's work no longer enjoys the same place in my intellectual universe that it once occupied, I still count his Journals as one of my favorite books. I will add, as I have probably not said it before in this space, that the French edition of Schmemann's journals is infinitely superior to the English translation; the French text contains a lot of material that was cut from the American edition prepared (and heavily censored) by his widow, and the added material offers a richer understanding of the man and his thought. So if you are interested in Schmemann and can read French, get a copy of the French edition.

Since I moved to Paris a couple of years ago, I have occasionally thought about writing something about Schmemann the Parisian. Though he was born in Estonia, Schmemann spent his formative years in Paris and was deeply marked by the experience. The Journals make it clear that Schmemann felt more at home in Paris than he did anywhere else, and the 'Parisian' dimension of Schmemann's self-understanding is a theme worth exploring. This post is not the comprehensive study of that theme, but rather a sort of teaser. To offer a sense of the place of Paris in Schmemann's life, I would like to share some lines from his Journals, taken from an entry dated December 10, 1973:
. . . During my school years in Paris, on my way to the Lycée Carnot, I would stop by the Church of St. Charles of Monceau for two or three minutes. And always, in this huge, dark church, at one of the altars, a silent Mass was being said. The Christian West: it is part of my childhood and youth, when I lived a double life. On the one hand it was a worldly and very Russian émigré life; on the other, a secret, religious life. Sometimes I think of the contrast: a noisy, proletarian rue Legendre (a small street in the 19th arrondissement, in Paris) and this never-changing Mass (. . . a spot of light on the dark wall . . .) – one step, and one is in a totally different world. This contrast somehow determined in my religious experience the intuition that has never left me: the coexistence of two heterogeneous worlds, the presence in this world of something absolutely and totally 'other.' This 'other' illumines everything, in one way or another. Everything is related to it – the Church as the Kingdom of God among and inside us. For me, rue Legendre never became unnecessary, or hostile, or nonexistent – hence my aversion to pure 'spiritualism.' On the contrary, the street, as it was, acquired a new charm that was understandable and obvious only to me, who knew at that moment the Presence, the feast revealed in the Mass nearby. Everything became alive, intriguing: every storefront window, the face of every person I met, the concrete, tangible feeling of that moment, the relationship between the street, the weather, the houses, the people.

This experience remains with me forever: a very strong sense of 'life' in its physical, bodily reality, in the uniqueness of every minute and of its correlation with life's reality. At the same time, this interest has always been rooted solely in the correlation of all of this with what the silent Mass was a witness to and a reminder of, the presence and the joy. . . . This correlation is a tie, not an idea; an experience. It is the experience of the world and life literally in the light of the Kingdom of God, revealed through everything that makes up the world: colors, sounds, movements, time, space – concrete, not abstract. When this light, which is only in the heart, only inside us, falls on the world and on life, then all is illumined, and the world becomes a joyful sign, symbol, expectancy. That's why I love Paris, why I need it! It is because it was in Paris, in my Parisian childhood that this experience was given to me, became my being. . . .
This post may or may not be one in a series; awaiting a possible sequel, may these lines remain suspended in air, as it were, as a kind of placeholder and a reminder of a theme that I find very interesting but have not yet found the time to write about as I would like.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Preserve this holy house until the end of the world.

Barring a last-minute reprieve, this weekend St. Michael's Russian Catholic Church in Manhattan will be forced to leave the historic chapel that has been home to the community since its founding in 1936. As reported recently by the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny, St. Michael's faces "eviction" at the behest of its neighbor and de facto landlord, St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, which demands that the tiny community pay a cripplingly high monthly rent in order to remain in the only home that it has ever known. The people of St. Michael's plan to stay together, likely by continuing to gather to worship in another location, but the move still represents the end of an era.

St. Michael's has a special place in my heart, having been an important part of my life when I lived in New York from 2006 to 2009. Twice every weekend (Saturday evening for vespers, Sunday morning for the Divine Liturgy), I would take a forty-five-minute ride on the D train from Fordham Road to Broadway-Lafayette to attend services at St. Michael's. It was there that I learned how to serve the Byzantine liturgy, preparing myself for later ministry at St. Elias in Brampton and elsewhere. St. Michael's also offered a precious sense of community; a friend I made there opined that New York is a city of villages, and that to be happy in the metropolis each resident needs to find the village where he feels at home. St. Michael's was my "village," a spiritual refuge and a place of fellowship. It was also a place that seemed to be sustained by the direct action of the Holy Spirit: attendance was always small, with anywhere from twenty to forty people attending the Sunday liturgy, and the survival of the community often appeared precarious, yet the people of St. Michael's faithfully gathered week after week and year after year, strong in faith despite what always seemed an uncertain future.

St. Michael's was always sui generis, a unique community made up of original characters. One longtime parishioner dubbed the people of St. Michael's "the Mulberry Street Irregulars," a moniker that referenced the Manhattan thoroughfare where the chapel is located as well as Sherlock Holmes's band of street urchins. Founded to minister to Russian émigrés, the chapel always drew a greater number of Westerners attracted to the Byzantine liturgy and to Slavic spirituality than it did ethnic Russians. Andrew Krivak, a sometime Jesuit scholastic who frequented St. Michael's a few years before I did, captured something of the spirit of the place in a passage in his memoir A Long Retreat: "Founded for the Russians who never arrived, [St. Michael's] has become a way station for searchers, a deeper window of tradition within Catholic tradition, small, on the fringe, and holy. It's a place for people who fit and don't quite fit." Reading Krivak's description, I can't help but think of the sign on the front of the chapel advertising the service times; the 't' in 'Great Vespers' had fallen off at some point, but was never replaced. A fellow parishioner once said to me, as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the chapel after the liturgy: "If they ever replace the 't,' I'll leave the parish." (He ended up leaving anyway, for different reasons.)

When I think of St. Michael's, I think of the many people I got to know there, unforgettable individuals whose faith and fidelity continues to inspire me. As noted above, few of them were actually Russian - in my time, I think there were only two 'real' Russians there - but they all had unique stories about how they ended up at St. Michael's, and about what they had done before. I think, for example, of the late Joe Roth (seen in the above photo), a longtime acolyte at St. Michael's who had spent some time as a Trappist novice at the Abbey of Gethsemani and would occasionally tell stories about his novice master, 'Father Louie,' better known to the world as Thomas Merton. (Merton, it bears mentioning, had occasionally attended St. Michael's himself during the years that he lived in New York, as did Dorothy Day and Catherine de Hueck Doherty.)

Another person I'll always associate with St. Michael's is Agustín 'Augie' Loureiro, pictured here and also deceased. Augie was often the first person that newcomers would encounter at St. Michael's, as he typically stood by the door and acted as a sort of usher. Though he liked to play the curmudgeon, Augie was a very kind and gracious man, generous and loyal to his friends and always eager to extend hospitality to first-time visitors to St. Michael's. Basque on his mother's side and Galician on his father's, Augie remained true to his roots; every Sunday after church, he would go directly from St. Michael's to Sancho's, a Spanish restaurant on Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, where he would stay until evening enjoying a leisurely multi-course meal and taking time to chat with the staff and with fellow regulars. Augie would often invite some people from St. Michael's to join him at Sancho's, and I was happy to do so on numerous occasions. (Sancho's closed late in 2018, having outlived its most loyal customer by a couple of years. Sic transit gloria mundi.)

Another St. Michael's stalwart who remains etched in my memory is Protodeacon Christoper LiGreci, seen here receiving the honorific title of protodeacon from Cardinal Edward Egan in June 2009. (Because there is no Russian Catholic hierarchy, St. Michael's has always been under the care of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York; the letter making Chris a protodeacon came from the Oriental Congregation in Rome, but Cardinal Egan came to confer the title.) Chris first visited St. Michael's as a teenager in the 1950s, brought there by one of his teachers from Brooklyn Prep, the legendary Charlie Winans. An active parishioner from that point onward, Chris was later ordained a deacon and continues to play a key role in the parish, editing the bulletin, maintaining parish records and archives, serving at the liturgy, and representing, in some sense, the institutional memory of the community. As the deacon at St. Michael's, Chris was the one who first invited me to serve as an acolyte and taught me the liturgical ropes.

This photo was taken almost seven years after the previous one, in April 2016, when I returned to St. Michael's for the first time as a priest to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Here, Protodeacon Christopher LiGreci and I offer the prayers before the royal doors that precede the celebration of the liturgy. (Thanks are due to Stuart Chessman, of the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny, for having been on hand that morning to take this photo and the one found immediately below.) That Sunday represented a kind of homecoming for me, as through my years of study for the priesthood I had often hoped that I would have the chance to return to St. Michael's to celebrate the liturgy as a priest. Ultimately, I would only do so twice - that Sunday in 2016, and once again in 2017 - but I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

Here I am on that same Sunday in April 2016, at the Great Entrance, accompanied by Economos Romanos V. Russo, who was then the rector of St. Michael's Chapel. Father Romanos was also an important part of my experience at St. Michael's, having arrived as rector just before I made my first visit to the chapel on Mulberry Street. At that point, the memory of his predecessor still loomed large: Father Joan Soles, a Catalan priest and an alumnus of the Russicum, had been the much-loved pastor of the community for nearly two decades before being called back to Spain by his bishop. Father Romanos, however, would leave his own mark on St. Michael's: like Chris LiGreci, he had known the community for decades, and his natural charisma and deep knowledge of the Byzantine and Slavic traditions made him a perfect fit for the chapel. He sometimes told me - at least half-jokingly, I think - that he would have been happy to see me succeed him someday as rector of the chapel. That was always unlikely, even though St. Michael's has had longstanding links with the Society of Jesus, but I can't deny that part of me would have appreciated such an assignment.

When I think now of St. Michael's, I think also of the 'hidden' spiritual aspects of the experience. I have long thought that the most beautiful prayers of the Byzantine liturgy are those that are meant to be prayed silently by the priest, and I accordingly reject the didacticism of some liturgists who would prefer that every prayer be pronounced aloud so as to be heard by the people. I think of St. Michael's as a place where I was initiated into a spiritual tradition that is in some ways hidden, not only on account of the relative obscurity of Eastern Christianity in the West but also because, notwithstanding the external pomp of the Byzantine liturgy, that which is most essential occurs in the intimate space of the altar and is expressed only in whispered tones. The key point here is one that I still struggle to articulate well, but I think that I at least hint at it in this post from a few years ago.

As I recall those Sunday mornings at St. Michael's, a decade and longer ago, remembering all the times that I stood by and listened as Father Romanos and Deacon Christopher recited the prayers of the proskomedia ("And the star came and stood over the place where the child was." "Let us pray to the Lord." "The Lord has reigned; he is clothed with beauty. The Lord is clothed with strength and his girded himself; for he has established the world which shall not be shaken..."), I think, too, of one of the petitions contained in the Anaphora of St. Basil the Great, in which the priest implores the Almighty to "give peace to her [i.e., the Church] whom you have obtained with the Precious Blood of your Christ, and preserve this holy house until the end of the world." I've often been struck by these final lines, Preserve this holy house until the end of the world, words that recognize the importance of place and a sense of maintaining one's physical roots. I prayed these words often at St. Elias, even after the fire and all the more so after the church was rebuilt. I make the same prayer now for St. Michael's, even though it may remain unanswered: Preserve this holy house until the end of the world.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A new and wondrous mystery.

Repeating the annual tradition of this blog, I would like to extend my prayerful best wishes to all readers who celebrate Christmas today. As always, I wish to mark the occasion by sharing part of a Nativity sermon preached by St. John Chrysostom:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd's song, piping no soft melody but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now, for our redemption, dwells here below; and he that was lowly is raised up by divine mercy.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven: she hears from the stars the singing of angelic voices; in place of the sun, she enfolds within herself on every side the Sun of Justice.

Ask not how - where God wills, the order of nature yields. He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed, and all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is is born, and He Who Is becomes what He was not.

Christ is born! Glorify him! AMDG.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Dies irae, dies illa.

As is my annual custom, for All Souls' Day I am reposting a translation of the Latin sequence for All Souls that I made a few years ago. Typically attributed to the thirteenth-century Franciscan Thomas of Celano and long prescribed as part of the Latin Requiem Mass, the Dies Irae enjoys a special place in Western musical culture thanks to the memorable settings of the Requiem text by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi to Britten, among many others. For All Souls, I typically avoid any 'classical' setting of the Dies Irae in favor of the traditional Gregorian setting, because sometimes only Gregorian chant will do.

Below you can find the Latin text of the Dies Irae followed by my own English translation. I decided to translate the text myself out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the various translations that I found online, as a spiritual exercise for All Souls' Day - and, finally, to practice my Latin. The translation was made in haste and could certainly be improved - indeed, I have sometimes thought of starting from scratch and doing a new one - and I welcome comments and criticism; my goal was to convey the meaning of the original faithfully without trying to reproduce the poetic meter of the original. So here goes:

Dies irae! Dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.

Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet, apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix iustus sit securus?

Rex tremendae maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.

Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuae viae:
Ne me perdas illa die.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Iuste iudex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.

Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.

Preces meae non sunt dignae:
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta,
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.

Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis:
Voca me cum benedictis.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis:
Gere curam mei finis.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.


O day of wrath, that day
when the earth will be reduced to ashes,
as David and the Sibyl both testify!

What great fear there will be,
when the judge comes
to judge all things strictly.

A trumpet casts a wondrous sound
into the realm of the tombs,
calling all [to come] before the throne.

Death and nature will both marvel
as the [human] creature rises
to answer its judge.

A book will be brought forth
in which all things are recorded –
all that for which the world will be judged.

When, therefore, the judge appears,
all that is hidden will appear,
and no ills will remain unavenged.

As miserable as I am, what am I say?
whose protection may I invoke,
when even the just lack security?

O most majestic King,
who freely saves those to be saved,
save me, source of mercy!

Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the one for whom you came:
may I not be lost on that day!

Seeking me, you sat down tired:
to redeem me, you suffered the Cross –
may your toil not be in vain!

Just and avenging judge,
may you grant remission [of sins]
before the day of reckoning.

Guilty, now I sigh,
my face red with shame:
save thy petitioner, o God!

Having absolved Mary [Magdalene],
and heard the plea of the thief,
may you give me hope as well.

Though my prayers are not worthy,
be kind to me, o Good One,
that I may be spared the eternal fire!

Place me among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
setting me at your right hand.

When the wicked are confounded
and given over to bitter flames:
call me among the blessed.

Meek and humble, I pray,
with a heart contrite as ashes:
Help me reach my final end.

How tearful that day will be,
when from the ashes will arise
the guilty man for judgment.
Therefore spare him, O God!

Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

To some modern ears, some of the above lines may seem a bit harsh; the familiarity of the Latin text and the beauty of its poetic form can easily distract us from the admonitory content of the Dies Irae. As stern as these words may be, though, they also remind us that God is merciful - indeed, the very source of mercy - and they call on us to pray: first for our beloved dead and for our own repentance, but also that we may offer to others the same mercy that we seek for ourselves. May all of us who celebrate this Feast of All Souls take these words in the right way, and take them to heart. AMDG.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

St. Anne's in Fall River set to close.

From time to time, I write here about church happenings in the area where I grew up. Sadly, this often involves news of church closings, like that of New Bedford's St. John the Baptist Church in 2012. As the latest in a sad series, earlier this month the Diocese of Fall River announced the imminent closing of St. Anne's Church in Fall River. Founded in 1869 to serve French Canadian immigrants, St. Anne's is well-known locally thanks to its imposing gray marble Byzantine Revival church building. The last parish in the diocese to offer Sunday Mass in French - which continued until the early 2000s - St. Anne's also drew people from across the SouthCoast with Masses offered three times every weekday in its spacious crypt along with generous confession times. For decades, the parish was staffed by Dominican Friars from Quebec; though the Dominicans formally gave the parish up to the diocese in 1978, the last Dominican at St. Anne's, Father Pierre Lachance, remained in Fall River until his death in 2006 (I remember seeing him, during his final years, sitting in a small office he kept in the crypt of the church).

The closing of the parish is a serious blow not only to parishioners but to many in the city and region; as one Fall River resident wrote in a letter to the local newspaper, "St. Anne's means as much to the people of this city as Notre Dame Cathedral means to the people of Paris." The reasons behind the decision to close the parish are tied to economic realities and changing demographics. The upper church has already been closed for several years due to structural issues that call for costly repairs (the cost and extent of the work needed is a matter of some debate, with an architect involved in assessing the condition of the church disputing figures presented by the diocese). Demographic problems are perhaps more intractable. Father Thomas Kocik, the former administrator of the parish, offered the following comments on the situation:
I was administrator of St Anne's for nearly two years (2012-14). From the perspective of demographics and economics, St Anne's has not been a viable parish for years. It has long relied on non-parishioners for most of the income received from weddings and funerals. The average Sunday Mass count for November 2012 was 511; were it not for the Sunday evening Mass (attended mostly by outsiders) it would have been 143. And while revenue from the votive candles in the shrine kept the parish afloat (utility bills were paid), a great deal of money was owed to the Diocese for insurance and pensions. Even if the parish had all the money needed to repair the upper church, for how much longer could the bishop assign a severely limited number of priests to keep alive old parishes as shrines? The problem is not just lack of funds but lack of people.

I am heartsick over this, and cannot help wondering what could have been had my efforts to attract more souls been given more time to bear fruit. The key to a promising future, I believed (and still believe), has to do with my happiest memory from my time there: the Solemn Mass in the older, traditional Roman Rite which I celebrated one Sunday in October 2013. The event was widely publicized and drew hundreds of people from far and wide (including clergy and seminarians from Boston and Providence). Visitors who "stumbled in" upon the Mass stayed 'til the end. "Can we have this every Sunday?" asked more than a few people who were deeply impressed by the beauty, the mystery, the profound sense of the sacred conveyed by this ancient form of worship (which, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, has become more widely available). But we weren’t ready to do that on a regular basis, because the traditional Latin Mass in its solemn form requires not only a priest but also a deacon and subdeacon, a choir competent in Gregorian chant, and several well-trained altar servers. "We're not there yet, but give me time," I promised. A few months later, without any advance notice, the bishop (George W. Coleman at the time) ended my charge of the parish.
To Father Kocik's point, some have urged that St. Anne's should be given to a religious community dedicated to the Usus Antiquior, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King, two groups with a track record of saving old and beautiful churches that were menaced by possible closings by giving them a new lease on life as parishes offering the traditional liturgy. If such a solution were in fact proposed, the problem of resources that Father Kocik raises would remain a real one; even with dedicated clergy, finding enough laypeople with the time and talent to support a new apostolate is still a challenge.

I do not know what could have been done (or what, hoping against hope, still could be done) to save St. Anne's. What I do know is that the closing of churches like St. Anne's represents a major loss in cultural terms, a point expressed very well by Fall River Herald News staff writer Marc Munroe Dion in these words penned earlier this year, when the demise of the parish already seemed likely:
No matter how many lights blazed, or how many candles were lit, there was something dark about those old churches, dark laced with the smell of incense and the echoing sound of the door to the confessional closing, and the stares of the calm-eyed statues.

Immigrants built them as big as the mills where the boss couldn't speak your language and called you names.

"Here we are!" those old churches said. "We are poor, but we have made this so we will have something of our own, something everyone can see."


The parish churches were the bones of a living thing. Even now, the old Catholic churches, open or closed, are the biggest structures in a lot of neighborhoods, and usually the only really beautiful building in the neighborhood.

Will our monument be the free-standing plaza with a dollar store, a drug store, a laundromat, and a place to buy discount cigarettes? Even in the suburbs, where the people have more money than they do in Fall River, they do not, and cannot, build anything like the huge and beautiful churches that even poor Fall River neighborhoods once took for granted. Will future generations guess what kind of people we were by looking at the ruins of a "fulfillment center," or a marijuana "grow facility"?
As the Anaphora of St. Basil puts it, "preserve this holy house until the end of the world." AMDG.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Dominicans leave San Marco after 582 years.

This week, the New York Times reported on the imminent departure of the Dominican Friars from the Convento San Marco in Florence, a place that has been home to a Dominican priory since 1436. As the NYT's Elisabetta Povoledo writes, San Marco's rich history makes the friars' departure particularly poignant:
For nearly 600 years, Dominican friars in Florence, Italy, have inhabited the Convent of San Marco, one of the city's great spiritual and cultural hubs, renowned for its frescoes by Fra Angelico and once home to the fiery preacher Girolamo Savonarola.

But at the end of September, this storied occupation will end, a victim of the dwindling ranks of the Dominican order. The convent's only remaining residents — four aging friars — have been told to pack their bags and move across town to the convent of Santa Maria Novella.

"The community of San Marco is no more, it is finished," said the Rev. Fausto Sbaffoni, one of the four, who arrived here in 1979 and was present in June when the regional chief of the Dominicans arrived to read the order suppressing, or closing, the convent. "No friar can remain in a suppressed convent," he noted.
The Dominicans' departure from San Marco has been anticipated for several years. Writing in the summer of 2015, Sandro Magister suggested that the decision to vacate what he called "the most famous Dominican convent in the world" was inevitable despite the direct intervention of Dominican Master General Bruno Cadoré, who seemed to urge his Italian confreres to do what they could to avoid shuttering the friary:
What is at stake smacks of the incredible. It is as if the Franciscan friars were to decide to close the convent of Assisi. And yet this is what could happen, at the behest of the order of Saint Dominic itself, if the superior general of the order, Fr. Bruno Cadoré, should put into effect the decision that the chapter of the Dominican province of central Italy, named after Saint Catherine of Siena, made in the autumn of 2013: the decision, that is, to suppress the "house," meaning the convent of San Marco in Florence.

The superior general has taken his time. In March of [2014] he made a visit to the convent about to be suppressed. He then wrote a letter to the Dominicans of the province in question, asking them to re-examine the question from the ground up, with the help of "experts." To no effect. The fathers of the province of St. Catherine of Siena met again in chapter at the end of last June and reiterated to the superior general the request to suppress the convent of San Marco.
Both Magister and Povoledo note the unsuccessful efforts made by various cultural and civil leaders to keep the friary open, and the NYT article quotes a local figure who opined that "[t]o suppress the convent is like dimming the lights on centuries of history." It might fairly be observed that the decision to close the friary doesn't mean the end of the Dominican presence in Florence or the loss of the Fra Angelico frescoes that made San Marco a famous landmark: the remaining members of the community are moving to a nearby friary at Santa Maria Novella, and the rooms of the former convent containing Fra Angelico's frescoes are already part of a state-run museum that is unaffected by the Dominicans' move. Nevertheless, I can't help but agree that something essential is being lost with the end of a living Dominican presence at the site.

Some of the internal Dominican politics involved in the decision to close the friary at San Marco are recounted in two articles by Tommaso Monfeli on the site Corrispondenza Romana. In one article, Monfeli argues that the decision to close San Marco while keeping open the neighboring friary of Santa Maria Novella is related to longstanding divisions that go back to a period when the two friaries belonged to two separate Dominican provinces that have since merged. The other article suggests that the efforts to keep the friary open included serious proposals to repopulate the community at San Marco with friars from other provinces:
Among the hypotheses put forward by [Florence Archbishop] Cardinal [Giuseppe] Betori were the possibility of entrusting San Marco to another Dominican Province with a greater number of friars (for example, the American Province of Saint Joseph, which had expressed interest) or establishing an inter-provincial friary open to all the Dominican provinces of the world. But the Roman Province, through the words of the Provincial, wished to remove the friars residing at San Marco and insisted on the closure of the friary, declaring itself, in the Acts of the Provincial Chapter, willing to hand it over to another Province only after having closed it.
The NYT article ends by quoting an elderly friar preparing to move out of the convent at San Marco, who blames the decision to close the friary on an apparently terminal decline in vocations and states that the Dominicans have reached "the famous point of return" and that it "is no longer possible to reactivate" the founding spirit of the Order. This pessimism seems a bit misplaced, given the notable success of some Dominican provinces in drawing many young vocations. Unfortunately, the Italian Dominicans seem not to have been touched by this renewal. One can only hope that something of the spirit of San Marco will remain, even without a living Dominican presence. AMDG.

Friday, August 31, 2018

The grounds for my hope.

The last few weeks have been difficult ones for the Catholic Church in the United States. The fallout from the Pennsylvania grand jury report implicating hundreds of priests in the sexual abuse of minors evokes memories of the long-drawn-out crisis of 2002, when each new day seemed to bring a wave of new revelations of priestly sins and episcopal inaction. Ongoing revelations regarding the scandalous misbehavior of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have also raised hard questions about corruption, negligent oversight, and a possible coverup reaching the highest levels of the Church. When times are bad – as they certainly are right now – we need to ask ourselves all the more insistently: what are the grounds for my hope?

I spent the first couple of weeks of August as an auxiliary confessor at the Sanctuary of Lourdes, a place that offers daily lessons in the meaning of Christian hope. Hearing confessions for several hours each day, one is a witness not only to the reality of sin but also to the workings of grace: one sees, again and again, how God penetrates the solitude of the human soul even in the most trying of circumstances. Being at Lourdes as a priest also allows one to observe how the shrine can be transformative not simply for pilgrims seeking healing but also for volunteers serving the sick, for whom the experience of service often represents a (perhaps unexpected) moment of conversion.

Throughout my time at Lourdes, I celebrated a private Mass each morning in one of the small lateral chapels in the crypt of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. The walls of the crypt chapels are covered with ex-voto plaques giving thanks for various favors received through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes, some of which are very detailed (e.g.: 'Reconnaissance à N.D.L. et nouvelle protection pour mes frères et neveux aux armées. A.T. Mai 1916'). The most striking of the ex-votos, though, bore a very simple message: Vous m'avez fait croire. Merci. ('You made me believe. Thank you.') In some significant ways, Our Lady of Lourdes also made a deeper believer of me as well: my time at the shrine provided a balm for some of my pessimism about happenings in the Church, offering concrete and specific grounds for hope amid darkness and uncertainty.

Lourdes is a very youthful place. The shrine attracts pilgrims of all ages, but the visible presence of children and youth is a particular source of hope for those of us who wonder what the future holds. On one of my first nights at Lourdes, I came across a group of French schoolchildren singing the Je vous salue, Marie after placing a large candle in one of the bougeoirs near the Grotto. That memory, captured here on video, would be emblematic of the graces I received throughout my time at Lourdes. It also makes me think of the many young volunteers who animate the activities of the shrine, such as the Foulards Blancs, French Catholic scouts and guides who spend a part of the summer serving the sick at Lourdes. One may object that deeply-engaged Catholic youth are but a small minority in a secular society, but they represent a creative minority nevertheless. For my part, I remain deeply encouraged by the faithful witness of the young. As I recall my time at Lourdes, I offer again my prayer of thanksgiving: Vous m'avez fait croire. Merci.