Monday, March 29, 2010

A Jesuit in Holy Week.

Detail of a 16th-century German woodcarving of Christ entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Museum Bojimans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (source).

For your reflection as we enter Holy Week, I would like to share some wise and provocative words from a book that has become one of my favorites, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983. Writing on Tuesday, May 1, 1973, two days after the Feast of the Resurrection, Father Alexander reflects as follows:
Pascha. Holy Week. Essentially, bright days such as are needed. And truly that is all that is needed. I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is there. All that is needed for one's spirit, heart, mind and soul. How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption? It is all in these services. Not only is it revealed, it simply flows from one's heart and mind. The more I live, the more I am convinced that most people love something else and expect something else from religion and in religion. For me this is idolatry, and it often makes contact with people so difficult.
My hope is that these words may help us to reflect on our own expectations of faith and religion, particularly as we prepare to celebrate the mystery at the heart of our faith. We who have chosen to follow Christ still need to ask ourselves what our faith means to us and why we seek to live it out as members of an organized community of believers. These questions have added poignancy for those of us who live in societies where disbelief or indifference prevails, where the rate of religious practice is declining, and where trust in religious institutions has been deeply eroded. To say the least, it's a good idea to reflect on these matters now and then, and Holy Week is an especially opportune time to do so.

My further (and perhaps greater) hope for each of us during Holy Week is that we can fully enter into the experience of these days so as to better recognize and appreciate the one thing needful. I may or may not have more to say before next Sunday. One way or another, please know of my prayers for all readers. AMDG.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Notes on the Feast of the Annunciation.

Widely celebrated on this date, the Feast of the Annunciation is one of the great feasts of the Christian year. As we commemorate the Archangel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive the Son of God in her womb, we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation that lies at the heart of our faith.

Though I suspect that many Christians merely take it for granted or simply don't think about it, we really should be both amazed and overjoyed that God would become a human being for our sake. As an aid to reflection, I'd like to share some excerpts from a fifth-century sermon on the Annunciation by St. Proclus of Constantinople:
Who has ever seen, who has ever heard, that the Limitless God would dwell within a womb? He Whom the Heavens cannot circumscribe is not limited by the womb of a Virgin!

He Who is born of woman is not just God and He is not just Man. . . . The Lover of Mankind did not disdain to be born of woman, since She gave Him life (in His human nature). He was not subject to impurity by being in the womb which He Himself arrayed free from all harm. If this Mother had not remained a Virgin, then the Child born of Her might be a mere man, and the birth would not be miraculous in any way. Since She remained a Virgin after giving birth, then how is He Who is born not God? It is an inexplicable mystery, for He Who passed through locked doors without hindrance was born in an inexplicable manner. Thomas cried out, "My Lord, and my God!" (Jn 20:28), thus confessing the union of two natures in Him.

. . .

Know then that our Redeemer is not simply a mere man, since the whole human race was enslaved to sin. But neither is He just God, Who does not partake of human nature. He had a body, for if He had not clothed Himself in me, then neither would He have saved me. But having settled in the womb of the Virgin, He clothed Himself in my fate, and within this womb He effected a miraculous change: He bestowed the Spirit and received a body.

And so, Who is made manifest to us? The Prophet David shows you by these words, "Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord" (Ps. 117/118:26). But tell us even more clearly, O prophet, Who is He? The Lord is the God of Hosts, says the prophet: "God is the Lord, and has revealed Himself unto us" (Ps 117/118:27). "The Word was made flesh" (Jn 1:14): there the two natures were united, and the union remained without mingling.

He came to save, but had also to suffer. What has the one in common with the other? A mere man cannot save; and God cannot suffer in His nature. By what means was the one and the other done? He, Emmanuel, being God, was made also Man. He saved by that which He was (God), and He suffered as that which He became (Man).
A blessed Feast of the Annunciation to all readers. AMDG.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cistercian vocations in the news.

Yesterday I chanced upon an article from the Dallas Morning News examining life at the Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, a Cistercian monastery in Irving, Texas. Founded in the 1950s by a group of Hungarian Cistercians fleeing Communist persecution in their homeland, Our Lady of Dallas has enjoyed an impressive influx of vocations in recent years: of the twenty-eight monks in the community, twelve are men in their twenties and thirties who entered in the past seven years.

The Dallas Morning News piece focuses on one of these young monks, Brother Lawrence Brophy, an alumnus of the Abbey-affiliated Cistercian Preparatory School who entered the monastery after earning two degrees in mathematics at Texas A & M University. Now teaching at his alma mater, Brother Lawrence shares some of his vocation story:

"I guess it was providential," Brother Lawrence says. "That's the most reasonable explanation."

He is recalling the bicycle tour he and four friends took from Austria to Hungary the summer after he graduated from high school.

He ended up at the ancient abbey of Zirc, near Budapest. White-cloaked monks ushered him into the church, where - "it was beyond coincidence" - his [high school] math teacher was presiding over the burial Mass of a Cistercian vicar.

At the time, Ed Brophy knew only vaguely the twined histories of Zirc and Our Lady of Dallas: How half a century ago, amid communist repression, the vicar had sent a handful of his monks to safety in Texas.

Much less could Brophy glean that, five years later, he would lie prostrate before his math teacher, the Abbot of Our Lady of Dallas, and in solemn ceremony take the name of the dead vicar - Lawrence.

. . .

Brother Lawrence was neither the first nor the last to take the novice habit. In the monastery's first 45 years of existence, it added only seven new monks. But since 2003, a dozen young men have entered and stayed.

Brother Lawrence recalls his investment [sic: investiture] ceremony: "The abbot calls us forward. You prostrate yourself before him, lying on your stomach. He asks, 'What do you ask?' We respond, 'The mercy of God and that of the Order.'"

"That was pretty intense."

Brother Lawrence walked out of the ceremony with a new name, wondering how to tie his cincture.

"Now it's for real," he says. "Now the clock starts ticking."

To read the rest, click here. For my part, I was fairly impressed with the article; reporter Avi Selk gets some Catholic terms and concepts wrong, but he shows empathy and respect for the dynamics of discernment and the rhythms of life in religious community. He also shows us that members of religious orders are normal people, a point that some articles on vocations fail to get across. Kudos to the Dallas Morning News for offering a positive look at Catholic religious life - if this gets more people thinking about vocations, some good will have been accomplished. AMDG.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

NYT discovers Eastern Catholics.

Father Yuriy Volovetskiy distributes communion in his parish (source).

Father Yuriy Volovetskiy at home with his wife and children (source).

First off, my apologies for the paucity of recent posts - the last few weeks have been very busy, both on account of my current work and planning for the summer and the fall. Even so, I'm managing to keep my head above water.
Let the rest of Europe be convulsed by debates over whether the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests is causing sex abuse scandals like the one now unfolding in Germany. Here in western Ukraine, many Catholic priests are married, fruitful, and multiplying - with the Vatican's blessing.

The many feet scampering around the Volovetskiy home are testament to that.

The family's six children range from Pavlina, 21, to Taras, 9. In the middle is Roman, 16, who wants to be a Catholic priest when he grows up. Just like his father.

Dad is the Rev. Yuriy Volovetskiy, who leads a small parish here and whose wife, Vera, teaches religious school. The Volovetskiys serve in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which believes that celibate priests are not necessarily better priests.

Ukrainian Greek Catholics represent a branch of Catholicism that is distinct from the far more prevalent Roman Catholic one. The Ukrainian church is loyal to the pope in Rome, and its leader is a cardinal and major archbishop.

But it conducts services that resemble those in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In religious terms, it follows the Eastern Rite, not the Latin one that is customary in Roman Catholicism.
To read the rest, click here. Grateful for small favors, I'm pleased to see the NYT acknowledge that the Catholic Church is a much broader and more complex reality than the newspaper's religion coverage would typically suggest. That said, there is a lot wrong with the article. I agree with Josephus Flavius at Byzantine, Texas when he says that this is "more of a 'tear down clerical celibacy' piece than it is a look into the life of a Greek Catholic priest." I urge you to read the complete fisking of the article that Josephus Flavius offers on his blog, as his critique largely mirrors my own.

The key problem with the NYT article is that it misrepresents the Eastern tradition of ordaining married men to the priesthood as a sign of hostility toward clerical celibacy. In truth, celibate monastic clergy are greatly revered in the Eastern churches; even if "celibate priests are not necessarily better priests," their celibacy is embraced not as prerequisite for priesthood but rather as an essential part of their commitment to the monastic life. The ministry of married priests in the Eastern churches is certainly enriched by their experience as husbands and fathers, but the ministry of celibate monastic priests is just as deeply enriched by their experience as men who have committed themselves wholeheartedly to following Christ as monks. From an Eastern perspective, the Christian faithful benefit from the ministry of both married and celibate priests.

It strikes me that one problem with a lot of the debate about clerical celibacy in Western Europe and North America is that the disputants don't recognize the cultural and historical prejudices that lurk behind their positions. Sadly, some defenders of the Latin tradition of clerical celibacy ignore, dismiss or mischaracterize Eastern traditions. Meanwhile, many who argue for a greater relaxation of Roman Catholic discipline on clerical celibacy seem to presume a post-Reformation view of ordained ministry. For Martin Luther and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation, the institution of married clergy offered a rejection of clerical celibacy; this dichotomy is simply not present in the Christian East. For the Protestant reformers, ordination was also not a barrier to future marriage; once again, the Eastern view on this question is quite different: though one may be ordained after marriage, one cannot marry after ordination (which means, among other things, that a widowed priest is not free to remarry).

Thus, people on both sides of debates about celibacy are prone to make mistakes. Those who categorically state that "married priests aren't allowed in the Catholic Church" or "the only married priests are converts from Protestantism" ignore the traditions of Eastern Catholics and the ministry of Father Yuriy Volovetskiy and many others like him. Those who ask "why Catholic priests can't get married" frame the question in misleading terms, though I suspect that many do so unintentionally (that is, without an awareness of the historical and theological presuppositions that such a question relies upon). If one altered that question somewhat and asked "why married men can't become Catholic priests," the answer would have to be "some can - and do." (Of course, that would probably be a surprising answer to anyone who had to ask such a question in the first place.)

My concern about articles like the one that the NYT devotes to Father Yuriy is that people will merely take them as evidence to support their own preconceived notions, and I fear that the mistakes that the NYT reporter made in the story will make it easier for many to do so. My hope is that some readers will take another approach, viewing stories like this one as an invitation to a more serious and thoughtful investigation into the differences between East and West. Well, here's hoping. AMDG.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Finding ourselves halfway through Lent, we might do well to ask ourselves how we're doing. For many, the experience of Lent is defined partly by the promises that we make at the start of the season - the activities and foods that we promise to give up, or the practices that we promise to add or intensify. The halfway point of Lent is a good time to examine our lives and consciences to consider how faithfully we have followed through on the promises that we may have made at the start of the season. If our actions have fallen short of our good intentions, this may be a good time to make a renewed commitment to the Lenten struggle. In a larger way, the midpoint of Lent is a good time to examine the state of our lives in general. Has our experience of Christian discipleship changed since the start of this Lent? Has it changed since the end of the last Lent? If so, how? If not, why not?

As I did last year at this point in Lent, I would like to share a passage that struck me in my own Lenten reading. Last year, with a nod to the Desert Fathers, I asked whether we edify others by our silence. In a similar vein, we might also ask whether we edify others by our speech. I recently came across some sage reflections on this point in Father Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, an old favorite that I decided to reread this year. Near the very end of the book, Father Alexander has this to say:
. . . Lent is the time to control our speech. Our world is incredibly verbal and we are constantly flooded by words which have lost their meaning and therefore their power. Christianity reveals the sacredness of the word - a truly divine gift to man. For this reason our speech is endowed with tremendous power either positive or negative. For this reason also we shall be judged on our words: "But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof on the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned" (Matt. 12:36-37). . . .
What does it mean to reflect on our use of words during Lent? In part, it means that we should seek to account for the words that we speak and take responsibility for them. It also means that we should consider the effect that our words have on others:
. . . To control speech is to recover its seriousness and its sacredness, to understand that sometimes an innocent "joke," which we proffered without even thinking about it, can have disastrous results - can be that last "straw" which pushes a man into ultimate despair and destruction. But the word can also be a witness. A casual conversation across the desk with a colleague can do more for communicating a vision of life, an attitude toward other men or toward work, than formal preaching. It can sow the seeds of a question, of the possibility of a different approach to life, the desire to know more. We have no idea how, in fact, we constantly influence one another by our words, by the very "tonality" of our personality. And ultimately men are converted to God not because someone was able to give brilliant explanations, but because they saw in him that light, joy, depth, seriousness, and love which alone reveal the presence and the power of God in the world.
In the midst of Lent and in the midst of our lives, I hope that we may have the courage to ask ourselves what messages our words convey to others. Do our words uplift others, or bring them down? By our words, do we truthfully communicate the concerns and values that guide our lives? Are we sensitive to the impact that our words can have on others? How can we make better use of the gift of speech that we possess? In short, what do words mean for us? AMDG.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

El terremoto en Chile.

El Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins, Plaza de Tribunales, Concepción, Chile (source).

Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de María, Linares, Chile (source).

Pichilemu, Chile (source).

Pichilemu, Chile (source).

Pichilemu, Chile (source).

The people of Chile have been much on my mind and in my prayers over the past week. With the devastation of the earthquake in Haiti still fresh in the world's collective consciousness, a new humanitarian crisis now demands the attention of the global community. Though the human and material toll of the Chilean earthquake and resulting tsunami remain very serious, the country is fortunate to possess the kind of infrastructure and resources that should allow for a relatively fast recovery. Even so, prayers and direct assistance are still needed.

As longtime readers of this blog may recall, I spent a month in Chile in the summer of 2008. Because of my experiences in the country, last Saturday's earthquake hit me personally in a way that it might not have otherwise. When I first heard about the earthquake, I immediately wondered about the well-being of the people I got to know in Chile. Contact with Chilean Jesuits offered the consoling assurance that they and their loved ones were safe and sound. Even so, I still wonder about others - for example, individuals I encountered only in passing but still vividly remember - whose fate will likely remain unknown to me.

Viewing photographs taken in the aftermath of the Chilean earthquake, I've sometimes come across images of places that I recognize. Three of the above photos were taken in Pichilemu, a small seaside town located about two hundred kilometers south of Valparaiso. During my time in Chile, I spent a week in Pichilemu with a group of Chilean scholastics. Like a number of other cities and towns located along Chile's Pacific coast, Pichilemu was hard-hit by the tsunami that followed the earthquake. Looking at pictures of Pichilemu as it is now, I feel an acute sense of loss and an even greater desire to stand in solidarity with the people of Chile in this time of crisis.

Long a vibrant force in Chilean national life, the Society of Jesus is playing an active role in efforts to help the Chilean people recover from the effects of the earthquake. If you want to offer assistance, there are many ways in which you may do so. The Chilean Jesuits have a page on their website describing some of the most urgent needs. Two Jesuit-founded social service organizations, Hogar de Cristo and Un Techo para Chile, are actively involved in relief efforts and could use all the help they can get. In the United States, the Maryland Province Jesuits have established a Chile Relief Fund and are seeking contributions to aid survivors of the earthquake. I hope that you will consider supporting these important efforts. More importantly, though, I hope that you will join me in praying for the people in Chile. AMDG.