Saturday, July 31, 2010

The beginning and the end of things.

Today is St. Ignatius' Day, an occasion which always (and unsurprisingly) leads me to reflect on how my Jesuit vocation has developed over time. One of the major themes of my eight-day retreat this year was what I like to describe as "the inscrutability of the call" - each vocation is in some sense a great mystery, shaped by factors that seem contingent or random but are nonetheless crucial. For me, it made all the difference that I met particular Jesuits (Tom King, Ron Murphy, Jim Schall, Joe Fitzmyer, and some others) in a particular place (Georgetown) at a particular time in my life (my undergraduate years). If any of these factors had been varied, I don't think my life would have moved in the direction that it has. One could easily chalk it all up to chance, but one could also say that it all unfolded according to God's inscrutable plan. Digitus Dei est hic.

The festal observances that I'm taking part in today in Innsbruck include a special lunch at the Jesuitenkolleg (in Austria, the main meal is generally taken at midday rather than in the evening) and a solemn liturgy at the Jesuitenkirche next door. The diverse group of Jesuits gathered here for St. Ignatius' Day present something like a micocosm of much of the international Society of Jesus - we have men from five continents, ranging in age from their late-twenties to mid-nineties, employed in various apostolates and representing a variety of theological opinions. Each one of the Jesuits gathered here today is different and unique, and the call to follow Christ came to each of us in a unique and wholly inscrutable way. God has called each of us in a different way, yet He has also called us together - and so we gather today, united in adoration of the same mystery.

For me, Innsbruck has been a particular good place to reflect on the mystery of this vocation. In a special way, I think, the Jesuitenkirche invites reflection on the beginning and the end of a Jesuit vocation. The splendid Baroque architecture and characteristically Jesuit iconography of the Jesuitenkirche call to mind the high ideals and spiritual chivalry that inspired St. Ignatius of Loyola and, in some sense, continue to inspire men to enter the Society of Jesus. The church also offers a poignant reminder of the cost of discipleship: a marble plaque beside one of the side altars remembers three Jesuits who were martyred for their outspoken opposition to National Socialism: Father Alois Grimm, Father Johann Steinmayr, and Father Johann Schwingshackl. These three men were far from the only Jesuit victims of the Nazis, but they are remembered in a special way here because they all had connections to Innsbruck; one of them, Johann Schwingshackl, now rests in the crypt of the Jesuitenkirche.

Father Schwingshackl is one of many Jesuits whose mortal remains lie in the crypt of the Jesuitenkirche. Some other well-known Jesuits are also buried here - Karl Rahner and the liturgical theologian Josef Andreas Jungmann are perhaps the most famous - but the vast majority are priests and brothers who worked quietly in Innsbruck and the surrounding area without ever receiving much attention or making much of a fuss about themselves. Regardless of their personal renown or lack thereof, all of the Jesuits buried here rest behind identical wooden gravemarkers listing their names and the dates of their birth and death. The simplicity and uniformity of the gravemarkers reminds us that, whatever led us to the Society of Jesus and whatever we may accomplish individually as Jesuits, we all end up in the same place.

On this Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I pray in gratitude for the gift of my vocation. I pray also for all my brother Jesuits - past, present, and future - that the Society of Jesus may be for all of us a help to salvation and a means of doing God's will. Finally, I pray for the readers of this blog and for all who find inspiration in Ignatian spirituality - as I pray for you, I ask also that you pray for me and for the members of the Society as we remember our founder. AMDG.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Two weeks ago, the Jesuits studying German for the summer in Innsbruck made a daytrip to the ancient city of Brixen in South Tyrol, long under Habsburg rule but ceded to Italy following Austria's defeat in the First World War. Though South Tyrol had an overwhelmingly German-speaking population and had been linked with the Holy Roman Empire and its successor states for hundreds of years, the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini tried to "Italianize" South Tyrol by making Italian place names official (hence Brixen is also known as Bressanone), banning the teaching of German in schools (leading local residents to organize clandestine Katakombenschulen where German was taught in secret), and offering incentives for Italian-speakers to settle in the region. In spite of all this, Brixen and South Tyrol have retained a solid German-speaking majority to the present day; all street signs are bilingual (see above) but German is still the language one hears most often on the streets, as well as the language that three-quarters of Brixen's residents speak at home.

My visit to Brixen was part of an excursion organized by the rector of the Jesuitenkolleg, a native of South Tyrol who chose to enter the Society of Jesus in Austria while retaining Italian citizenship. (The rector's story is far from unique: a fair number of Jesuits in the Austrian Province come from South Tyrol.) It is easy to see why locals would take pride in a place like Brixen and would want to show it off to foreign visitors - the compact city center is made up of mostly pedestrianized streets, small squares with fountains in the middle, and plenty of charming old houses with balconies overlooking the narrow streets. Attractions like these are liable to attract tourists, of whom there were a few on the Saturday that I visited Brixen. The city center was still far less congested than the more touristy parts of Innsbruck, and most of the readily identifiable out-of-towners were speaking German or Italian. The general impression that I came away with is that Brixen is a city that few American travelers would think to visit, which made me all the more grateful that I had an opportunity to see the place.

One of the highlights of our visit to Brixen was a stop at the Brixner Dom, the city's historic Catholic cathedral. The present-day Diocese of Bozen-Brixen traces it origins back to the 6th century, and there has been a church on the site of the current cathedral for nearly a thousand years. The cathedral's frescoed medieval cloisters deserve a post of their own; for now, the last photo in this set offers a kind of sneak preview. The cloisters rest in the shadow of a majestic Baroque structure consecrated in 1758, of which you may find exterior and interior photos above.

The Brixner Dom lacks a crypt, but several former bishops are interred beneath the polished stone floor of the nave; some of the grave markers bear the words "et Princeps," a reminder that the Bishop of Brixen was once a secular leader as well as a religious one. A plaque mounted on the wall outside the entrance to the cathedral (furthest to the left in the second to last photo) recalls that one 11th century bishop of Brixen became pope, reigning for twenty-three days as Damasus II before dying of malaria. In comparatively more recent times, as attested by the two plaques beside the one commemorating Pope Damasus II, the Brixner Dom has also enjoyed visits from Popes Pius VI (in 1782) and Benedict XVI (in 2008). In short, the Brixner Dom is a very beautiful church with a rich history.

Stay tuned for more reports on my travels. I haven't left Innsbruck since making the trip to Brixen two weeks ago - my studies have been keeping me fully occupied- but I do hope to do a little more travel in the surrounding regions once I'm done with my German course. In the meantime, you can expect a few more updates on my progress here. If you're so inclined, please spare a prayer for me and my fellow students at the Jesuitenkolleg as we continue to grapple with the wonders and mysteries of the German language. AMDG.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Refilling empty pews?

As a young Jesuit preparing for priestly ordination, the future of the Catholic Church naturally interests me a great deal. Having been born and raised in Massachusetts, an erstwhile bastion of a particularly robust brand of cultural Catholicism, I often wonder what the Church in the area where I grew up will look like a few years from now. This concern shows up from time to time in the posts I write for this blog. In the past, I've offered some reflections on the Pew Forum surveys and their data suggesting a sharp decline in the number of New England residents who identify as Catholics; I've also posted some reflections on the future of "B+ Catholics" and the endurance of cultural Catholicism even among Catholics who never go to church. With all of this in mind, I would like to call your attention to an article in today's Boston Globe on a new effort by the Archdiocese of Boston to reach out to lapsed or inactive Catholics. Here are some excerpts:
The Archdiocese of Boston, in an effort to bring lapsed Catholics back to church, is planning a major public relations campaign in the coming year that will use television ads, parish events, and personal invitations to urge inactive Catholics to “come home’’ to their faith.

The campaign is planned as the Catholic Church faces huge challenges. Nationally, 10 percent of all American adults are former Catholics, according to a recent study. In the Boston Archdiocese, weekly Mass attendance has plunged from 376,383 in 2000 to 286,951 last year, according to the church’s own annual count.

“Each time we go to Mass. . . . the pews seem emptier and emptier,’’ said Janet Benestad, secretary for faith formation and evangelization at the archdiocese. The goal of the campaign, she said, “is to say to folks, ‘We are diminished by your absence . . . and we want to issue a genuine invitation to return to the practice of the faith.’ ’’

. . .

Evangelization is a major priority for Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, who has already launched programs intended to bring Catholics back to confession and spur small group meetings among Catholics. Now the archdiocese is planning to join with “Catholics Come Home,’’ a national nonprofit organization of Catholic laypeople that says it has helped bring 200,000 people back to church in a dozen US dioceses over the last three years.

. . .

The Boston Archdiocese plans to deploy a variety of strategies to reach people who have left the church, including doorbelling, hosting events, and publishing literature in print and online, said David Thorp, who will run the program. The archdiocese will also field phone calls and online inquiries about the teachings of the faith, including about remarriage and the sexual abuse crisis, two subjects that often prompt questions from Catholics.

The “Catholics Come Home’’ program has won praise elsewhere in the country. The Diocese of Phoenix reported a 12 percent increase in Mass attendance six months after implementing the program; according to the diocese’s calculations, it spent $1.63 on television ads for each person brought back to church.

In Texas, the Diocese of Corpus Christi ran about 2,500 commercials during Lent this year; parishes reported a 17 percent increase in English-speaking Mass attendance and 16 percent in Spanish-speaking Masses.
To read the rest of the article, click here. At first glance, bringing the Catholics Come Home campaign to Boston seems like a good idea. I know very little about Catholics Come Home as an organization, but the campaign website strikes me as very impressive - it provides a lot of information, presented in a user-friendly format, with a fine blend of frankness and tact. Even so, I doubt that media campaigns like this one can work effectively without a strong commitment by individual parishes to actively welcome lapsed Catholics who now want to "come home" to active practice. Thus, I humbly hope and pray that this new initiative includes solid follow-up at the local level.

In case the above paragraphs raise any doubts, I should say that I will write more about my time in Innsbruck. For now I'm busy studying for a Prüfung (that is, a test) on all the material covered during the first two-and-a-half weeks of my German course. After I take the test tomorrow, I hope to have the time to produce some more detailed posts on Innsbruck. Until then, your prayers would be very much appreciated. AMDG.
The above photo of empty church pews may be found on Flickr.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Maronite nuns seek home on SouthCoast.

One of the benefits of living in the age of Internet is being able to keep up with news from around the world. Whenever I have easy and reliable access to the Internet and insofar as my schedule permits it, I try to take a brief daily glance at my hometown newspaper, the New Bedford Standard-Times. I've been able to keep to this routine in Innsbruck, which is how I came across this article in yesterday's edition about a new and still very small group of Maronite religious sisters that is seeking a home in Southeastern Massachusetts. Here's an excerpt:
The first Maronite congregation of active religious sisters in the United States would like to settle in SouthCoast.

Seeking property suitable for a monastery, the Maronite Servants of Christ the Light wish to relocate in a pastoral setting, offering a house with 5 to 10 acres of land.

The sisters live the communal life through a balanced rhythm of contemplative prayer, work, study, meals, fellowship and recreation, silence and solitude, exercise, leisure and rest.

"We need plenty of space to walk, garden, set up a shrine and the privacy we would want to have for our way of living," said Mother Marla Marie Lucas, foundress of the order.

The convent will need a guest parlor to greet visitors, a library and ample reserved space for the privacy of the sisters.

"It has to have that sort of potential," she said.

The place where young women will discern and begin their journey in religious life, the monastery also will serve as a gathering place for the faithful, offering conferences and retreats.

"We are called to be the spiritual mothers of our people, to nurture them in the spiritual life and be available to them," Lucas said.

Logistically, SouthCoast is strategically placed.

"We have many parishioners here and are readily accessible to three of our parishes," she said.

In full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, the parishes are Our Lady of Purgatory Maronite Church in New Bedford, St. Anthony of the Desert Maronite Church in Fall River, and St. George Maronite Church in Pawtucket, R.I.

Six other parishes are within commuting distance. The diocese, the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn, covers 16 states.

So far, the sisters have placed one bid on a local property.
To read the rest of the article, click here. You can also learn more about the Maronite Servants of Christ the Light by taking a look at their website. I hope that the sisters' plans come to fruition, as Southeastern Massachusetts could benefit from the presence of a contemplative religious community with Eastern Christian roots. May the Maronite Servants find the home that they are seeking on the SouthCoast, and may God bless their efforts. AMDG.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Here's me overseas . . .

. . . 'cross the Pond, by the Alps if not by the Dover Peaks (which I've also been photographed in front of, purely for the sake of a musical reference which will likely be lost on most readers). This photo was taken on the roof of the Jesuitenkolleg in Innsbruck, my base until late August. The Jesuit presence in Innsbruck dates back to 1562, when St. Peter Canisius established a Jesuit college at the invitation of Emperor Ferdinand I. The institution that Canisius founded survives to this day as the Akademisches Gymnasium Innsbruck, which is no longer under Jesuit administration but remains one of the leading secondary schools in Western Austria. The Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Innsbruck also traces its origins to the Jesuit college founded in 1562, though the university itself wasn't founded until 1669. The building that you see behind me in the above photo is the Jesuitenkirche, built during the first half of the 17th century and administered by the Society of Jesus for the better part of four hundred years. Suffice it to say, then, that the Jesuits have deep roots here in Innsbruck.

The German-language program that I'm enrolled here lives up to its billing as an "intensive" course, as most of my waking hours over the past couple of weeks have been occupied with some form of study. On weekdays I have three hours of class before lunch, with several pages of grammar exercises assigned each day for homework. As always, Jesuit community life provides a mix of blessings and challenges. The permanent community at the Jesuitenkolleg is made up of around thirty men representing various ages, backgrounds and apostolic commitments; while a majority are linked to the University of Innsbruck as students or teachers, others are engaged in various apostolates in the area or live in active retirement. In addition to the regular apostolic community here, the Jesuitenkolleg is currently home to a dozen young Jesuits from around the world who have come here to study German for the summer. The global dimension of the Society of Jesus is accordingly very palpably present here.

Though community life here has been very enjoyable for me, trying to learn a new language in an environment like this one brings two distinct challenges. On the one hand, living in a German-speaking Jesuit community has forced me to stretch myself by communicating throughout the day in a language that I'm only beginning to learn; in other words, my daily immersion in German begins the moment that I sit down at the breakfast table and continues until I've said Gute Nacht to the Austrian Jesuit I cross paths with in the kitchen when we're both looking for a midnight snack. At the same time, though, the pervasiveness of English in a globalized world makes true immersion in another language practically impossible. While many (but not all) of the local Jesuits speak English, the language is also a lingua franca among the international Jesuits who are here to study German - it may be a second, third or fourth language for most, but it's still the most widely-shared common language in the group. Tired by the rigors of study and limited in our ability to express ourselves in German, we can too easily succumb to the temptation to withdraw into an Anglophone bubble.

Soon I hope to write in greater detail about my experiences here, but for now I wanted to at least post some general thoughts to let readers of this blog know that I haven't forgetten them. Until my next update, please know of my prayers for all readers and please pray for me and my fellows as we continue our studies. AMDG.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Across the Sea.

In just a few hours, I'll be boarding a plane to Frankfurt on my way to Innsbruck for six weeks of intensive German language study. A lot has been going through my mind as I prepare for this trip, though I've been a bit too preoccupied with the practical details of packing and the like to try to synthesize my thoughts for this blog. I do hope to post occasional updates during my time in Austria, so stay tuned.

In lieu of further reflections at the start of my journey, perhaps you might appreciate this solo piano rendition of the song that gave this post its title. The fifth song on the 1996 Weezer album Pinkerton, "Across the Sea" remains (at least by my lights) the best song that Rivers Cuomo has ever written; it also sounds great on piano, though the sound recording on this video could be better. In any case, Auf Wiedersehen until next week. AMDG.