Friday, January 20, 2017

On the inauguration of a new president.



This is the second time that I've been in Washington on Inauguration Day. George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States early in my last semester in college; I thought about making the trek from Georgetown to the Mall to witness the inauguration in person, but I ended up watching it on TV in my dorm room. Sixteen years later, living in Washington once again and having a second chance to attend a presidential inauguration, I decided that I should go. Regardless of one's personal politics, all Americans have reason to be proud of the rituals that attend the inauguration of a new president, for they remind us that the peaceful transfer of power remains a hallmark of our political system. In a world where political change often comes about through violence and the shedding of blood, the extraordinary stability of American democracy is something for which we can be grateful. Donald J. Trump has often courted controversy as a presidential candidate, and he may continue to do so as the 45th President of the United States; the fact that we have enjoyed a greater measure of stability than other nations does not mean that American politics are not contentious, or that national unity is easily restored after the rancor of a bitterly-contested election. What it does mean, however, is that our resilient Republic has the strength to persevere in spite of ongoing debates and divisions. On Inauguration Day, I thank God for that. AMDG.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Be True To Your School.



As another year comes to an end, here is a different sort of item, posted simply because I like it. Robert Frost once urged that "if you have to love something, you could do worse than to give your heart to a college." I imagine that Brian Wilson and Mike Love were making a similar point regarding high schools when they wrote "Be True To Your School," which became an early hit for The Beach Boys in the Fall of 1963. I came to appreciate the song in a new way when I discovered this 2010 cover by the Brooklyn-based band Oberhofer, perhaps because the disarming simplicity of Oberhofer's rendition gives the song a plaintive yet winsome quality that I don't readily associate with the original. In any case, I hope that some will enjoy this as much as I did, and I extend my best wishes to all as 2016 yields to 2017. AMDG.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The power to become children of God.



The following is the text, more or less, of a homily that I gave this morning at the Mass of Christmas Day at St. Rose of Lima Church in Rochester, Massachusetts. The Gospel reading appointed for this Mass comes from the Prologue of John's Gospel (Jn 1:1-18), which forms the core of my reflection.

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Christmas is a time for stories. If your experience is anything like mine, your memories of Christmas involve the sharing of stories. For many of us, this means retelling stories of how we have spent Christmas with family and friends, reminiscing about where we were and who we were with when we celebrated Christmas in years past. The best stories are the ones we never tire of retelling, the ones we look forward to hearing again. Sharing these stories over and over again can be a way of reminding ourselves of the many gifts that we celebrate at Christmas: the gifts of family and fellowship, the gifts of kindness and of caring for one another, and the gift of coming together to break bread and to give thanks for the blessings we have received.

Many of us look forward to Christmas not simply for the opportunity to come together and to celebrate, but also to hear some of our favorite stories over again. I don't just mean the stories we tell at Christmas dinner, but the stories that we read and the stories that we see on stage or on television. Some may look forward to reading again the opening lines of The Night Before Christmas – lines that many of us probably know by heart: "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." Perhaps you look forward to once again seeing Dickens's A Christmas Carol, or to watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or – dare I say it – A Christmas Story.

As great as all these stories can be, the greatest story of Christmas is the one that we gather here in this church to remember, the story at the heart of our faith. It's a better story than all the others, because it happens to be true. It's a story that changed the world forever, a story that gave us a new way of understanding our relationship with God and with one another. It's the story of how, out of love for humankind, the God that we worship chose to become a human being, to share in our humanity and to share with us the gift of his divinity. In the collect, the opening prayer of today's Mass, we find a reminder of what Christmas is all about. The collect tells us that God "who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature . . . still more wonderfully restored it" in the person of Jesus Christ. In the same prayer, we ask "that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."

In one of the other prayers of this Mass, the preface at the start of the Eucharistic Prayer, we are reminded again of God's extraordinary decision to enter into our world. As the preface puts it, "though [God was] invisible in his own nature, he has appeared visibly in ours," and though he was "begotten before all ages, he has begun to exist in time." We may be tempted to think of this poetic language as something abstract, something totally removed from our day-to-day lives, but I want to invite you to think about what this means for you, for your family and friends, and for all the people you know. What difference does it make that God chose to become like us, in all ways but sin? What difference does it make for us that our God knows what it is like to be hungry and thirsty, to have to work to support himself and to find a place to live? What difference does it make for us that our God knows what it is like to experience human sorrow, to be disappointed, to suffer pain, and to die?

The Gospel reading provided for the Mass of Christmas Day speaks about the difference that all of this makes. It may seem a bit strange that today's Gospel doesn't give us the familiar account of how Mary and Joseph sought a place to stay in Bethlehem, or how the shepherds heard about the Savior's birth from the angel. As you may know, the readings and the prayers that the Church provides for Christmas are different depending on which Mass you attend, and different parts of the story of the birth of Jesus are told at each of the Christmas Masses. If you attend the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve, the Gospel reading recounts the genealogy of Jesus, followed by the dream that convinced Joseph to accept Mary as his wife (Mt 1:1-25). The Gospel at Midnight Mass describes the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem and the words announced by the angel to the shepherds: "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord" (Lk 2:1-14). The Roman Missal also provides for a Mass at Dawn, celebrated as the sun rises on Christmas morning. The Gospel for that Mass continues the story heard midnight, recounting how the shepherds heeded the message of the angel and visited Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus in the manger (Lk 2:15-20). Finally, at this Mass, the one provided for Christmas Day, we hear the Prologue of the Gospel of John, which puts the story of the birth of Jesus into a broader perspective.

The Evangelist John reminds us that Jesus is the Incarnate Word, who existed from the beginning of time with God the Father. As John writes, "All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be" (Jn 1:3). The Evangelist recalls the testimony of another John – John the Baptist – who spoke not only about the coming of Jesus but also of the opposition he would face. John preached that Jesus was "the true light, which enlightens everyone," and yet when he came, "the world did not know him," and "his own people did not accept him" (Jn 1:9-11). Even so, John promises, "to those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God . . . [for] the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us . . ." (Jn 1:12-14).

For the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us. To return again to a question that I posed a few moments ago, what difference does it make for us that God became a human being and dwelt among us? If we take an honest look at the state of the world, we find that there are still many who do not know the true light, or have not accepted him. I suspect that we have all seen images of churches in Iraq and Syria that have been destroyed by ISIS, and more recently we may have seen images of the funeral of twenty-five Coptic Christians killed two weeks ago in an attack on a cathedral in Egypt. There are still many places in the world where openly professing faith in Christ can lead to persecution and even to martyrdom. Closer to home, we are perhaps most threatened not by persecution but by indifference – by the fact that many simply are not interested in the message of Christ. Over two thousand years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it remains the case that "the world did not know him," and that "his own people did not accept him."

Considering the challenges that we face, it's important to remember once again the promise made to us in today's Gospel: "But to those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God." So great was God's desire to make us his children that he chose to take on our human condition, becoming more like us so that we could become more like him. We may consider ourselves unworthy of this gift; we may hold back on account of our own awareness of our own sinfulness, or out of a feeling that we'll never really be holy enough. But if the Church were a place only for the perfect, none of us would be here. Whenever we wonder whether or not we're really worthy to become children of God, we ought to consider how God came into the world and who welcomed him when he appeared. Joseph and Mary were people of modest means, a mere carpenter and his wife, who welcomed the birth of their son far from home and soon had to flee to another country. After his parents, the first people to see Jesus after he was born were not people of wealth or influence, but shepherds tending their flock by night. When the newborn king received a visit from someone we might think of as important, it wasn’t the Jewish religious authorities or Roman political leaders who came to see him – it was the Magi, foreigners in the land of Israel who had come from far away, guided by a star. These were the unlikely people whom the Son of God called to himself, just as he calls each of us today.

In being received by the Son, we are also received by the Father – the Evangelist John reminds us that it is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who reveals the Father to us (Jn 1:18). The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews makes a similar promise, telling us that, though "God spoke in partial and various ways . . . through the prophets," he has spoken in the present age through his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Jesus Christ shows us the way to the Father, and in so doing he gives us the power to become God's children. By coming to Mass and participating in the life of the Church, by seeking to imitate the example of Christ and by following his teaching, we have been given the means to reach the goal of eternal life. God has offered us the invitation, but how we respond is up to us.

What difference, then, does faith in Christ make? For us, it makes all the difference in the world. Today, as we celebrate Christmas with family and friends, we celebrate the many gifts that God has given us. Above all, we celebrate the gift that we all received long ago in a manger in Bethlehem – the gift of a child who invites us all to become God’s children.

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Peace and good wishes to all who read these lines. AMDG.

A new and wondrous mystery.


Having returned from Midnight Mass and before going to bed, I would like to repeat the annual tradition of this blog by extending to all readers my prayerful best wishes for Christmas and by sharing a portion 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.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

On preaching to "Christmas Catholics."



This year, I'll be preaching on Christmas Day for the first time. As I prepare to do so, I'm mindful of the fact that there are many people who come to Mass at Christmas but seldom go to church otherwise. Thinking about how best to speak to those "Christmas Catholics," I find myself recalling some words from Father Michael Paul Gallagher, an Irish Jesuit who died last year. In this video produced in 2012, Father Gallagher speaks about the challenge of preaching to infrequent churchgoers at Christmas. He also reflects thoughtfully on what draws "Christmas Catholics" to church, even if only one day a year:
At Christmas, in church you can sometimes have more than half your congregation who are not there on a regular basis – and that’s just a pastoral fact. Why do they come? They come because of a memory – perhaps a memory of childhood; they come because, even though they might classify themselves as 'de-churched' or 'unchurched' or somewhat very unsure about faith, because they glimpse something big here that isn't just a family celebration. It's a moment that can touch them...
Whether you go to church often, occasionally, or not at all, I hope that you can experience some of the joy of Christmas. I also hope that, just a few hours from now, I will have something worthwhile to say to those who seldom find themselves in a pew, and that I might confirm for them that there is "something big here" that calls them back. AMDG.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Remembering Father Kolvenbach.



In spite of major events like the U.S. presidential election, this blog has been silent over the past month as I contend with various academic projects. I expect to remain busy in the coming weeks, but I think it's important to write here with some news that touches in a significant way upon my life as a Jesuit: Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the 29th Superior General of the Society of Jesus, died on Saturday in Beirut at the age of 87. Father Kolvenbach was General of the Society when I entered the novitiate and resigned his office while I was in philosophy studies, meaning that my earliest years as a Jesuit took place during his generalate. Though I've seen the election of two superiors general since then - Father Adolfo Nicolás in 2008 and, last month, Father Arturo Sosa - the fact that Father Kolvenbach was the first General of my Jesuit life gives him a special place in my heart and memory.

As Superior General of the Society from 1983 to 2008, Father Kolvenbach led the Society of Jesus through a period of great challenge and opportunity. Elected in the aftermath of Pope John Paul II's intervention into the governance of the Order, Father Kolvenbach applied the diplomatic finesse and tact he had honed as a missionary in war-torn Lebanon to the task of restoring trust between the Holy See and the Society. In his twenty-five years as General, Kolvenbach faced the challenge of changing demographics as the number of Jesuits in Europe and North America fell and vocations boomed in Africa and Asia and responded to new geopolitical realities as the fall of the Iron Curtain gave the Society greater freedom of action in the former Soviet bloc.

Though the General of the Society is elected for life, as he reached his ninth decade Father Kolvenbach sought and received permission from Pope Benedict XVI to resign his office and allow for the election of a new General. Returning to Beirut after his resignation, Father Kolvenbach quietly resumed the scholarly study of Armenian linguistics and literature that had occupied him before he was called to positions of leadership in the Society. Always humble and unassuming, Father Kolvenbach reportedly responded to the election a few weeks ago of Father Arturo Sosa as the new Jesuit general not by offering his own advice or personal opinion but by sending his successor a one-sentence note promising prayers.

As I pray for the repose of Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, I also pray also that many other Jesuits will be inspired to emulate his exemplary characteristics - brilliance balanced by humility, a sharp memory matched by great discretion, and a notable simplicity of life combined with gracious generosity. May his memory be eternal! AMDG.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Dies irae, dies illa.



As is now my annual custom, I am marking All Souls' Day by reposting a translation of the Latin sequence for All Souls that I made a few years ago. The translation below as well as my commentary are identical with what I have provided in years past; I still hope to eventually revise the translation, but for now I hope that my annual reposting of this text is helpful and edifying to some readers.

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 some days when only chant will do - and for me this is one of those days.

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 sense of the original faithfully and in a style that flows well in English 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.

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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 25, 2016

The new St. Elias.



At the start of October, I flew from Washington to Toronto for the consecration of the new temple of St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church by His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Patriarch of Kyiv and Halych. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that St. Elias was destroyed by fire two years ago, a tragedy from which this resilient community quickly rebounded with the help of friends and supporters in Canada, Ukraine, and around the world. As a student of theology in Toronto, I worshipped regularly with the people of St. Elias for two years in the old temple and then served them as a deacon and as a priest during the two years that they met for Sunday services in a high school atrium while a new church was being built. Given my relationship with the community, I knew that I ought to return for the consecration of the new church. The weekend was a whirlwind of activity and a time of much grace and consolation, and the difficulty of finding words to capture the experience is one reason that I haven't written about it on this blog until now - indeed, even though it's been a bit more than three weeks since the event, I'm still not sure that I can summon adequate words to describe it.



To give a sense of what the consecration of the new St. Elias was like, this video by Markian Radomskiy offers some highlights of the four-hour consecration liturgy, compressed into about thirty-five minutes. Particularly worth watching and hearing is the very eloquent homily given by Patriarch Sviatoslav, mostly in English but with some Ukrainian, beginning around the 19'09" mark. Though nothing can compete with the experience of actually attending such a liturgy, the Patriarch's warmth and charisma and the joy of the assembled congregation are palpable even through the mediation of technology.



Though the consecration liturgy was beautiful, in some sense for me the liturgical highlight of the weekend was the celebration of regular Saturday evening vespers later the same day. In contrast with the boisterous and exuberant consecration liturgy, the service of vespers was quiet and meditative; having attended vespers regularly in the old church, doing so in the newly-consecrated temple felt to me like a sort of homecoming - a sign that the parish had truly returned to the place where it belongs again after a time of exile. Even though the new church building remains relatively spartan and unfinished, at times during vespers that night it felt like the last two years had somehow been cancelled and that we'd never really left the old church.



I can't write as articulately or eloquently as I would like about the consecration weekend and what it meant for all involved, but I can share one more video that captures an important facet of the experience. Psalm 104 (numbered Psalm 103 by the reckoning followed at St. Elias) is always sung at the start of the Byzantine service of vespers, and the version heard here is the one normally heard at St. Elias. I shot this video with my phone, and I'll admit that the picture quality isn't the best; this was a candlelit service in semidarkness, so you really can't see very much. Rather than focus on what you can't see, pay attention to what you hear - this, for me, is the sound of St. Elias, and hearing it in the new temple was a blessing that I'll never forget. I pray that the graces of that weekend will remain with all who experienced them for years to come, and I hope that those who read this post can perceive some fragment of those graces as well. AMDG.