Monday, March 26, 2012

Adieu, Marc.

Earlier today, the Montreal Gazette reported the passing of Jesuit film scholar Father Marc Gervais. Here is a bit of the obituary by Gazette reporter Jeff Heinrich:
A Montreal priest with an earthly passion – international cinema – Marc Gervais was an influential educator, film consultant and author of scholarly works on Ingmar Bergman and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

He died late Sunday afternoon, age 82, at a Jesuit retreat in Pickering, Ont. A funeral is to be held Friday morning at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish church next to Concordia University’s west-end campus.

Gervais had been suffering from dementia for several years when he passed away. He is survived by his brother, André, a prominent Montreal lawyer, and his sister, Connie.

Family, friends, colleagues and students remember Gervais as a charismatic humanist who communicated his lifelong love of film to generations of Loyola College and Concordia students. His class lists included Denys Arcand (a future Oscar winner), John Kent Harrison (who went on to make TV movies like The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler), and Kevin Tierney (producer of Bon Cop, Bad Cop).
To read the rest of the Gazette obituary, click here. I've written before about the impact that Marc Gervais had on my vocational discernment and about the times that I met him in Montreal. I saw Marc's name for the first time when I came across a copy of his book Ingmar Bergman: Magician and Prophet at Lauinger Library while I was an undergraduate at Georgetown. I remember being deeply impressed by the fact that the Society of Jesus made room within its ranks for men who found God in areas like film as well as in more traditional fields of ministry; if the Jesuits had room for people like Marc Gervais, I thought, perhaps they also had room for me.

When I finally met Marc Gervais in person and got to know him a bit over the course of several visits to Montreal, I found him to be a truly gracious gentleman as well as a great raconteur. We conversed on a wide variety of topics, from his relationship with Ingmar Bergman and his views on other directors to broader questions about religion and culture and the relationship between the life of faith and the life of the mind. When I saw him for the last time, in the summer of 2008, the gradual diminishment of his memory made it harder for Marc to talk about the topics he was usually most voluble about. Even then, though, Marc could still talk up a storm: a few questions about his youth in Sherbrooke led to a series of vivid recollections of childhood, including memories of the royal visit of 1939 as well as the unlikely circumstances that turned a lad from small-town Quebec into a lifelong Red Sox fan.

To honor Marc's memory, I hope to set aside an evening this week to watch one of the various films that we discussed at different times - perhaps a Bergman classic like Winter Light, or maybe something like Denys Arcand's L'Âge des ténèbres, which happens to be the last new release that Marc and I had a chance to talk about. Though Marc Gervais is no longer with us, I'm confident that his legacy will live on in the fond memories of his many students and friends. May his memory be eternal! AMDG.

Another view of the Annunciation.

Though my 'official' Annunciation post went live last night, I couldn't help but share the above image, which I discovered this morning via this post on Canadian Jesuit scholastic John O'Brien's blog Veritas Liberabit. This contemporary rendering of the Annunciation was produced in the summer of 2000 by American artist John Collier as part of a series of paintings commissioned by St. Gabriel's Church in McKinney, Texas. If you would like to learn more about John Collier and his work, consult this online bio and read this interview focused primarily on the reception of the above painting. To read more of John O'Brien's thoughtful reflections on the intersection between faith and culture, take a look at Veritas Liberabit and consider adding it to your regular reading list. AMDG.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.

Many readers of this weblog celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation today or tomorrow - yes, Latins, many Christians do observe the feast on its proper date even when it falls on a Sunday - so here is some music for the occasion: Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1, composed for and first performed on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1725. In the recording featured here, Nikolaus Harnoncourt leads Concentus Musicus Wien and the combined forces of the Wiener Sängerknaben and Chorus Viennensis, with Kurt Equiluz (tenor), Max von Egmond (bass) and an unnamed treble from the Sängerknaben as soloists.

Here are the words of the opening chorale, in German and in an English translation taken from Richard Jones' English edition of Alfred Dürr's definitive handbook, The Cantatas of J. S. Bach. (If you want more, the great and mighty Bach Cantatas Website also offers the full text of the cantata with a line-by-line English translation.)

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
Voll Gnad und Wahrheit von dem Herrn,
Die süße Wurzel Jesse!
Du Sohn Davids aus Jakobs Stamm,
Mein König und mein Bräutigam,
Hast mir mein Herz besessen,
Lieblich, freundlich, schön und herrlich,
groß und ehrlich, reich von Gaben,
hoch und sehr prächtig erhaben.


How lovely shines the Morning Star,
Full of grace and truth from the Lord,
The sweet root of Jesse!
You Son of David from Jacob's stock,
My King and my Bridegroom,
You have taken possession of my heart;
Lovely, kindly, fair and glorious,
great and honorable, rich in gifts,
Highly and most splendidly exalted.

My prayers are with all readers celebrating this bright feast - today, tomorrow, or, if you follow the Old Calendar, on April 7. If you'd like some further reflections from me on the feast we celebrate, take a look at this old post offering three views of the Annunciation. AMDG.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Standard-Times: St. John the Baptist to close.

Last week, the Standard-Times carried the unfortunate news that New Bedford's St. John the Baptist Church, the oldest Portuguese parish in the United States, will soon close because its shrinking congregation can no longer afford the upkeep of the century-old church building. This news is sad but not unexpected: as I noted in the fall of 2010, the parishioners of St. John's have been working for some time to raise needed capital and to increase Mass attendance. In the end, it seems, the parish simply couldn't close the cap fast enough: a press release from the Diocese of Fall River states that St. John's raised less than half of the $750,000 sought in its capital campaign, while Mass attendance continued to fall even as the number of registered parishioners increased slightly. (Of course, there is another side to the story: a St. John's parishioner has written to the Standard-Times to assert that the Diocese set unrealistic fundraising goals for the capital campaign, making it harder for the parish to survive.)

What interests me most about this story isn't the financial angle, but rather what the decision to close St. John's says about the state of Roman Catholicism (and religion generally) in the area where I grew up. Consider these paragraphs from the Standard-Times report:
Ana DaRocha, 53, said her children were baptized at St. John the Baptist, where she has been a parishioner for about 30 years.

"Even though I don't go to Mass all that often, it's just that it's here," said DaRocha, whose home is adorned with tiled placards of saints. "And you know the people, and they know you."

St. John the Baptist's parishioner population has been dropping for more than a decade, according to the Diocese, which says that despite the parish's success increasing its total households by 52 since October 2009, average weekend Mass totals fell to 488 in November 2011. In 2000, that average was about 705, as indicated in a previous report by the Standard-Times.

[St John's pastor, Father John] Oliveira — who placed current membership at 1,000 households — described the demographic shifts at play as neighborhoods change and people move to the suburbs.

"It's also the issue that many Catholics do not participate regularly at Eucharist," Oliveira said. And "there has not been any significant emigration from Portugal in the past 20 years, and so as the second- and third- and fourth-generation acculturate and also move away from the center city, it weakens the parish."
The fact that average weekly Mass attendance at St. John's has fallen by over thirty percent in the last decade seems quite stunning, but these numbers are indicative of a wider decline in regular Mass attendance by Catholics as well as a drop in the number of people who identify as Catholics at all. Figures published by CARA in 2009 suggest that no more than twenty-one percent of Massachusetts Catholics attend Mass weekly; I don't have data for the Diocese of Fall River, but it has been estimated that only sixteen percent of Catholics in the neighboring Archdiocese of Boston are weekly Massgoers. Moreover, survey results published in 2009 indicate that the percentage of Massachusetts residents who self-identify as Catholic fell from fifty-four to thirty-nine percent between 1990 and 2008.

All of these figures suggest that the future of the Catholic Church in my corner of New England is certain to be dramatically different from the past or even the present. Other parishes are certain to close in the coming years, forcing Catholics to say goodbye to church buildings that were very often constructed by their own ancestors, structures that nourished the faith of generations and helped many to come to understand just what it means to Catholic. Where religious faith is concerned, place matters.

The closing of St. John's will surely be very difficult for the church's most dedicated parishioners, those who go to Mass every Sunday and perhaps also on weekdays. However, I suspect that the closing of the church will also be hard on people like Ana DaRocha, the woman who told the Standard-Times, "Even though I don't go to Mass all that often, it's just that it's here." I think those words sum up the attitude of many nominal or episodically-practicing Catholics, a group which includes a good number of the Catholics that I've known in my life; they may not attend Mass regularly, but they still feel a sense of attachment to their local parish and take comfort in the fact that "it's here." Even if they seldom or never darken the door of the parish church, many nominal Catholics still instinctively regard the Church as an objective reality - as an ever-present fact of life, as enduring as death and taxes.

Some may wish to fault nominal Catholics for not doing more to support their parishes; indeed, if non-practicing Catholics who took the survival of local parishes for granted actually began going to Mass regularly and offering other forms of support, those parishes would stand a much better chance of staying open. At the same time, though, it strikes me that the Church has less of a chance of drawing nominal Catholics back to regular practice when churches like St. John the Baptist are closed; once one loses the last tenuous link that a local parish provides ("my kids were baptized there," perhaps, or "that's where my parents got married"), what is really left to draw lapsed or indiferent Catholics back to the Church? AMDG.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Eternal memory.

Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria died in Cairo on Saturday after over forty years as head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Elected to the Holy See of St. Mark in 1971, Pope Shenouda guided Egypt's Copts through trying and tumultuous times. As leader of a Christian community that traces its roots to the apostolic era, Pope Shenouda worked hard to encourage members of his flock to remain in their ancestral homeland despite political and economic factors that led many to emigrate; at the same time, the Pope challenged Egypt's political leaders to roll back onerous restrictions on the religious freedom of Christians and sought to remind the country's Muslim majority that Christianity was an ancient - and still important - part of Egyptian culture and society.

Media reports suggest that Pope Shenouda III was a figure who won the respect and admiration of Egyptians of all faiths, coming to be seen as a national moral authority. His death comes at a particularly difficult time for Egypt's Copts, as political instability continues to grip the country and the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism makes Christians' future in Egypt increasingly uncertain. I pray for the Coptic Orthodox Church as its members mourn the loss of their Patriarch and prepare to elect his successor, and I pray that the memory of Pope Shenouda III may be eternal. AMDG.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

O brave new world...

Here is some sad, though predictable, news:
After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print.

Those coolly authoritative, gold-lettered sets of reference books that were once sold door to door by a fleet of traveling salesmen and displayed as proud fixtures in American homes will be discontinued, the company is expected to announce on Wednesday.

In a nod to the realities of the digital age — and, in particular, the competition from the hugely popular Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools, company executives said.

The last edition of the encyclopedia will be the 2010 edition, a 32-volume set that weighs in at 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.
Learning of the demise of the Britannica made me recall the many hours that I spent perusing its pages in my high school library, years before the Internet made paper-bound encyclopedias obsolete and initiated a gradual transition from academic libraries to high-tech "learning commons" (Saint Joseph's University opened one of these just this week, and I'll admit that it's an impressive structure).

Having completed all of my papers in high school and college with the aid of no search engine more advanced than a card catalogue and paperbound periodical indexes, I still find it a little unusual that most of my current students have probably never used a card catalogue and have almost certainly done most of their academic research online. Call me a Luddite, but I also can't help but shudder at the fact that generations to come will probably be able to complete all their schooling without ever laying eyes on anything like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. O brave new world, that has such people in it! AMDG.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Christians in Iraq and Syria face a grim present and an uncertain future.

A few recent news items highlight the difficult circumstances - and increasingly uncertain future - of Christians in Iraq and Syria. First, here is a report from yesterday's edition of the New York Times on the "quiet exodus" of Iraqi Christians from the former 'safe haven' of Kurdistan:
Iraq’s dwindling Christians, driven from their homes by attacks and intimidation, are beginning to abandon the havens they had found in the country’s north, discouraged by unemployment and a creeping fear that the violence they had fled was catching up to them.

Their quiet exodus to Turkey, Jordan, Europe and the United States is the latest chapter of a seemingly inexorable decline that many religious leaders say tolls the twilight of Christianity in a land where city skylines have long been marked by both minarets and church steeples. Recent assessments say that Iraq’s Christian population has now fallen by more than half since the 2003 American invasion, and with the military’s departure, some Christians say they lost a protector of last resort.
Meanwhile, a recent article in the Los Angeles Times focuses on Syrian Christians' deepening fears about what life might be like for them after the end of the Assad regime:
For 40 years, Um Michael has found comfort and serenity amid the soaring pillars and ancient icons of St. Mary's Greek Orthodox cathedral [in Damascus].

But as a priest offered up a prayer for peace one recent Sunday, the 70-year-old widow dabbed tears from her eyes.

"I was wishing that life would go back to the way it used to be," she said.

At night, Um Michael can hear the echoes of fighting near her home in Bab Touma, the centuries-old Christian quarter of Damascus. Like many Christians here, she wonders whether Syria's increasingly bloody, nearly yearlong uprising could shatter the veneer of security provided by President Bashar Assad's autocratic but secular government.

. . .

"If the regime goes, you can forget about Christians in Syria," said George, a 37-year-old dentist who, like others interviewed, asked to be identified by either a first name or nickname. "Look what happened to the Christians of Iraq. They had to flee everywhere, while most of the churches were attacked and bombed."
George's fears seem to be well-founded, as a report from the Catholic News Service indicates that Syrian Christians have already begun to be targeted by antigovernment forces:
Christians in Syria live in fear of a repeat of persecution like was seen in Iraq, said officials of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

"The same pattern like in Iraq is re-emerging, as Islamic militants are now kidnapping and killing Christians in Syria," said Issam Bishara, vice president of the Pontifical Mission and regional director for Lebanon and Syria. "Christians are concerned about the repercussions of the events taking place in the region. They fear that the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon — which took place against the backdrop of a civil war — could play out again in their own lands. These concerns haunt the Syrian Christians."

"We lost Christians in Iraq; if we lose (them) in Syria what will happen to Christians in the Middle East?" said Ra’ed Bahou, the Pontifical Mission’s regional director for Jordan and Iraq. "Christians are leaving the region, and we have to work to reduce this loss. Time is not with us. (Syria) is the last castle of Christianity in the Middle East. If they start emigrating from Syria, it is the beginning of the end of Christianity in this area."
Longtime readers of this blog know what I think about all this, and you also know what I'd like you to do in response: pray for the Christians of the Middle East, and tell others - especially elected officials - about what is happening to them. AMDG.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mass in the Dominican Rite.

My apologies to any readers who may have been troubled by my silence over the past week: Saint Joseph's University has been on spring break, giving me the chance to get away from Philadelphia for a few restful and restorative days in New York. Now I'm back on Hawk Hill, preparing to meet my students again on Monday and to begin the second half of the semester.

My time in New York included a rare opportunity to experience the Dominican Rite, the unique liturgical tradition of the Order of Preachers. The Dominicans adopted their own particular missal and breviary in the thirteenth century, retaining both until just after the Second Vatican Council. Little seen since the 1960s, the Dominican Rite is starting to make something of a comeback, with occasional - and sometimes even weekly - public celebrations in various places.

This past Wednesday at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in Manhattan, the Friars of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph celebrated a Missa Cantata in the Dominican Rite to mark the traditional date of the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. One scholar described Wednesday's Mass as "the first Dominican Rite Sung Mass to be publicly celebrated in the Eastern Dominican Province in at least 40 years," so I can now say that I have witnessed Dominican history in the making. One of my photos from the Mass is seen above, but you can find many better ones in the Eastern Dominicans' album on Flickr.

I can't resist offering two fun facts to round out this post: 1) St. Vincent's has at least one notable Jesuit connection, in that Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin used to celebrate Mass regularly at an altar in the church while living and working nearby in the 1950s. (The Teilhard connection is recalled by a plaque inside St. Vincent's, though I didn't see it.) 2) St. Vincent's most famous parishioner is probably artist Andy Warhol, who worshipped there daily despite being a lifelong Greek Catholic. Warhol remained reticent about his personal piety and religious heritage while he was alive, but both have attracted notice since his death, as witnessed by books like The Religious Art of Andy Warhol and Andy Warhol's Religious and Ethnic Roots: The Carpatho-Rusyn Influence on His Art.

From Thomas Aquinas to Andy Warhol in one post - not bad, I think. I can't promise to maintain as much variety after classes start up again on Monday, but I'll keep posting as I'm able. AMDG.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Quaerere Deum: The Film.

Back in November, I shared a trailer for Peter Hayden's Quaerere Deum, a documentary film on the Monastery of San Benedetto in Norcia. Yesterday, Peter wrote to share the news that Quaerere Deum has been completed and is available for viewing; the finished product is presented above. Quaerere Deum offers a vivid glimpse of life among the monks of Norcia, and it also shows Peter Hayden to be a filmmaker of great skill, sensitivity and promise.

To learn more about Peter Hayden's work and to view some of his other projects, visit his website. For more information on the Monastery of San Benedetto, visit the community's website for regular news updates, spiritual reflections, and more. I hope that you'll join me in praying both for Peter and for the monks of Norcia and for God's blessings upon their work. AMDG.