Monday, November 26, 2007

John Berchmans and Elizabeth Koczera.

Today is the Memorial of St. John Berchmans, a 17th century Jesuit remembered for his piety and his fidelity to the rules of the Society. Berchmans overcome parental opposition to the enter the Society of Jesus at the age of seventeen and died only five years later as a Jesuit scholastic studying in Rome. Some accounts of Berchmans' life claim that his death was hastened by the extreme effort he put into studying for the De Universa, the comprehensive oral examination that comes at the conclusion of a Jesuit's philosophy studies. John Berchmans may have been a model scholastic in many respects, but I hope my cohorts and I avoid following his example too closely when we're preparing to take the De U.

Today is also my sister's twentieth birthday. In a purely unintentional coincidence, Liz is spending her birthday this year not too far from John Berchmans' Belgian birthplace. I wish her well as she celebrates this happy day in the midst of what sounds like a very enjoyable sojourn in the Low Countries (extensively reported on her blog). I look forward to hearing more of her adventures, and I hope this birthday is one she'll remember fondly for years to come. AMDG.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

On Thanksgiving Day.

With a nod to Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac, here's a poem for today by John Greenleaf Whittier. You may wonder why "the dark Spanish maiden" and "the Creole of Cuba" appear in a Thanksgiving poem, but a reader of Whittier's time - around 1850, in this case - might not have wondered as much. Anyhow, here's "The Pumpkin" by John Greenleaf Whittier:
Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold,
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,
Like that which o'er Nineveh's prophet once grew,
While he waited to know that his warning was true,
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain.

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden;
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold;
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North,
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth,
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines,
And the sun of September melts down on his vines.

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored;
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin, - our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better
E'er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o'er its baking, than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!
Happy Thanksgiving! AMDG.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is the Church in Quebec headed for renewal?

Isabel de Bertodano asks the above question in the latest issue of The Tablet. She doesn't give a clear answer, but she does consider how two major events coming next year - an International Eucharistic Congress and the commemoration of Quebec City's 400th birthday - are bringing greater attention to Quebec's religious history. You need to register to read the Tablet article online, so here are representative snippets:
The Ursuline Museum in Quebec City has on display a belt made by the sisters in the seventeenth century. It emulates belts created by the native peoples the sisters encountered in New France. But the Ursuline sisters have adapted the traditional technique, replacing shellfish beads with glass beads imported from Europe, making the beads much lighter and less cumbersome to wear.

This blend of cultures, distilling what is best from each, encapsulates what the French, particularly the religious orders coming to the New World, attempted to do in the region. Although it is clear that the French considered themselves superior to the indigenous people (evident in their description of the native people as "savages"), instead of the brutal assimilation carried out by the English and Spanish on the native people further south, the French tried to operate a healthier system of exchange and profit.

As Quebec City prepares to celebrate the four-hundredeth anniversary of its foundation next year, there is an effort under way to remind the province of its ancestry and in particular to awaken pride for the role the Church played in the early days. For though social commentators assert that modern Quebec is one of the most secular places on earth, one does not have to bore deep to expose a rich seam of Catholic heritage. Just last week, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec, defended the role of religion in the province, telling a commission set up to soothe tensions over multiculturalism that modern social problems in Quebec were due to the decline of Catholicism.
De Bertodano offers a two-column summary of the long and tangled history of relations between Europeans and indigenous people in Quebec, and also notes how the Church rose in power over time and then quite suddenly lost its social influence and prestige amid the changes of the Quiet Revolution and in light of a larger trend toward secularization in Western society. Even so, de Bertodano writes, the Church retains a highly visible role that Catholic leaders hope to make the most of over the coming year:

. . . the residue left by 350 years of church activity can be seen on every street in every town in the province. Street names betray it, as does the proliferation of churches. The clustering of parishes and closing of churches is a regular occurrence in Quebec, but Fr Luc Lantagne, of the Salesians of Don Bosco in Montreal, says that the people of the province, even those who have forsaken Catholicism, have formed a great attachment to the church buildings. "People don't like seeing their churches becoming restaurants. They were often built by the poor before the war - families gave what they could contribute towards building them and their descendants are upset when those buildings are not dealt with respectfully."

. . .

Mgr Jean Picher is in charge of organising the [Eucharistic] congress. He says that it was natural that the Church should play a significant role in the [Quebec City] centenary celebrations. "The religious history of Quebec is really the social history as well," he explains. "Society has changed a lot here but we feel people should be reminded of their past. We should be proud of our heritage, and faith is an essential component of this. I'm not saying that we're expecting everyone to be converted to the Church next year, but it's important that religion plays its role in our celebrations."

Cardinal Marc Ouellet is more confident still, saying that he believes that religion is simply going through a period of hibernation in the province. "We are close to a renaissance in Quebec," he insists. "We had a sacramental culture and it's been removed but there's nothing to replace it. There will be a moment of return and this moment has come. The Eucharistic Congress will give an impulse for the development of recapturing our identity with a pride in our heritage."

For the rest - so long as you don't mind registering with The Tablet - click here. AMDG.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Coming up for air.

Apologies to readers who may have wondered where I've been the last week and why a promised update on Lauren and Tony's wedding has taken so long to materialize. (The wedding was great, incidentally, as was my stay at Georgetown.) In some ways, the past week was the busiest I've had this semester - not mainly in terms of schoolwork, though the two (really quite easy) assignments I had to turn in this week took far too long to complete. On the contrary, most of what I've been busy with has been outside of school.

Each day this week I've had various meetings go attend, with everyone from Fordham faculty to the rector at Ciszek to my spiritual director. Helping in the New York Province's efforts to promote vocations to the Society of Jesus, I spent all of Thursday speaking in theology classes and meeting with students at Regis High School in Manhattan. Though I came home very tired, I enjoyed my visit to Regis and found my positive impressions of the school abundantly confirmed. Taking some time out for recreation, I also went to Carnegie Hall twice in the last week. It's highly unusual for me to make it to two classical concerts in one week - though I like to go when I have the opportunity - but in this case I have to thank the scheduler of events at Carnegie Hall for booking two acts that I wanted to see within days of one another. On Monday I saw the young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel and veteran Sir Simon Rattle take turns directing the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in their New York premiere, and then on Friday I saw Rattle conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. Both conductors and orchestas lived up to their respective reputations, and the two programs offered adequate variety: on Monday, the SBYOV played Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (led by Dudamel) and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 (led by Rattle), while on Friday the Berliners presented pieces by Mahler (his unfinished Symphony No. 10, in the 'performing version' by Deryck Cooke) and the contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág (his Stele, a Berlin Philharmonic commission).

This week I enjoy a brief idyll before the rush to exams and prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving here at Ciszek. My parents will be here for the holiday, and I look forward to spending some time with them. That's the news from Lake Wobegon, at least for now. AMDG.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Over There - and Gone Forever.

I had a great weekend at Georgetown, but owing to schoolwork I'm going to have to postpone a report until later in the week. In the meantime, I'd like to call your attention to an uncommonly eloquent op-ed piece in today's New York Times, in which author Richard Rubin reflects upon a sad but inevitable historicial phenomenon that interest me a great deal, namely what happens when our society loses a living link to events of the distant past. Rubin writes in the context of the quiet disappearance of the remaining World War I veterans. Here's some of what Rubin has to say:
By any conceivable measure, Frank Buckles has led an extraordinary life. Born on a farm in Missouri in February 1901, he saw his first automobile in his hometown in 1905, and his first airplane at the Illinois State Fair in 1907. At 15 he moved on his own to Oklahoma and went to work at a bank; in the 1940s, he spent more than three years as a Japanese prisoner of war. When he returned to the United States, he married, had a daughter and bought a farm near Charles Town, W. Va., where he lives to this day. He drove a tractor until he was 104.

But even more significant than the remarkable details of Mr. Buckles's life is what he represents: Of the two million soldiers the United States sent to France in World War I, he is the only one left.

This Veterans Day marked the 89th anniversary of the armistice that ended that war. The holiday, first proclaimed as Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 and renamed in 1954 to honor veterans of all wars, has become, in the minds of many Americans, little more than a point between Halloween and Thanksgiving when banks closed and mail isn't delivered. But there's a good chance that this Veterans Day will prove to be the last with a living American World War I veteran. (Mr. Buckles is one of only three left; the other two were still in basic training in the United States when the war ended.) Ten died in the last year. The youngest of them was 105.

. . .

Four years ago, I attended a Veterans Day observance in Orleans, Mass. Near the head of the parade, a 106-year-old named J. Laurence Moffitt rode in a Japanese sedan, waving to the small crowd of onlookers and sporting the same helmet he had seen wearing in the Aegonne Forest at the moment the armistice took effect, 85 years earlier.

I didn't know it then, but that was, in all likelihood, the last small-town American Veterans Day parade to feature a World War I veteran. The years since have seen the passing of one last after another - the last combat-wounded veteran, the last Marine, the last African-American, the last Yeomanette - until now, we are down to the last of the last.

It's hard for anyone, I imagine, to say what is it that we will lose when Frank Buckles dies. It's not that World War I will then become history; it's been history for a long time now. But it will become a different kind of history, the kind we can't quite touch anymore, the kind that will, from that point on, always be just beyond our grasp somehow. We can't stop that from happening. But we should, at least, take notice of it.
The rest of the op-ed, in which Rubin argues that World War I veterans have always been ignored in a way that World War II veterans never have, is worth reading. Though Rubin writes in an American context, the issues of historical memory that stem from the loss of the few remaining veterans of the First World War are universal. I suspect the transition by which the Great War becomes "just beyond our grasp somehow" will be felt much more strongly in Europe, where the War had a much greater impact than it did here. Even so, the transition should mean something for Americans as well. When Frank Buckles passes away, we should take notice. AMDG.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Riding the rails.

I hope the readers of this blog will join me in offering prayers and congratulations for my friends Tony Stephens and Lauren Knott, who will be married this coming Saturday in Baltimore. I'll be attending the wedding, and I'm putting the weekend to further good use by paying a visit to my beloved Hilltop. My plan is to make this trip on Amtrak, hence the title of this post. I enjoy traveling by train when I have the opportunity - which isn't that often - so this is a case where getting there may indeed be half the fun. Hopefully I'll have something to say about the trip when I get back. In the meantime, I'll be praying for Lauren and Tony as they begin married life. AMDG.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Notes on the Feast of All Saints and Blessed of the Society of Jesus.

Today Jesuits around the world celebrate the Feast of All Saints and Blessed of the Society of Jesus, a commemoration of all Jesuits who have been canonized or beatified. As the description of today's celebration given in the Supplement to the Divine Office for the Society of Jesus states, this feast helps us "to understand the unity of the Society more clearly and live in the spirit of that unity more deeply." The Supplement further notes that this celebration "recalls the memory not only of those who have already received the Church's official honors but also of those many others who have labored with Christ for the salvation of men and who, following him in his sufferings, have entered with him in glory."

Many Jesuit provinces and institutions mark today's feast with special events intended to promote vocations to the Society of Jesus. I made my contribution to this important work by speaking in sophomore and senior theology classes today at Fordham Preparatory School, not far from the building where my philosophy courses meet. I enjoyed the opportunity to share some of my own story with the students I encountered at Fordham Prep, and as always I came away very impressed with the serious and thoughtful questions that the students posed in response to my presentations.

My experiences interacting with college and high school students since I entered the Society suggest to me that many Catholics in their mid- to late-teens have a spiritual depth and commitment to their faith that I (and most of my contemporaries) did not have at the same age. My encounters with members of the "millennial generation" give me great hope for the future of the Church. My prayers on this feast day are for today's young Catholics, particularly those God may be preparing for a vocation in this least Society. AMDG.

Chaldean Catholic patriarch in the NYT.

Regular readers know that from time to time I post on media reports regarding the ancient (and endangered) Christian community in Iraq. This reflects my personal concern and affection for Middle Eastern Christians; as it happens, I do a lot more prayer, reading and reflecting on their situation than my occasional blog posts on Iraqi (and sometimes Lebanese or Palestinian) Christians may suggest. Anyhow, this evening I'd like to call your attention to an article in today's New York Times on Chaldean Catholic patriarch Emmanuel III Delly, who will be elevated to the College of Cardinals on the 24th of this month. The NYT article gets a few details wrong - for example, its author doesn't seem to realize that Delly remains merely a "cardinal-designate" until this month's consistory - but I'm of the view that any article that reminds the Western public that there are Christians in the Middle East is to be appreciated. Here's a sample:
There is neither a cross nor a sign on the heavy metal gate to indicate that this is the official residence of one of the country's most prominent Christians, the first in Iraq in modern times to be elevated to cardinal by the Roman Catholic Church.

The simple structure, in a dilapidated neighborhood of [Baghdad], opposite empty former ministry buildings, is the home of Cardinal [sic] Emmanuel III Delly, whom the pope named on Oct. 17 to the College of Cardinals along with 22 others from around the world.

The only outward sign that this compound is Christian is in the garden, where a lawn surrounded by roses and zinnias is watched over by a graceful white statue of the Virgin Mary.

Many of his fellow cardinals come from Latin America, Africa and the Far East, places where Catholic practice is only a few hundred years old. But Cardinal Delly, 81, the patriarch of the Baghdad-based Chaldean Church, comes from Mosul, in northern Iraq, a place where Christian rites have been practiced for nearly 2,000 years.

There, as in Baghdad and other places where members of Iraq's shrinking Christian population still lives, it is possible to attend a Sunday Mass sung in Aramaic, one of the Semitic languages spoken at the time of Jesus.

"Christians and Muslims have lived together for 1,400 years," Cardinal Delly said in an interview. "We have much in common; in Iraq, the Christian house is next to the Muslim house."

Cardinal Delly has a message honed from his many decades living in two worlds: that of Western Europe, where he studied, and that of the largely Muslim Middle East, which is his home.
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.