Monday, January 28, 2008

Notes on the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Today the Roman Catholic Church honors the memory of the 13th-century Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and patron saint of philosophers, theologians, and scholars in general. It would be difficult to overstate the influence that St. Thomas had on the development of Catholic doctrine or on the history of Western philosophy. The complete works of Aquinas are remarkably numerous for a man who died before the age of fifty, and the breadth and depth of questions considered in Aquinas' Summa Theologiae and other texts remains impressive. Though Aquinas' work was controversial during his lifetime, in death he would win recognition as the greatest theologian in the Christian West since St. Augustine of Hippo. Aquinas also helped to reintroduce Aristotle to Western European readers after many centuries in which the works of the ancient Greek philosopher were presumed to have been lost. I could say a lot more about Aquinas, but instead I'll simply refer you to the weblog of the English Dominican Students, who have posted a fine appreciation of their brother in religion.

I've had ample opportunity to study the works of Thomas Aquinas in various courses, first at Georgetown and Notre Dame and now again at Fordham. In some ways, I feel like I've gotten to know Aquinas well. Nonetheless, I realize that he still has a lot more to teach me. Today, I pray that St. Thomas Aquinas will intercede for me and my fellow Jesuit scholastics as we go about our mission of studies. I pray that we might acquire some small share of the wisdom that God granted to St. Thomas, and I pray too that we will put this knowledge to good use in our future apostolic endeavors. AMDG.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The new General meets the press.

Just short of a week after his election as Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Adolfo Nicolás gave his first official press conference yesterday. The new General touched on a range of topics, from the state of relations between the Vatican and the Jesuit Order to the ways in which the decades he spent in Japan changed his outlook. He also spoke candidly and humorously about the unaccustomed attention he has received from the media since his election:
Father Nicolás said that since his election, he had been reading the newspapers more than usual and has found some of the comments about his election entertaining, some absolutely false and others right on the mark.

He said that a Spanish newspaper had been looking for his report card from a school he attended only one year at the age of 10.

"It's terrible, that year I failed two subjects - geography and another that I don't remember," he said.

Other newspapers, he said, have tried to imply that there is "a theological distance between me and (Pope) Benedict XVI," when, in fact, Father Nicolás' own theological studies included the then-Father Ratzinger's textbooks, which "were highly interesting and had a newness and an inspiration that all of us recognized."

"The distance is a theory in the imagination of those who have written it," the superior general said.

He said he had read several articles comparing him to Father Pedro Arrupe, who led the Jesuits [from] 1965-83, and Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, his immediate predecessor.

"However, no one has yet said I'm 10 percent Elvis Presley, although one could say this and it wouldn't surprise me. But I think this is all false," he added.
Father Nicolás also responded directly to concerns regarding Jesuits' obedience to the Pope, a topic that the Holy Father himself has raised in recent days and which many commentators had hoped the new General would address. "The Society of Jesus wants to cooperate with the Vatican and obey the Holy Father," the General said. "This has not and will not change. We were born in this context, and this is the context that will determine our actions." Father Nicolás also stated that his immediate priority as leader of the Society is "to listen to what the General Congregation wants, how we will respond to the conversation and challenges the Holy Father addressed to us and which we are taking very seriously in our reflections, how to respond to help the Church, not ourselves."

What specific response will the 35th General Congregation offer to the needs of the Church today and to the Society's own internal challenges? At this point, it's too soon to say. As a Jesuit, I have no "insider information" to rely upon beyond occasional electronic reports, the content of which differs little from that which is available to the general public. As has been the case with previous General Congregations, the story behind the decrees of GC35 will not really be known until the Congregation concludes and the various delegates return to their home provinces and start to share their impressions and reflections more fully. I look forward to reading the documents that will be produced by this Congregation, and I look forward to hearing more about the process from the delegates that I know. In the meantime, I'll be praying for the work of GC35, and I hope you'll join me in doing so. AMDG.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Cardinal Newman "saintly, but very human."

This week's issue of The Tablet has a thoughtful article on the long-anticipated beatification of John Henry Newman, which will apparently take place this year. Monsignor Roderick Strange, the rector of the Pontifical Beda College and author of a newly-published book on Newman, believes that the life story of the convert-cardinal confirms the verdict of Pope Benedict XVI that "holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned." However, holiness does consist in faithfully following God in spite of the challenges and setbacks one may encounter. In this sense, as Monsignor Strange writes, Newman provides an inspiration and a model:
In particular there is [Newman's] witness to holiness, his fidelity throughout a long, often difficult, life. As an Anglican, the hopes he had cherished for the Church of England collapsed and his reception into the Catholic Church brought about a terrible parting from many of his dearest friends.

Then during his Catholic years he had to endure persistent hardships: he was tried for libel and found guilty by a prejudiced jury; the university he founded in Dublin faltered because he was denied the support he needed to make the venture succeed; he was asked to become editor of the Catholic periodical The Rambler, but almost immediately, at the first hint of a problem, encouraged to resign; his plans for an Oratory in Oxford were mischeviously frustrated; and there were clashes as well with Manning and other famous converts such as Fr Faber and W.G. Ward.

Newman was not blameless in all these difficulties, but he remained faithful in following what he saw as God's will for him. In his Anglican days, he expressed the matter most simply: "The planting of Christ's Cross in the heart is sharp and trying; but the stately tree rears itself aloft, and has fair branches and rich fruit, and is good to look upon."

When Newman is beatified, we will have much to celebrate.
For the rest of the article, click here. Much of Monsignor Strange's focus is on Newman's journey from Anglicanism to Catholicism and on the implications that his beatification may have for relations between Catholics and Anglicans today. For my part, I'm delighted that Cardinal Newman's beatification is moving forward at last, and I'm looking forward to celebrating the event. AMDG.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A culture of life.

On this 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Catholics in the United States have been asked by our bishops to pray for an end to abortion. More specifically, the U.S. edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that this date "shall be observed as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life."

As we pray today for an end to abortion, we who describe ourselves as "pro-life" would do well to reflect on the responsibilities that come with this label. Many people on both sides of the abortion issue tend to frame the goals of the pro-life movement in legal and political terms. However, truly being "pro-life" means much more than seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade. To be pro-life is to desire - and to work for - a society that truly values human life at all stages. To be pro-life is not merely to challenge legal abortion and euthanasia, but to work for a society that truly cares for the most vulnerable persons among us. To be pro-life is to seek something far more radical than changes in law; to be pro-life is to seek to transform contemporary culture.

As Pope John Paul II very eloquently expressed, one of the key tasks facing Christians today is replacing a culture of death with a culture of life. The culture of death is reflected not merely in a direct assault on human life, but also in a much more subtle attack on human dignity. In a culture that prioritizes autonomy and the fulfillment of individual desires, the values of interdependence and self-sacrifice remain unacknowledged. In a society that applauds the youthful and the strong, the old and the weak find themselves increasingly unwelcome. With the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexuality, the value of relationships and the meaning of family become less apparent. The culture of death has many aspects, and any movement toward a culture of life must confront all of them.

We who seek a culture of life must be defined not merely but what we're against but by what we're for. On a very basic level, what we're for is a culture in which the full dignity of all persons is respected and in which all are valued. This goal will not be achieved through changes in law, but through the transformation of hearts. As a first step, I suggest that we each look within our own hearts and consider the ways in which we ourselves must be transformed. How does each one of us - self-described "pro-lifers" included - help to perpetuate a culture of death? How can each of us work toward a culture of life? My prayer for today is that all who read these lines (including myself as I write them) will have the courage to confront these questions. AMDG.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Self-taught lawyers disappearing.

I spotted the following item today in the online edition of the Boston Globe:
Beatrice Mayo practiced law in Maine for more than half a century before retiring in 1994. But she never spent a day in law school.

After high school, Mayo went to work for an attorney and took an interest in his law books. She took the bar exam in 1940.

"She was a very smart lady, and I think she was well enough prepared that she passed it on her first try," Lloyd Lindholm recalled of his aunt, who died late last year at 92. As for her lack of a law degree, he said: "I don't think she ever felt it was a deterrent."

Self-taught lawyers have all but vanished in recent years, ending a tradition stretching back to frontier days, when prospective attorneys "read the law" under the tutelage of a practicing lawyer. Most states now require law degrees to join the bar.

The best known self-taught attorney was Abraham Lincoln, who began his studies after getting elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1834. He borrowed legal books from a fellow lawmaker.

. . .

States that still allow law-office study include California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. The options are even fewer for correspondence study, which is allowed only in California, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia.

The number of self-taught lawyers has dropped, even as a wealth of material about the law has become available on the Internet.

Nationwide, only 44 applicants who did law-office study took the bar exam in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. Of those, 18 passed, a success rate of 41 percent, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

By contrast, 74,215 people with law school degrees took the test, and 71 percent were successful.
To read the rest of the article, click here. I was genuinely surprised to learn that people who "read law" the old-fashioned way can still be admitted to the bar in some states. My professors in law school gave me the impression that the self-taught lawyer was a vestige of the past, a relic that became obsolete with the growing professionalization of legal practice in the years after World War II. It doesn't take much reflection to realize that law professors would naturally have a strong interest in disabusing their students of the notion that one can practice law without having gone to law school.

On a practical level, I suspect that the career options for self-taught lawyers are limited even in jurisdictions where one can theoretically win admission to the bar without obtaining a law degree. We've moved beyond the point in history when a brilliant but largely self-taught polymath could be hired to teach at a prestigious university, and we've probably also moved beyond the point when a self-taught attorney could be hired by a major law firm or a public prosecutor's office.

Reading about the small number of bar applicants who did not attend law school, I wonder how many law-school graduates opt not to take the bar at all; I suspect there's a few of us in every graduating class of every law school in the United States. As for the truly committed individuals who read law privately, manage to pass the bar exam and find legal employment, I commend them for beating the odds and wish them the success that they richly deserve. AMDG.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A new General.

This morning in Rome, the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus elected Father Adolfo Nicolás as the 30th superior general of the Society. A 71-year-old Spaniard who has spent much of his Jesuit life in Japan, Father Nicolás has a keen understanding both of the universality of the Church and of the challenges that the contemporary Society faces in preaching the Gospel in a great variety of cultural and social environments. Though Father Nicolás comes well-prepared for the task of leading the Society of Jesus in the 21st century, the details of his biography link him with some of the Society's earliest traditions. As a Spaniard, he represents the nation that produced St. Ignatius of Loyola, five other Jesuit generals, and scores of Jesuit saints and beati. With his decades of experience in Japan, Father Nicolás also represents what might fairly be described as the Jesuit Order's lifelong love affair with the Far East.

Trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit, I believe that the General Congregation's choice of a new superior general is God's choice as well. Today I join with my brother Jesuits around the world in giving thanks to God for the election of our new leader and in praying for Father Nicolás as he begins his service as General. May God bless him and grant him all the grace that he needs to faithfully discharge the responsibilities that have been entrusted to him. AMDG.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Manner of Reaching a Decision in the Election of a General.

As I pray for the members of the 35th General Congregation as they prepare to elect a new superior general, I thought I should spend some time reflecting on the sections of the Jesuit Constitutions dealing with the election of the General. You might appreciate taking a look at these as well, and those of who you are praying for the Society in this time of transition may find the following text particularly helpful. Quoted below are excerpts from the text of Chapter 6 of Part VIII of the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, in the English translation issued by the Institute of Jesuit Sources in 1996. The title of Chapter 6 is, appropriately enough, "The Manner of Reaching a Decision in the Election of a General."

When the congregation has convened that was summoned to elect a new general after the death of his predecessor [or, in this case, after his predecessor's resignation], he who has been given the function of vicar should address all its members, four days before the election of the new general, exhorting them to make it in a way conducive to the greater service of God and the good governance of the Society. In addition to this day, they will have another period of three days to commend themselves to God and reflect better upon who in the whole Society might be most suitable for that office. They will seek to be informed by those capable of supplying good information but make no decision until they have entered and been locked into the place of the election.

. . .

On the day of the election, which will be that following the three mentioned, the Mass of the Holy Spirit should be said, and all should attend and receive Communion.

Later at the sound of the bell those with the right to vote should be summoned to the place of assembly. One of them should deliver a sermon in which he exhorts them in a general way, with no suggestion of alluding to any individual, to choose a superior such as is required for the greater divine service. After all together have recited the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, they should be locked inside the place of the congregation by one of the superiors or rectors or another member of the Society charged with this in the house where the assembly is held. They are enclosed in such a manner that they may not leave nor be given any food except bread and water until they have elected a general.

. . .

If all by a common inspiration should choose someone without waiting for the voting procedure, let him be the superior general, for the Holy Spirit who has moved them to such an election supplies for all procedures and arrangements.

When the election does not take place in that manner, the following procedure should be followed. First, each one should pray privately and, without speaking with anyone else, make the decision in the presence of his Creator and Lord on the basis of the information he has. He will write on a piece of paper the name of the person whom he chooses for superior general, and sign it with his name. One hour at most should be given for this. Thereupon all should reassemble in their seats. The vicar, together with a secretary to be chosen for this purpose from among the professed and by another to assist should arise and attest his wish to admit no one he should not, nor to include anyone. He should give to all general absolution from all censures for the purposes of the canonical election. After the grace of the Holy Spirit has been invoked, he should go with his companions to a table placed in the center. The three should request their votes from one another and before handing it over each should pronounce an oath that he is naming the man whom he judges in our Lord most fit for the office. The votes should be kept together in the hands of the secretary. Then they should request each member of the congregation to hand in his vote by himself and in the sight of all, similarly in writing and preceded by the same oath.

Afterwards in the presence of all the secretary should read the votes aloud, naming only the person chosen. Then the numbers should be compared with each other, and the person found to have more than half of all the votes is to be the superior general. Accordingly . . . [the vicar] will formulate the decree of election, saying:

"In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, I, N., in my own name and the name of all those who have the same opinion, elect N. as superior general of the Society of Jesus." This done, all should immediately step forward to do him reverence, kneeling on both knees they should kiss his hand. The person elected will not be able to refuse either the election or the reverence, calling to mind in whose name he is obliged to accept it. Then all should recite together the Te Deum laudamus.

Once again, I ask your prayers for the members of the 35th General Congregation as they carry out the grave responsibility of selecting a new leader for the Society of Jesus. AMDG.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The resignation of a General.

Today, the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus formally accepted Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach's request to resign as Superior General of the Society. Having served the Society very well for almost a quarter of a century, at the age of seventy-nine Father Kolvenbach is stepping aside so that a younger man may take up the challenge of leading the Jesuits in a new millennium. The General's request to resign reflects a prudential judgment that an orderly change in leadership of the Society would be preferable to the possibility of rule by an infirm superior general - a very real possibility, as Father Kolvenbach's two immediate predecessors (Pedro Arrupe and John Baptist Janssens) were both incapacitated by declining health while in office. Over the coming days, the members of the General Congregation will engage in a process of prayerful discernment (similar in some respects to the mechanism that governs the election of a pope) that will result in the election of a new superior general.

Hoping to ensure stable governance and to prevent frequent and potentially disruptive changes in leadership, St. Ignatius very wisely decreed in the Jesuit Constitutions that the General should be elected for life. Notwithstanding this rule, the General Norms that govern the Society's application of the Constitutions provide that the leader of the order "may nonetheless in good conscience and by law resign from his office for a grave reason that would render him permanently unequal to the labors of his post." In accordance with this provision and with the assent of Pope Benedict XVI, Father Kolvenbach is stepping aside so that the Society can elect a new leader who does not yet face the diminishment of old age.

Though some see Father Kolvenbach's resignation as a significant precedent, his decision does not alter the Society's venerable tradition of life tenure in the office of the superior general. In a real sense, the process now unfolding at the 35th General Congregation proves again the wisdom of St. Ignatius' plan for the governance of the Society of Jesus. In the text of the Constitutions, Ignatius balances a prudent concern for order and stability with a prescient recognition of the need for accommodation and flexibility. A shrewd administrator as well as a visionary leader, Ignatius believed that the order he founded could adapt to changing circumstances and needs without losing its charism or compromising its identity. In mandating the election of the superior general for a life term, our founder sought to help the Society of Jesus function more efficiently and hoped to avoid the factionalism that too-frequent elections could cause.

The provision of the General Norms that has made Father Kolvenbach's resignation possible reminds us why St. Ignatius wanted the superior general to be elected for life. Like all of the Society's structures, the institution of life tenure for the General is meant to help the Society carry out its mission of evangelization. When a General is elected, his mandate is to serve as long as he can effectively carry out the task of leadership entrusted to him. This may mean, as it has for most of the Society's history, that each man elected as General of the Society serves faithfully until the day of his death. At a more basic level, election for life really means election for as long as one's service furthers the magis. When the greater good of the Society and its mission would be better served by the election of a new General, the incumbent may feel that the time has come for him to request a replacement. Realizing when a General needs to step aside may always be easy; the line between 'excellent' and 'better' is often hard to locate. In bidding farewell to a man who has provided great leadership to the Society of Jesus, we must trust that his successor will be just as well-suited to present and future needs.

I hope that will you will join me in continuing to pray for the 35th General Congregation this week as the assembled delegates move toward the election of a new general. To learn more about this process, click here. For a précis of the qualities that St. Ignatius expected of the superior general of the Society, consider these remarks by Jesuit historian Father John Padberg. I'm sure I'll post further reflections on the election when I have more news. In the meantime, I'll be praying for the work of the Congregation and in gratitude for Father Kolvenbach's twenty-four years of faithful service as General of the Society. AMDG.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Back in the Bronx . . .

. . . and back to blogging, after an unanticipated two-week hiatus. The chief reason that this is the first post of 2008 is that I've been on the go nearly constantly since my last post and haven't spent much time before a computer screen. The Jesuit formation gathering at Milford went well - it was great to catch up with my classmates who are studying in Chicago, and the various presentations on the themes of communication (particularly preaching) were uniformly stimulating. I didn't make it to the Taft Museum, but I did get to see the Krohn Conservatory and had dinner one night with a few other Jesuits at a fine Thai restaurant in Cincinnati's Mount Adams neighborhood. After a brief return home to Massachusetts, I flew to Montreal where I met up with a couple other scholastics from Ciszek for a four-day visit to the community where I made my retreat last year. Undaunted by piles of snow and sub-zero temperatures, I took my companions to familiar sights (like the Oratory) as well as some I'd never seen before (such as the small but well-curated Musée Marguerite Bourgeoys). I also made what will almost certainly be my last visit to the Trappist monastery at Oka, which the monks are leaving behind this summer to take up residence in quieter and smaller premises elsewhere in Quebec. All told, I had an enjoyable break, and if I have the opportunity I may soon post some pictures.

Returning to New York earlier this week, I joined the rest of my cohorts from Ciszek Hall for our annual vow renovation triduum at Inisfada on Long Island. This three-day silent retreat gave us a chance to prayerfully reflect both on our individual progress in the vowed life and on the state of our life together in community. We also offered daily prayers during the retreat for the ongoing 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. The highest governing body in the Society, the General Congregation is expected to elect a successor to Father General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach and will likely issue documents on various areas of Jesuit life. To learn more about this General Congregation and its work, take a look at the GC35 websites hosted by the Jesuit Curia, the U.S. Jesuit Conference, the Jesuit Province of France, and Creighton University's Office of Collaborative Ministry. More importantly, please pray for the Society and its leaders during this time of discernment and transition. AMDG.