Saturday, April 30, 2011

Melkite Patriarch speaks out on Syrian protests.

By way of this post by The Western Confucian, here is a newly-published interview with Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, the Damascus-based leader of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church. Speaking with Bernardo Cervellera of AsiaNews, the Melkite Patriarch offers a thoughtful perspective on the current crisis in Syria and what it could mean for the country's Christians. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Your Beatitude, as a Christian how do you view the situation in Syria?

The movements and revolts that are shaking Syria worry the Churches and Christians. Not so much for the present, but for the future, for what to expect. In the past, every revolt in the Middle East was followed by a large wave of Christian emigration to Europe, America or Australia. I fear that even now the same will happen, further emptying an already dwindling Christian community.

Some Muslim scholars also are concerned about a possible depletion of Christians in Syria and are demanding [that] their presence be defended and safeguarded.

Are there problems for the Christian communities?

So far, the riots have not been of a sectarian nature, they are not a Christian-Muslim conflict. Indeed, during demonstrations in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, young Muslims have offered to protect churches, providing security cordons around the buildings to prevent criminal acts.

In solidarity with those killed in clashes in recent weeks, Christians have celebrated the rites of Holy Week and Easter in a very sober manner, no processions, music or festivities, to correctly participate in the mourning of the population.

At the same time we are trying to play the role of mediators in conflicts that have emerged in Syrian society, so that tensions do not grow until the inevitable. I have personally sent letters to 15 European countries, the United States, and the Americas asking their governments to help improve the situation without [making] any "revolution" violent.

. . .

How would you explain the West’s exaltation of the Syrian protests and its harsh accusations of violations of human rights?

There are political problems and pressures to shake up the balance of power in the Middle East: the [Syrian] alliance with Iran, Israel’s concern... In all things that happen in the Middle East, there is always a link with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, war, emigration ... we have been in this situation for over 62 years. For this I sent the letter to European and American governments and I invited them to put pressure on their governments to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian problem as a priority: only in this way will there be less migration, less terrorism, less fundamentalism, less violence.

This is my mission and it is what I also emphasized in the Synod of Bishops last October and the pope appreciated it. Peace is also important for the future of Muslim-Christian dialogue in Syria and the world. If the crisis continues to force Christians to migrate, the Arab world will become exclusively Muslim, increasing the likelihood of a cultural conflict between the Arab-Islamic world and Western-Christian world.

The presence of Christians in the Middle East saves the Arab Middle East by not reducing it to pure Islam. If Syria is helped to overcome this situation of chaos to one of stability guaranteed by dialogue with the population, the future will be better for everyone.
To read the rest, click here. As I wrote on Tuesday, my major worry about the Syrian protests is with the effect that instability (or even 'regime change') could have upon the country's Christian community, one of the largest, most secure, and most vibrant in the Middle East. Like the Patriarch, I hope and pray that the current crisis may be resolved in a way that will not endanger the future well-being of Christians in Syria but will allow them to remain in their ancient homeland. AMDG.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Beyond Pascha.

This is the world's largest Easter egg, a two-ton sculpture of a Ukrainian pysanka located in Vegreville, Alberta. The image of an enormous Easter egg may seem odd and perhaps even disturbing; then again, the same might be said of Easter if one takes seriously the meaning of the feast and the faith behind it. The Feast of the Resurrection is disturbing in the truest sense, for, as Father James Martin wrote recently in a piece that I shared on Pascha, "on Easter Sunday everything changes."

Christ's resurrection from the dead should disturb us profoundly. If we take this event seriously, it should shake us from our complacency and disrupt the subtle compromises that each of us makes with the world we inhabit. In short, Pascha should challenge us to live in a new and very different way.

Even if we truly believe that the resurrection changes everything, the euphoria that we feel when we proclaim that "Christ is risen" may soon wear off. Returning to our 'ordinary' existence, it may seem that nothing has really changed. Father Stephen Freeman reflects on this dilemma in this post from his blog Glory to God for All Things, excerpted below:
Forty days of Great Lent having been completed, along with Holy Week, and the Great Feast of Feasts, Pascha, having been marked in the Church, it is very easy to take a deep breath and say, "Now, that’s done!." And with the exhalation we take our leave of a liturgical feast and return to our daily routine and schedule. Just as the modern world has little understanding of the meaning of fasting, so, too, does it fail to understand the meaning of liturgy. Liturgy is not a means of marking time on a calendar – liturgy is a means (and mode) of existence.

. . .

Liturgy and the Feasts of the Church are . . . not mere calendar events which mark the annual remembrance of occasions now lost within history. What we celebrate are events within the Kingdom of God – now manifest in our midst. The liturgy continually initiates and renews us in the life of the age of come.

The opposite approach (one which dominates our modern world) is to see liturgical events as simply things among other things. They mark historical events, now past, and, as such, are reminders not of God’s presence, but His absence. Thus the modern Easter easily becomes a feast of the Christ that was (who can barely compete with the chocolate and bunny rabbits).
As Father Stephen explains, part of the challenge for contemporary Christians living in the cultural West is to overcome the modern mentality that suggests that we live in a "two-storey universe" in which our conscious existence is confined to the "first floor" while God and transcendence are confined to an unseen "second floor." This emphasis on God's removal to the "second floor" - can lead modern Christians to locate themselves in an "in-between" present where God is absent:
This historical sense of living “in-between” adds a twist to the two-storey experience: it is rooted in our modern understanding of history and time. It is easy, almost obvious, to think of ourselves as living between major events in the Christian story. Two-thousand years have passed since the resurrection of Christ. Christians continue to wait for His second-coming. How do we not perceive ourselves as living in-between?

. . .

To speak of ourselves as living “in-between” or to think of liturgy as mere remembrance, is to place history in the primary position, relegating the Kingdom of God to a lower status. It is the essence of secularism. The Kingdom of God is not denied – it is simply placed beyond our reach (as we are placed beyond its reach). The Kingdom, like God Himself, is reduced to an idea.

Living "in-between" is part of the loneliness and alienation of the modern Christian. Things are merely things, time is inexorable and impenetrable. There is an anxiety that accompanies all of this that is marked by doubt, argument and opinion. Faith is directed towards things past or things that have not yet happened.
In passing, I should note that the above paragraphs from Father Stephen's post helped me to better understand why talk about how Christians should help to 'build the Kingdom of God' often leaves me cold. For me, the difficulty with the notion of 'building the Kingdom' is that it can seem to imply that the Kingdom of God is something prospective, a not-yet-existent state of being that we can bring about through our own efforts - in other words, nothing more than an idea.

Speaking personally, I have found great consolation in understanding the Kingdom of God as something immanent, already present though often hidden. From this perspective, the task of the Christian in the world isn't to build the Kingdom but rather to reveal it, making God's presence in our midst much more palpable. Picking up on this theme, Father Stephen offers the following:
By faith, we do not live in-between. By faith, we live in a one-storey universe in which the realities of God’s Kingdom permeate our existence. We are not alone nor need we be alienated. The anxiety that haunts our every step is produced by a false perception – a delusion.

Of course, this is an easy thing to assert, but a difficult thing to live: it is the great struggle of our times. But without this struggle, faith will remain alien to us and we will remain lost “in-between” the worlds, trapped within those things that “are passing away.” Christ has given us something greater.
To read the rest of Father Stephen's post, click here. AMDG.

The photo that illustrates this post was found here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The dark side of popular revolution.

I haven't posted anything on this blog about the recent revolution in Egypt or the ongoing unrest in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Though these events have been much on my mind, I've been too busy tending to my 'day job' (which is often also an evening and night job) to write anything about them. If I were to write something about the current events in Syria, my perspective might echo the views that Terry Mattingly recently expressed on the indispensable weblog GetReligion:
Something very sobering and terrible is sinking in for Western journalists who are covering the uprising in the Middle East. They are beginning to wonder if the outcomes of these revolutions will automatically be good or, at least, "good" as defined in terms of civil liberties and human rights as they are promoted at, let’s say, the United Nations.

In other words, sadly, there may be isolated situations on this earth in which totalitarian governments do a better job of protecting the rights of religious and ethnic minorities (or sexual minorities, for that matter) than governments that represent unfettered majority rule.

This has, of course, been a minor theme running through the mainstream press coverage of the flight of Eastern Christians from Iraq and other nations in that region. Every now and then, the mainstream press also notes the plight of the Bahai’s in Iran. Gays in Iran? Every now and then.

In other words, could there be a dark side to the Twitter and Facebook revolutions in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere? Surely not. I mean, the Copts have been asking for it, right?

That was an extreme way of saying what I am trying to say.

Here is the key, for me, as we watch the unfolding events in Syria. This is a hard news story to tell, if you want a simplistic good side and a bad side. Yes, there are people who are crying out for justice. That theme is there. And they want an end to corruption. True. But many of the demonstrators have defined these terms in terms of an Islamic state — of one kind or another. What will the majority choose?
To read the rest, click here. My qualms about what is going on in Egypt and Syria have the same basis as my longstanding misgivings about the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. Western observers who applaud popular uprisings in the Middle East seldom stop to ask what simple majority rule would mean for the ancient Christian communities that constitute a notable minority in countries like Egypt and Syria. As the tragic plight of Iraq's Christians since 2003 shows, majoritarian democracy is not always the best guardian of the rights and security of minorities.

It's too soon to know how the Copts will fare in post-Mubarak Egypt, or to predict what life might be like for Christians in Syria if the current government falls; even so, I wish that Western journalists (and policymakers, for that matter) would devote some thought to this issue before treating the "Twitter and Facebook revolutions" as an unqualified good. I hope, too, that readers of this blog will join me in praying for the Christians of the Middle East and in trying to inform others of their plight. AMDG.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Christos Voskrese!

As I do each year, I would like to mark this Feast of the Resurrection by sharing with you the great Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom:

Are there any who are devout and love God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward.

If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the Feast!

And those who arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they too shall sustain no loss.

And if any have delayed until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.

And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to those who came at the eleventh hour,
as well as to those who toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward.

Rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally, for the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry.

Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.

It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.

It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.

It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Christ is Risen! AMDG.

Martin: Easter changes everything.

Just in time for Easter, the Washington Post's On Faith blog has a guest post from Jesuit Father James Martin which is well worth reading. Here is a bit of what Father Martin has to say:
It’s not about bunnies. It’s not about coloring eggs. It’s not about chocolate. It’s not about flowers. It’s not even about spring or signs of "new life" in nature after a long winter. So what is Easter about?

It’s about something almost terrifyingly serious: Jesus rose from the dead.

That’s one reason why Easter hasn’t been completely subsumed by the consumer culture. (Though department stores and cheesy movies like "Hop" try their best to do so.) Christmas, which can be cast as the cozy story of Mary and Joseph and their little baby Jesus surrounded by cuddly animals in a manger, is easily domesticated. Easily tamed. More easily sold to the masses.

Easter, on the other hand, is untameable. The man whose followers imagined him to be the Messiah, the one who would forcefully, even violently, deliver them from the hands of their oppressors (For isn’t that what the Baptist said?) was tried, beaten and executed like a common thug. What’s more, after the crucifixion the Gospels portray the disciples not as stalwart stewards of their master’s legacy, but as abject cowards, cowering behind locked doors for fear of someone trying to arrest them.

Then on Easter Sunday everything changes. It changes so much that it’s hard for them to take it in. In one of his first of Jesus’s many "appearances," one of the women doesn’t even recognize him. Several disciples refuse to believe the story—one until he actually touches the man. But Christians believe, and I believe, that it’s true: Christ has risen from the dead.

Sounds strange said so bluntly, doesn’t it? But the resurrection is the heart of the Christian message. If you don’t believe it, then you’re not Christian. Not really, as St. Paul would say elsewhere: "If Christ is not raised, your faith is in vain."

. . .

Easter is not about bunnies or chocolate or eggs. It is an event that makes a claim on you. Either you believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead (or his body was stolen, or the Gospels are made up, or the disciples simply “remembered” him and passed on his message). Or you believe he was raised from the dead. In which case everything changes for you, too.
To read the rest, click here. Christ is risen! AMDG.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Fire.

Each year on (Julian Calendar) Holy Saturday, tens of thousands of Orthodox Christians gather at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the ceremony of the Holy Fire. Captured above in Greek news footage shot just hours ago, the ceremony of the Holy Fire has been attested in written accounts going back to the fourth century and has occurred annually for at least nine hundred years. The amateur video presented above offers a view of this year's event, with the Holy Fire making its appearance at the one-minute mark. Watching from above, one can better see how the Holy Fire gradually makes its way through the excited crowd surrounding Christ's Tomb.

Here is one more 'pilgrim's eye view' video of the Holy Fire - this one from 2009. As I've written here before, I hope to someday attend the ceremony of the Holy Fire in person. In the meantime, though, my prayers today are with those who celebrate Christ's presence among us by sharing the holy light at his tomb. AMDG.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Es ist vollbracht.

For your edification on Good Friday, the aria "Es ist vollbracht" ("It is finished" or "It is accomplished") from Johann Sebastian Bach's Johannes-Passion, BWV 245. This video is from a 1985 performance by Concentus Musicus Wien and the Tölzer Knabenchor, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt; the soloists are Panito Iconomou (alto) and Christophe Coin (playing the viola da gamba, a Baroque instrument).

In the Johannes-Passion, this aria comes immediately after Jesus' final words on the cross - "Es ist vollbracht" in the German text - and right before the Evangelist announces Jesus' death. Given below in the original German and in an English translation from the Bach Cantatas Website, the words of the aria move from mournful lament to sure yet somber faith in Christ's final victory:

Es ist vollbracht!
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
Die Trauernacht
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
Und schließt den Kampf.
Es ist vollbracht!


It is accomplished!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
The night of sorrow
now reaches its final hours.
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
and brings the strife to an end.
It is accomplished!

In a recent post on Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, I considered whether that film (or any film, or, more broadly, a work of art) could be taken as an ideal introduction to Christianity. While I would never recommend Of Gods and Men in that context, I could conceivably recommend the Johannes-Passion - or perhaps just "Es ist vollbracht" standing on its own - as such an introduction. I invite you to watch the above video, reflect on the words of the aria, and think about whether or not you would agree.

Please know of my continued prayers for a blessed Triduum. AMDG.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Some readers will know of the office of Tenebrae, traditionally celebrated in the Roman Church on either the evening before or the morning of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. For your edification on this Holy Thursday, here is the first lesson from today's celebration of Tenebrae, taken from the beginning of the Book of Lamentations, sung in the above video by the Choeur grégorien de Paris following the setting found in the Liber Usualis. The Latin text may be found below, followed by an English translation:

Incipit Lamentátio Jeremíae Prophétae.

ALEPH. Quómodo sedet sola cívitas plena pópulo : facta est quasi vídua dómina Géntium : princeps provinciárum facta est sub tribúto.

BETH. Plorans plorávit in nocte, et lácrimæ ejus in maxíllis ejus : non est qui consolétur eam ex ómnibus caris ejus : omnes amíci ejus sprevérunt eam, et facti sunt ei inimíci.

GHIMEL. Migrávit Judas propter afflictiónem, et multitúdinem servitútis : habitávit inter Gentes, nec invénit réquiem : omnes persecutóres ejus apprehendérunt eam inter angústias.

DALETH. Viæ Sion lugent eo quod non sint qui véniant ad solemnitátem : omnes portæ ejus destrúctæ : sacerdótes ejus geméntes : vírgines ejus squálidæ, et ipsa oppréssa amaritúdine.

HE. Facti sunt hostes ejus in cápite, inimíci ejus locupletáti sunt : quia Dóminus locútus est super eam propter multitúdinem iniquitátum ejus : párvuli ejus ducti sunt in captivitátem, ante fáciem tribulántis.

Jerúsalem, Jerúsalem, convértere ad Dóminum Deum tuum.


The beginning of the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet.

ALEPH. How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the cities has become a vassal.

BETH. She weeps bitterly in the night, tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.

GHIMEL. Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

DALETH. The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the appointed feasts; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her maidens have been dragged away, and she herself suffers bitterly.

HE. Her foes have become the head, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God.

For another approach to the traditional Tenebrae text, consider this motet by the German composer Rudolf Mauersberger, Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst ("How Lonely Sits the City"). Mauersberger served for over forty years as music director (Kreuzkantor) of Dresden's historic Kreuzkirche and as leader of the church's renowned boys' choir, the Dresdner Kreuzchor. Mauersberger composed Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst at the end of World War II in response to the Allied firebombing of Dresden, an act which had claimed the lives of over 25,000 people (including eleven young choristers from the Kreuzchor) and destroyed one of Germany's greatest cities. For more on Rudolf Mauersberger and his work, read this post from Pliable's On An Overgrown Path.

Though based on the same scriptural source as the Tenebrae chant featured at the start of this post, Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst takes a freer approach to the text. Mauersberger weaves together several non-sequential verses from Lamentations to produce a unique lament for his devastated city. Below you will find the German text of the motet, followed by an English translation based on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible with some adaptations that I made to try to come closer to Mauersberger's German; parenthetical citations are given to identify the relevant verses in Lamentations. Appropriately enough, the recording of Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst featured above was made by the Dresdner Kreuzchor.

Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, die voll Volks war.
Alle ihre Tore stehen öde.
Wie liegen die Steine des Heiligtums
vorn auf allen Gassen zerstreut.
Er hat ein Feuer aus der Höhe
in meine Gebeine gesandt und es lassen walten.

Ist das die Stadt, von der man sagt,
sie sei die allerschönste, der sich
das ganze Land freuet?

Sie hätte nicht gedacht,
daß es ihr zuletzt so gehen würde;
sie ist ja zu greulich heruntergestoßen
und hat dazu niemand, der sie tröstet.

Darum ist unser Herz betrübt
und unsere Augen sind finster geworden:
Warum willst du unser so gar vergessen
und uns lebenslang so gar verlassen!

Bringe uns, Herr, wieder zu dir,
daß wir wieder heimkommen!
Erneue unsere Tage wie vor alters.
Herr, siehe an mein Elend!


How lonely sits the city that was full of people! (1:1)
All her gates are desolate. (1:4)
How the stones of her sanctuary lie
Scattered at the head of every street. (4:1)
He sent fire from on high;
into my bones he made it descend. (1:13)

Is this the city which was called
the most beautiful, that in which
the whole land rejoices? (2:15)

She had not thought
that this would be her final end;
therefore her fall is terrible,
and she has no one to comfort her. (1:9)

This is why our heart has become sick,
These things have caused our eyes to grow dim. (5:17)
Why do you forget us for ever,
why do you so long forsake us? (5:20)

Bring us, O Lord, back to you,
that we come home again!
Renew our days as of old. (5:21)
O Lord, behold my affliction! (1:9)

To all readers for whom these three days will be a time of prayer and reflection, I offer my hopes for a blessed Triduum. AMDG.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Portsmouth Abbey in the NYT.

Evidently, I scooped the New York Times earlier this month when I posted on Portsmouth Abbey's YouTube channel; in today's edition of the NYT, I spotted an article on the Rhode Island monastery's growing efforts to attract vocations through the Internet:
The Benedictine monks at the Portsmouth Abbey in Portsmouth, R.I., have a problem. They are aging — five are octogenarians and the youngest will be 50 on his next birthday — and their numbers have fallen to 12, from a peak of about 24 in 1969.

So the monks, who for centuries have shied away from any outside distractions, have instead done what many troubled organizations are doing to find new members — they have taken to the Internet with an elaborate ad campaign featuring videos, a blog and even a Gregorian chant ringtone.

"We're down in numbers, we're aging, we feel the pressure to do whatever we can," said Abbot Caedmon Holmes, who has been in charge of the abbey since 2007. "If this is the way the younger generation are looking things up and are communicating, then this is the place to be."

That place is far from the solitary lives that some may think monks live. In fact, in this age of all things social media, the monks have embraced what may be the most popular of form of public self-expression: a Facebook page, where they have uploaded photos and video testimonials.

A new Web site ( answers questions on how to become a monk — one F.A.Q.: "Do I have to give up my car?" (yes) — and print ads announce that "God Is Calling." Some monks will even write blogs.

"If 500 years ago, blogging existed, the monks would have found a way to make use of it," Abbot Holmes said. "Our power is very limited. In the end it's God who is calling people to himself and calling to people to live in union with him. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do our part."
To read the rest of the article, click here; while you're at it, check out Portsmouth Abbey's new website. Other monasteries and religious communities have been using multipronged web strategies to promote vocations for at least a decade, so Portsmouth Abbey is a bit behind the curve in its embrace of the Internet. That being said, kudos to the monks of Portsmouth Abbey for taking this step and I pray that their efforts are rewarded with new Benedictine vocations. AMDG.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

NYT profiles new Fairfield Jesuit residence.

It isn't often that a Jesuit residence gets a favorable write-up from a leading architecture critic, but that's exactly what has happened to the Fairfield University Jesuit Community Center. Already the recipient of major architectural awards, this weekend the year-old residence became the subject of a very positive New York Times article by Fred Bernstein. Here are the first few paragraphs:
When 10 Jesuit priests moved into their new home at Fairfield University about a year ago, some of them couldn’t fit their old desks into their new bedrooms. And "we live out of our desks," says the Rev. Mark P. Scalese, who teaches at the university. He was referring to the Jesuits’ penchant for learning, as reflected in a 10-year training period known as "formation" that includes extensive graduate education. Many end up with three or four advanced degrees.

But if the Jesuits at Fairfield had to sacrifice their old furniture, they were doing so to magnify their presence. Their new residence, boldly contemporary and centrally located, was designed to increase their visibility at a time when the number of Jesuits on campus has been falling.

At Fairfield’s leafy campus in southwestern Connecticut, the Jesuits teach subjects as diverse as philosophy and film production, while trying to help students develop "spiritual depth," in the words of the Rev. Dr. Paul J. Fitzgerald, the university’s senior vice president for academic affairs. Their goal is to remain relevant, a problem on a campus where student concerns range from the shortage of parking spaces to rules forbidding the distribution of condoms.

Once there were nearly 100 Jesuits — members of an order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century — at Fairfield. Today, there are 22. Only six are professors; the others are administrators, or retired. That means some of the university’s 3,200 undergraduates will make it through four years without having a single Jesuit professor.
The article cites the usual statistics about the numerical decline of the Society of Jesus, helping to put the dimunition of the Jesuit presence at Fairfield in a broader context. Bernstein also does a surprisingly good job of explaining how Jesuits at Fairfield have been working, in Father Fitzgerald's words, to make their lay colleagues "true partners in the enterprise of Jesuit education," by, for example, offering seminars on Ignatian pedagogy for new faculty and making the Spiritual Exercises available to lay faculty, staff, and employees.

Though Fairfield's general way of dealing with the reduced Jesuit presence on campus mirrors the approach that other Jesuit colleges and universities have taken to deal with this issue, the role that the new residence itself plays in efforts to enhance Fairfield's Jesuit identity deserves special attention. For more on that, consider these paragraphs from the NYT article:
Fairfield’s new Jesuit home, a 22,000-square-foot eco-friendly building, is part of an effort to reach out to students and non-Jesuit faculty. Unlike their previous house, in an isolated spot on the periphery of campus, the new structure commands a prominent hillside overlooking a main thoroughfare.

"There was a conscious desire to have a front door that opens to the campus," says Father Scalese, who was on the committee that helped plan the new building. It was designed by Gray Organschi Architecture, a New Haven firm, as both a symbol of openness and a tool for reaching out to the university community. The building contains a chapel, counseling rooms and a large social hall. "We can have people over, to talk about how, together, a small group of Jesuits and hundreds of faculty and staff do the Jesuit university thing," Father Fitzgerald says.

The Jesuit university thing, he says, includes helping students avoid fragmented lives — "when they party with their friends, they are tempted to have one personality and set of values, and then in class they have a second personality and set of values, and then they come home to see their parents for holidays, and they have a third personality and a third set of values."

One way Fairfield hopes to help is by requiring freshmen to take classes with their dorm-mates, so that they live and study with the same group. Sophomores choose dorms with themes derived from Jesuit teachings, including justice, leadership, environmental stewardship and creativity. One with a religious focus offers monthly mentor meetings to discuss such questions as "Who am I called to be?" Seven Jesuits live in apartments in the undergraduate dorms, where they hold weekly Mass and open-door hours.
To read the rest of the NYT article, click here. For a fuller report on the new Fairfield Jesuit residence from the architects who designed the building - including some excellent photographs of the structure - click here. AMDG.

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Kangaroos are not easy to photograph."

So says Father Jack Siberski, who just completed the thirty days of the Spiritual Exercises as part of his seven-month tertianship in Australia. I'm sure Jack is right about how difficult it is to photograph kangaroos; out of respect for his hard work, I will not post any of his kangaroo photos on this blog. Hopefully Jack will not object to my sharing of another of his photos, depicting an Australian sunset; in my own experience, sunsets also aren't the easiest photographic subjects - they're moving targets, and you have to capture them at just the right moment to get the desired effect - but getting the right shot of a kangaroo has to be a lot harder.

If I ever visit Australia - something I'd very much like to do - I hope that I'll be able to see the wild kangaroos and vivid red sunsets that Jack has photographed for myself. For now, I'll look forward to seeing more of Jack's fine photographs on his blog; I'll also look forward to reading more of his reflections and ponderings as he continues to move through tertianship. I hope that you'll look forward to these things as well, and I hope that you will join me in continuing to pray for Father Jack Siberski and his fellow tertians. AMDG.

CNS: Precious library at risk, seeks help.

I missed this story when it was first published three weeks ago, but it's certainly still timely enough to post here: the Jesuit-run Pontifical Oriental Institute, considered one of the world's greatest centers for the academic study of Eastern Christianity, is in serious need of funds to renovate its antiquated library facilities and to repair rare books that could otherwise be lost to mold and decay. Here's more on the story, courtesy of the Catholic News Service:
The Pontifical Oriental Institute has the best general collection in the world on Eastern Christianity.

It boasts some 184,000 volumes, including rare and precious imprints and manuscripts, documenting centuries of Eastern Christian culture in a multitude of languages.

But the library's oldest and most valuable collections are in a serious state of degradation, including an extremely rare 1581 edition of the Ostrog Bible -- the first complete Bible printed in Slavic.

"For the Slavic churches, this is the Gutenberg" Bible, said U.S. Jesuit Father Robert Taft, former prefect of the library and former vice rector of the institute.

Rome's temperatures swing wildly from bone-chilling cold in the winter to hot, high humidity in the summer. Then add that to the ordinary wear and tear on volumes that are hundreds of years old.

What's left are works whose covers and bindings are disintegrating, metal clasps that are broken, and pages that are fragile, molding, water-damaged or riddled with the boreholes of bookworms.

"Everybody knows that that the only way to preserve material like this is to have a standard uniform temperature with humidity control and climate control throughout the entire year," [Taft] said.

"Thank God for Scotch tape," he said sarcastically as he pulled a manuscript of Byzantine liturgical music from a steel gray fireproof case. Brittle bits of yellowed adhesive tape flaked off the worn binding and large green rubber bands held together other volumes that were completely lacking spines.

"This is a sin against the patrimony of the human race," said the priest.
As the CNS article makes clear, the Orientale has a plan to preserve and protect its endangered resources. What the Orientale doesn't have - at least not yet - is the money to make this plan a reality:
The institute and library are funded, like all pontifical institutes, by the Vatican. However, the portion they receive is only enough to increase their holdings and keep the place running. Major expenses for modern equipment, renovation, and preservation are just not in the books, he said.

The institute's rector, U.S. Jesuit Father James McCann, said he is looking for outside funding for its preservation efforts.

Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., hopes to provide a grant to the library that would pay for a high-tech digitizing machine plus a year's stipend for one person to do the scanning, he said.

Digitizing the collections would help preserve many of the works, especially the most fragile, since scholars could work off the scanned pages, Father Taft said.

. . .

While digitizing the collections will save on further wear and tear, funding must still be found for repairing the degraded volumes, which Father Taft said "costs a fortune."

"You just don't send it out to your corner bindery; these have to be handled by experts who work in a lab."

Father McCann said he also wants to look for potential donors outside the church, such as "people who love books or specialists who recognize the value of these materials." One student told the rector he should start an Adopt-a-Book campaign.

A climate-controlled system for the library and its collections could cost a quarter of a million dollars, said Father McCann. Not only would it protect the books from heat and humidity, he said, the library would be able to stay open year round instead of having to shutter its doors from mid-July to mid-September because of the stifling temperature.
To read the rest of the CNS article, click here. If you'd like a more detailed description of the PIO Library and its current needs, take a look at this article by Father Robert Taft.

Readers who would like to get involved in the effort to help preserve the PIO Library should visit the webpage of the Gregorian University Foundation, which raises crucial funds for operating expenses, student scholarships, and special projects at the Orientale and the other Jesuit educational institutions in Rome. If you cannot support this worthy endeavor financially, I hope that you can support it with your prayers. AMDG.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Joie du sang des étoiles.

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the first human spaceflight, a milestone which should still inspire us to greater humility regarding our place in the universe as well as awe at the human drive to do what once seemed impossible and to know what once seemed unknowable. For most of our history, the night sky remained tantalizingly beyond the reach of human beings; thanks to Yuri Gagarin and all the others who followed him into space - and thanks to the engineers and scientists who made human spaceflight a reality - the realms of the 'impossible' and the 'unknowable' are just a bit smaller.

I reached a personal milestone of my own yesterday, attending my first live performance of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. Though I have admired Messiaen for a while and have collected recordings of his works, I haven't had many opportunities to hear his music live for the simple reason that it hasn't been performed much in the places I've lived. Accordingly, I jumped at the chance to hear the Turangalîla-Symphonie performed at the Kimmel Center by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach (who seems to conduct this infrequently performed piece as often as he can, including last month in Washington), with soloists Di Wu (piano) and Thomas Bloch (ondes Martenot, of which I'll say more later).

(As an aside, last night's concert was also the first I had attended featuring current students from Philadelphia's world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music. Hearing these virtuosic student musicians for the first time, I regretted having waited so long to attend a Curtis concert while also realizing that, had I done so earlier, I probably would have lost many afternoons and evenings to the free student recitals that Curtis offers on a regular basis. Knowing what I've been missing, I will probably start attending some of these recitals as time allows.)

Though it was written a decade before Sputnik, the Turangalîla-Symphonie belongs to the Space Age. Produced by the fusion of two Sanskrit words, the title Turangalîla was interpreted by Messiaen to mean "love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death." This ten-movement, eighty-minute work pulls together all of those themes and more, creating a sonic universe that encompasses everything from the dissonant and perhaps a bit menacing opening movement (which may be heard above) to some gently seductive inner movements that seem to promise infinite tranquility.

Messiaen's pupil Pierre Boulez may have been thinking of the more tranquil "love" movements of the Turangalîla-Symphonie when he described the piece as "bordello music." When I heard the Turangalîla-Symphonie for the first time, I thought of it as "alien invasion music": to my ears, the opening movement sounded like the soundtrack of a 1950s creature feature (which isn't to say I was repelled by the piece - on the contrary, I was hooked instantly).

Part of what gives a distinctive sound to the Turangalîla-Symphonie - and, for that matter, to many other Messiaen compositions - is the use of the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument that resembles a conventional keyboard but produces undulating notes that first-time listeners most often describe as "eerie." To get a sense of what the ondes Martenot sounds like and what it brings to the Turangalîla-Symphonie, watch and listen to the above video of the first movement of the work as performed by the Orchestre philharmonique du Radio-France under the direction of Myung-whun Chung with Roger Muraro on piano and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie playing the ondes Martenot. As you listen, consider whether or not you agree with me about the "alien invasion music" element.

Partly as a means of justifying the title of this post, here is the fifth movement of the Turangalîla-Symphonie, entitled Joie du sang des étoiles, taken from the aforementioned performance by the Orchestre philharmonique du Radio-France. The ondes Martenot does a lot of work in this fifth movement, so listeners who are now captivated by this special instrument may gain a better sense of its capabilities. I hope, too, that I've given enough of an introduction to the Turangalîla-Symphonie that some will be tempted to seek out and listen to the entire work. You've made it this far - why not hear the rest? AMDG.

ADDENDUM (4/14/11): In case you're interested, a review of Tuesday night's concert by Philadelphia Inquirer music critic David Patrick Stearns is now available online. The Inquirer website also features a video of the start of the concert which is worth watching.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Portsmouth Abbey.

Portsmouth Abbey is a community of Benedictine monks residing on the shores of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Founded in 1918 by monks from Downside Abbey in England, Portsmouth Abbey sponsors a coeducational boarding school which competes in athletics (and, I suppose, in admissions) with my sister's high school alma mater. I made brief retreats at Portsmouth Abbey before I entered the Society of Jesus and after making my First Vows; it's been a number of years since I have been able to return to Portsmouth, but I still recall the monks and the monastery with affection and hope to return there.

Facing the same issues of aging, diminishment, and numerical decline that affect many religious communities, the monks of Portsmouth Abbey are making a concerted effort to draw new vocations. Support for this effort comes from the Monastic Renewal Program Office, a unit of Portsmouth Abbey School tasked both with strengthening the Benedictine identity of the institution and with helping to promote monastic vocations. The above video and others posted on YouTube are part of this effort; I am impressed with the videos and I hope that they do some good. I also pray for vocations to Portsmouth Abbey and to monastic life in general, and I hope that you will join me in remembering this intention. AMDG.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Sources of stability.

Perhaps inevitably, Monday's post on Lent in Jerusalem has put me in a nostalgic mood. My first visit to Jerusalem, which happened to coincide with the start of Lent eleven years ago, came when I was a student at Georgetown; my guide on that trip was Father Tom King, a mentor and major influence on my life who has also been the subject of a number of previous posts on this blog. Remembering Father King this week, I somehow got thinking about "Sources of Stability," an essay that he wrote for the January 21, 2000 edition of The Hoya, Georgetown's newspaper of record.

"Sources of Stability" made a strong impression on me when I first read it, and it still impresses me now. The Hoya's online archives have moved enough times that I'm not confident that the current URL for "Sources of Stability" will remain the same for long; as an exercise in fair use and in hopes of making this essay more readily available to readers of this blog, I've accordingly decided to post the full text of "Sources of Stability" below:
As one enters the Lauinger Library, one passes under a Latin text: Cognoscetis Veritatem et Veritas Liberavit Vos. That is, "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free." It is Jesus speaking, as recorded in John 8:32. The quote assumes many are in a captivity of mind and spirit, but it also tells of an assent that brings liberation. I have known such a liberation; it did not happen in a library. And yet without books, I would not make sense of what occurred.

During my college years at the University of Pittsburgh, I was like many of the students I see at Georgetown, tense and unsure of myself. One evening, I seemed to be aware of Christ very close to me. I did not see or hear a thing, but He was asking me, "Do you want to be a priest?" I had dismissed that thought many years earlier, so I was amazed to find a "YES" coming forth with a rush of wild energy. I sat dazed as everything around me looked different. I recalled the fears, expectations, self-images and appetites I had known. They meant nothing to me. I was freed.

Books enabled me to understand: I had heard talk of a religious vocation, and I was not comfortable with the term. Then I came across a book by Gabriel Marcel that spoke of "an invitation to faith." "Invitation" was the word I wanted. For I was not commanded or summoned; I had assented freely for what seemed the first time. In reading the Confessions of St. Augustine, I learned of his struggle to say yes; following this he asked the Lord, "From what profound and secret depth was my free will suddenly called forth in a moment so that I could bow my neck to your easy yoke?" That remains my question. I know some people have found Christianity a burden; I never found it that way. Others have found it confining; I can only say it is a liberation. I was freed from the captivities I see all around me. With excitement and passion I read the authors who speak much of freedom: Kierkegaard, the subject of my first course at Georgetown, and Jean-Paul Sartre, about whom I wrote my dissertation.

I also read The Education of Henry Adams wherein Adams told of his professors teaching him to question everything while professing nothing. I have found that professing Christian faith goes well with an ability to question all things. At Georgetown for thirty years I have both questioned and professed, for Georgetown promotes the ideals of reason and Christian faith. How well they go together! Without questioning I could never teach, and without faith I would have nothing worth teaching.

But there is an additional text that speaks to me. I enter the Lauinger Library and above me are the words: "Cognoscetis Veritatem et Veritas Liberabit Vos." I feel I have the inside story.
I once asked Father King if he remembered the title of that "book by Gabriel Marcel," and he replied in the negative; I suppose what matters isn't the title or even the substantive content of the book but rather the single phrase that helped the young Tom King figure out what he wanted to with his life. Each of us might do well to ask what phrase (or image, or moment) did this for us. AMDG.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Lent in Jerusalem.

Simply because I like such things, here are two videos of recent Lenten services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (h/t Orthocath). First, we have parts of the Divine Liturgy celebrated on the Second Sunday of Lent (the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas) by a group that includes six bishops and more than twenty priests. The use of Slavonic as well as Greek and the very Slavic crowd surrounding Christ's Tomb bear witness to the resurgence of Russian pilgrimage to the Holy Land (a phenomenon I've noted previously). Watching this video makes me recall the time I was in Jerusalem for Pentecost, and it inevitably also makes me yearn to return there (something I do often enough anyway).

The second video presents portions of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts as celebrated at the site of the Crucifixion. In his opening comments, videographer Justin Daniel notes the contrast between the intimate scale of this weekday Lenten service and the much grander liturgies celebrated on Sundays and feast days at the Holy Sepulchre. Like the first, this video makes me want to go back to Jerusalem; both videos also remind me that I should pray more often for pilgrims and for the Christians of the Holy Land, and I hope that you will join me in remembering that intention. AMDG.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Ukrainian primate: Byzantines must inculturate.

During his first press conference after being chosen as the new leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk offered some encouraging words on inculturation, based on his own experience serving as a bishop in Argentina:
. . . the next question, which I really pushed as we developed this strategy, is the question of inculturation. Maybe this is so important to me because I ended up in South America and asked myself what it meant to be an Eastern rite Christian in Latin American culture. What we here consider east, for that side of the world is north; that is, these geographical orientations are completely different. That’s when I saw the extraordinary interest in our church, and that entire time I preached in Spanish, translating into Spanish the traditional Greek, Old Slavonic spiritual concepts, expressions, and phrases. That culture was in great need of the treasure of faith and spiritual traditions that we have in our Byzantine Eastern spirituality. We as a church descended from the mission of the Slavic Apostles Cyril and Methodius — great translators of the Scripture and liturgy — have an extraordinary mission to continue this translation so we may pray properly and profoundly in English, in Spanish, in Portuguese, in Ukrainian. That is why the question of inculturation is very important. . . .
As I recently noted in passing, Byzantine Christianity is a universal tradition. Though the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been marked in a particular way by elements of Ukrainian culture and the collective experience of the Ukrainian people, the Greek Catholic or Byzantine tradition is not limited or restricted in any sense by ethnicity or geography. One need not be ethnically Ukrainian to find one's spiritual home in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, just as one need not be Italian to be a Roman Catholic. At the same time, as Vladika Sviatoslav found in Argentina, the Byzantine tradition has something to offer even to cultures where it initially may seem alien. I hope that the new Major Archbishop will continue to make this important message known, and I pray that his words will bear great fruit in the life of the Church. AMDG.