28 February 2007

Hopeful signs

After the “clown-priest” post I thought something more encouraging would be in order. During Lent we celebrate an all-school Solemn Evensong every Wednesday at the end of the academic day. I’ve already mentioned how beautifully the students sing Evensong.

When we finished today and everyone was heading back to the classrooms to gather up homework and backpacks to go home, I was approached by some of our Upper School boys who told me they “had an idea.” I braced myself because Upper School students’ ideas are not always exactly what I might have in mind. “When we have Evensong,” they said, “could we have Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, too? Everybody really likes Benediction.”

I have to admit, my eyes moistened a little. Something is very right with these kids. I guess if there are some vocations to the priesthood to come out of this place, these young men won’t be dressing up like clowns.

Yuck!

I read about it first on the Catholic World News site, and then had to look for myself. I couldn’t believe that a priest in a clown suit would actually be put forward as an icon to attract normal and healthy young men to the priesthood. I mean, it’s all so passé. It’s so 1970’s. I couldn’t believe that someone working to increase priestly vocations would still be caught up in anything so pathetic.

My disbelief was mistaken. There it is in sickening color, right on the Milwaukee Catholic Herald website. “Pallottine priest earns his 'Stripes' as clown.” “Providing laughs is another facet of Fr. Serwa's ministry,” says the subtitle of the story, regaling us with vignettes of the ministry of Stripes the Clown, a.k.a. Fr. Serwa.

Here’s a sample of the depth the clown's theology: “In his 30 years as a clown and 36 years a priest, Fr. Serwa has found several striking comparisons between the two. One was that of balloon animals. As Fr. Serwa explained, there are lots of little children and only so many balloon animals to go around, much like a priest and his parishioners.”

So that's it? So many children, so few balloons...

No offense intended, but I find this all more than a little creepy. And as a father of five, if this priest in full clown make-up had tried to foist his balloon toys off on my kids he probably would have been picking pieces of latex out of his teeth for days. I know, I know -- it’s all supposed to be in the spirit of St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “We are fools for Christ's sake…” but I have a really strong feeling this isn’t what the apostle had in mind.

27 February 2007

A voice from the past...

We hadn’t used the John Merbecke setting in quite a while, and it was strikingly effective when the children began singing it at Mass yesterday. Our music takes a more somber route during Lent, and certainly this fits the bill. In 1550 Thomas Cranmer, the author of The Book of Common Prayer, had asked Merbecke to provide service music "containing so much of the Order of Common Prayer as is to be sung in Churches". It was to be simple and able to be sung by everyone, and the requirement was "for every syllable a note."

Musically it’s not terribly exciting, but that’s the point of using it during this season. It’s tuneful but not overwhelming, and it almost sings itself. Joined with the pure voices of children, it makes a nice change for these penitential days.

25 February 2007

Yes, I really do like Lent

It’s common knowledge in the parish that Lent is my favorite liturgical season. I can’t keep track of the number of times some thoughtful parishioner will begin to ask “how are you doing, Father, with all the extra…” and then there’s a pause and the sentence is finished with something like, “…oh, never mind, I just remembered. You like Lent.”

Probably a psychoanalyst would say it’s because I was deprived of the experience of Catholic Lenten practices when I was a child or something like that. Whatever the reason, I always wake up on Ash Wednesday morning with a sense of anticipation for the day, and this year was no different. I opened the church at the usual time, about 5:45 a.m., and saw that one of the deacons had prepared everything the night before. The ashes were ready, the purple vestments set to go. I was able to spend time in prayerful preparation for the day. I often think there’s no place on earth more beautiful to me than our church in those still-dark hours of early morning.

In addition to the three Masses we celebrated, the students also assembled for Solemn Evensong just before the end of the school day. It’s my opinion that you haven’t really lived until you’ve experienced Evensong with our children. The ease with which they sing Anglican chant would be the envy of most cathedral musicians. The seriousness with which they pray the traditional prayers, hearing them tell God that they have “erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,” it all gives me the assurance that the best of our liturgical and devotional traditions are living on.

The lines for confession are bulking up, too. Not only the scheduled times for confessions, but also the calls come in. The secretary takes the calls, “Could Father hear my confession sometime today?” And I always can. The school confessions are also coming fast and furious, with class after class being scheduled. One day last week I spent nearly three hours hearing the confessions of students, and (thankfully) it looks as though it won’t be letting up soon. I have an admission to make. I used to be able to sit for hours in the confessional on a hard metal chair, but I’ve had to give in to getting a more comfortable chair. Popping a couple of discs in my back and neck have made it a little too penitential to sit for very long on an unpadded seat!

On Friday we had Stations of the Cross. Not once, but twice. First we had them in the afternoon with all the students, plus several parishioners who like to join with the children in their extra devotions. Five hundred students and their teachers, along with a good number of others, meant that quite a few people were standing in the back of the church as we made our way around, using the new (but very traditional) set of stations we just obtained. That evening a good number of people gathered for Solemn Evensong, Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Those Friday evening devotions are always a highlight for me, and this year it was especially beautiful with the new Casavant organ supporting the music. At the actual benediction the organ begins softly, building and building, until the sound is almost overwhelming at the climactic blessing with the monstrance held high amidst heavy clouds of incense. I love it.

Today was the First Sunday in Lent. This is one of the days when we use the Decalogue. It’s always a sobering sound to hear the commandments read out with the people responding, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” I think it’s important to be that specific from time to time. It’s good actually to hear the commandments with our own ears.

So tomorrow continues another week, and I’m happy to see the days are “purple days,” all weekdays in Lent. As much as I love commemorating the saints, I do like a run of regular penitential days with no interruption. And by that, I don’t mean that celebrating the saints are an interruption. Oh well, you probably know what I mean.

At any rate, Lent is well and truly here. I do find a real comfort in it, and I am praying that all of us in the parish are just that bit more holy by the time the Sacred Triduum arrives.

24 February 2007

Giving our best

When we’re planning an important dinner party for respected guests we don’t rifle around in the refrigerator and drag out last Tuesday’s leftovers to warm up for the occasion. Instead, we make a special trip to the grocery store, list in hand, and find the best our circumstances will allow. We want the meal to represent our best offering as a sign of respect for those whom we’ve invited.

If this is true about dinner for our guests, surely it must be true when it comes to our relationship with God. The offering of our first-fruits to the Lord is a scriptural principle. It’s easy for us to slip into the bad habit of giving God our leftover time, our leftover money, and our leftover love. But the Lord, Who has given Himself for us, deserves nothing less than our very best. A little thought to consider at the beginning of Lent.

23 February 2007

Mixed company

I’ve heard privately from a number of people about my post concerning what I consider to be the recent irresponsible reporting in The Times of London. Quite simply, it was a false story about the reunion of Anglicans and Catholics under the leadership of the Pope, and the responses to the story used untold amounts of bandwidth, newsprint and ink.

One person even cautioned me that although he agreed with what I said, perhaps I should be careful about “ticking off” such a powerful religion reporter, especially since that very reporter had visited this blog and left a comment.

As of today, I’m in unexpected company. On the National Catholic Reporter website (not an address I usually visit) John L. Allen writes an article entitled “Irresponsible reporting on religion is dangerous.” He starts out by saying, “Normally I love writing this column, but this week I need to say something that gives me no pleasure at all. Here it is in a nutshell: Reporting on religion in the mainstream British press is not only sometimes dreadful, it's dangerous, and something needs to be done about it.”

It’s worth reading the whole article.

22 February 2007

A worthy legacy

Vincent Uher hosts a wonderful site called Tonus Peregrinus, and one of his recent postings entitled Ash Wednesday contains thoughts about the importance of maintaining the worthy elements of Anglican devotional and liturgical life, precisely as is being done in the Anglican Use, which is part of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.

Also, Vincent writes delightful hymn texts and you’ll find a great selection peppered throughout his blog. All in all, this is a beautiful place to visit and I heartily recommend it to you.

A great man in our history...

Not discussing strictly religious subjects, but certainly Catholic in outlook, I’ve mentioned GeoPolitics before. In honor of the birthday of our first President, you might want to have a look at some of the articles posted there having to do with the thoughts and writings of George Washington.

I’ve never gotten used to this “Presidents’ Day” business. I still think of today as “Washington’s Birthday,” as it was when I was a youngster in school. My mother always baked cherry pie for the occasion, and even though I didn’t especially like cherries, everybody had to have a piece for dessert at supper. Mother was a great believer in the “I cannot tell a lie” story, so it just wouldn’t have been right, in her estimation, not to have cherry pie in honor of the Father of our country. At least she was willing to let me have some vanilla ice cream on top of it, which made it bearable…

Christ's soldiers

In addition to celebrating the wonderful feast of the Chair of St. Peter today, this was the day on which the members of the Junior class of our Upper School received their class rings. We chose this day especially to remind them of the Catholic foundation of this institution and the rings have been designed to be a statement of that fact.

The most prominent part of the design is the Pelican within the shield. This is our parish symbol, speaking to us of the “Pie Pellicane,” the Tender Pelican who is Jesus Christ our Lord. On one side of the ring is the year of graduation, an important date in the lives of our students. On the other side is the Jerusalem cross, another one of our parish symbols, calling to mind that we are crusaders, soldiers of Christ, enrolled in His service through Baptism and Confirmation.

They received their rings during the Mass, and it was inspiring to witness how seriously they understood their responsibilities as young Catholics. I know that in some schools the class ring is no big deal. It’s just another piece of jewelry to be worn temporarily and many schools no longer have a standard ring, but encourage students to design their own.

We decided to make our school ring an unchanging and important symbol, an assistance to our graduating students to remember the importance of witnessing to their Catholic faith now and throughout their lives.

20 February 2007

“Did too!” “Did not!” “Did too!” "Did not!”

I don’t know a whole lot about Ruth Gledhill except that she has been the Religion Correspondent for The Times of London since 1989. She can’t be a stupid woman to have achieved that position, but in this case she certainly writes like one.

Maybe she was just being like the child who can’t resist poking a stick into an ants’ nest when she wrote her recent article, “Churches back plan to unite under Pope.” There was no plan, nor could there be, given the present state of Anglicanism. The churches in question haven’t even discussed the document on which she based her story. In fact, her irresponsible surmising has caused Catholic Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane, Australia and Anglican Bishop David Beetge of South Africa, the co-chairmen of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, to issue a correction of the misunderstanding her report has caused. By their own admission, the theological barriers to such an assertion as Mrs. Gledhill’s haven’t even begun to be settled.

Why would she, a person placed in a public and responsible role, do something like this? She has caused embarrassment to the bishops serving as co-chairmen of the Commission, although she should be the one who feels embarrassed. Did she just want to ride the wave of interest in the Anglican Primates’ meeting which was taking place in Dar es Salaam? If so, all she managed to do was to emphasize the disarray being exhibited there. Did she want to make the Catholic Church appear to be ungenerous by not opening wide the doors to all Anglicans to come aboard the Barque of Peter, no questions asked? If so, she failed in that, too, because the whole world knows that Rome is not about to embrace women clergy or “bishops in committed same-sex relationships” or the host of other baggage which seems to be defining Anglicanism these days.

This kind of thing isn’t a game. Ecumenism is a serious and important business because it is the desire of Christ Himself that we all be one. Mrs. Gledhill had her moment, but she really should put a cork in it. She knew perfectly well that what she claimed was not true. She’s been around the world of religion long enough to know that. And The Times has, too. They should all be ashamed. And if this sounds harsh, it's because this kind of irresponsiblity makes me angry.

19 February 2007

News Flash: Pigs seen flying

It’s one of those things that would be amazing if it were true. Headlines are all over the place today in newspapers and on web news sites: “Churches back plan to unite under Pope.” The claim is that “senior bishops” (whatever that means) have agreed on proposals which would unite Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The media make it sound as though it will take place at the snap of the fingers and everyone will live happily ever after. If only.

When we read a little deeper we find that a forty-two page report published by the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission states within it, “Anglicans and Roman Catholics are urged to explore how they might reunite under the Pope.” So apparently there is no actual “plan” to back, more like a “plan to explore.” And that would be very nice. It would also be nice to see the Israelis and the Palestinians become best friends. And it would be nice to see Kim Jong-il stop being a lunatic. And it would also be nice if Osama bin Laden became a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

The only problem is that we probably won’t see any of those things happen. Sure, it’s nice to hope. And we should do everything we can to help good things come to pass. But let’s be realistic. The Anglicans can’t even agree on who’s an Anglican, and we’re supposed to think there’s a possibility of a plan which will bring them all under the Pope? You don’t need to read very far in various Anglican blogs before you come across statement after statement like these:

• “When I see Ratzinger flog the property, the secular power and the prestige and jumps up shouting "Jesus and Jesus only saves" then I may consider it. Otherwise I'll take my place beside Cranmer's ashes.”

• “The way to our Lord is through Jesus Christ and not through some person in Rome. If unity came about, I would leave the Anglican church and return to my roots as a Baptist.”

• “One reason many of us left the Roman church in favor of Anglicanism is its liberal positions on women and celibacy for clergy. The other reason is to escape the whimsical unilateralism of an 'infallible' Pontiff.”

It’s a sad fact that Anglicanism is disintegrating faster than a sand castle at high tide. The American expression of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church, is led by a Gnostic woman who can’t quite decide what Jesus came to do. The Archbishop of Canterbury is trying to hold together some seventy million people with no single accepted teaching about anything.

There’s no doubt we need to pray for Anglicans. We need to be ready to welcome them into their only real home, which is the Catholic Church. But it’s silly to think there is some “plan” providing a way for corporate reunion. It’s a matter of the conversion of individual hearts and lives, and headlines such as the ones we are seeing today don’t help. They give a false sense of hope to those who might be on the verge of returning to the Church, and they add fuel to the anti-Catholic bitterness of those who would rather drink poison than “submit to Rome.”

18 February 2007

A very important piece of furniture...

Enshrined in the beautiful Bernini reliquary in St. Peter’s Basilica is a chair which was known in the sixth century, parts of which date to the earliest years of the Christian faith. This is the famous Chair of St. Peter, of which the feast is celebrated each year on February 22nd.

Why would the entire Catholic world celebrate a feast in honor of a chair? Surely it must be for a better reason than that an apostle sat on it. As interesting as that is, the reason is much greater than that alone. This Chair is the concrete symbol to us of the authority and primacy of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, the one to whom our Lord entrusted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and who was called the Rock on which Christ would build His Church.

The fragments of the Chair (cathedra) of St. Peter are venerated because it was from that very place that the first Pope, the Vicar of Christ, imparted the truth which had been entrusted to him by our Lord Himself, and which has been passed on in its entirety throughout the centuries, and which will continue until Christ returns in glory. The Chair of St. Peter is a reminder to us that we are not members of some man-made religion, but that we are part of the one true Church, founded by Christ upon the Rock which endures.

17 February 2007

Real men

I don’t know what it’s like in other Catholic parishes. For nearly twenty-four years this is the only one I’ve known. But one of the things for which I am most thankful is the great support from the men in this parish. On any given day there are as many men at the early Mass as there are women, sometimes more. On Sundays and holy days the pews are crowded with families, and fathers are most ordinarily right there with the mothers and children. Our school’s faculty and administration is comprised of a high percentage of men. This morning when I arrived for Mass and confessions, there were already a couple of our men in the church, hanging the new Stations of the Cross which had just arrived. After lunch when I came back, there were several projects being worked on by men, “just doing a few things that needed doing, Father.” Whether it’s the St. Vincent de Paul Society or pro-life work or scouts or any of the other groups centered here at the parish, the men are there working.

Now in saying that, it’s not that I am ungrateful for all the work done by women in the parish, and there are great numbers of incredible women who do their share. But I think it's right that men have formed the backbone of this place. It sends the right message to our children that religion isn’t some sort of “women’s thing,” but that real men love God and His Church, and real men want to be part of it. I’m always happy when I see fathers and sons serving together at the altar, and we have a lot of them.

As we read in Genesis, “… male and female He created them.” From the things I hear about some parishes, that’s not always evident.

16 February 2007

A bit of family history...

An important part of family life is the shared heritage, the common tradition, the collection of stories which form its history. It’s hard for me to let one of my children’s birthdays go by without telling the story of what we were doing on that day and what it was like when they were born. Sometimes I get a kind of good-natured rolling of the eyes because “here goes Dad with his stories again,” but I think there is something in us that needs to hear those stories which make up our past history It helps us to know who and what we are today.

I do the same thing from time to time at the parish. I tell the story about how Our Lady of the Atonement claimed us as her own children. Stories like that are an important part of every parish family, I think. To know how we as a community of the faithful came to be, is something which bears telling. It describes the living actions of the Living God Who claims us and calls us to holiness. It helps us to love the God Who has set our feet upon the path which leads to Him.

Our own story began with a young Episcopal clergyman named Lewis Wattson who was born in 1863 and lived until 1940. Little did I know when I first heard of him many years ago that his willingness to seek and follow God’s Will for his life would have such a deep affect on my own life, for the life of my family, and the for lives of all who are part of our parish.

Lewis Wattson (who would come to be known as Fr. Paul of Graymoor) considered the separation of the Anglicans from the Catholic Church under the reign of King Henry VIII to be a matter of great sadness and tragedy. He wanted to do all he could to bring about the reunion of Christendom under the headship of the Successor of Peter, and he actively sought God’s guidance as to what he should do within his own ministry to accomplish this.

On July 9, 1893, after the morning service in the Episcopal Church where he was the rector, he knelt down before the altar in the empty church and opened the Scriptures three times. The first time the pages opened to the Gospel of St. John at the words spoken by Jesus when He taught that the Holy Spirit must spring up in those who believe like a well of Living Water. The second time the pages opened in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, where he wrote, “We joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the Atonement.” The third time the pages opened at St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, where the institution of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is recounted.

The young cleric made a notation of these passages. He took them as being God’s guidance to him for the foundation of the work which was to be his. He felt that God was calling him to found a religious community. First of all, it would have the Holy Spirit as its inspiration and guide, with the Living Water as its sustenance. Second, the doctrine he was to preach was to be the “atonement,” the reconciliation of man with God accomplished by Jesus Christ upon the Cross. Third, the central means of grace by which Christ’s atoning work on the cross was accomplished is made a reality through the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Mass. At the same time, God gave him the feeling that this would not be accomplished immediately, but that some years would need to pass before it would become a reality.

Fr. Paul finished his time at St. John’s and was called to a new mission in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was attached to the Episcopal parish of St. Barnabas. He was successful in his work there, and then God made it clear that the time had come. He was to return to the east and take up the foundation of this new work which was to be based upon those passages of Scripture which had been revealed to him. He was to found a new Franciscan community within the Episcopal Church, and he was to do it with a holy woman named Lurana White.

It was on July 4, 1898 that Fr. Paul wrote (still as an Episcopalian clergyman), “I believe in the universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff as the Successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Jesus Christ.” So his path was set. He and Mother Lurana founded their Community within the Episcopal Church, and based it upon the truth they had come to know, until finally they and their fellow Atonement Franciscans were received into the Catholic Church on October 30, 1909. He had travelled from St. John’s Church to St. Barnabas’ Church and then finally to a remote hilltop in New York State where he and his community made their final home and brought with them the unique title by which they knew the Blessed Virgin, that title which had God had entwined with the saving work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, the title which recalled Mary standing beneath that Cross, the title of Our Lady of the Atonement.

I knew nothing of this story when my family and I returned to the United States in 1978 after living in England for five years. It was there that I had completed my theological studies and I had been ordained and had served as an Anglican clergyman. Upon our return my path was mysteriously united with the path of Fr. Paul in ways I was not even aware.

The Episcopal parish to which I had been called was another St. Barnabas Church. It was there that I found a book which had been left by one of my predecessors, a book entitled “Our Lady and Reunion” which was one of the very few books in existence which was exclusively about Our Lady of the Atonement. I had never heard this title of Mary before, and I was tempted to discard the book because I thought it was nothing which would interest me. But for some reason I just couldn’t throw it away. So it remained on my book shelf, where I would look at it from time to time. The picture of Our Lady of the Atonement in that little book developed a stronger and stronger hold on me, and like Fr. Paul, while I was at St. Barnabas I began to realize that my spiritual journey was leading my family and myself to the Catholic Church. But how? My vocation was to the priesthood, but that wasn’t possible at the time. As a married man I was excluded from Catholic ordination. Then one day in 1980 the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, announced that he was establishing a Pastoral Provision for individuals just as myself, married Episcopal clergy with a vocation to Catholic priesthood. So the door was opened. And another move was in store. Just as Fr. Paul moved from his St. John’s Church to St. Barnabas Church as part of his discernment for the doing of God’s Will, so I was called to move from St. Barnabas Church to another Episcopal church called St. John’s where I could more easily discern what God had in store. He made His Will clear quite quickly. My family and I were to move to Texas where God would reveal what it was He wanted me to do. So it was that we arrived in January of 1982 and set about building upon the foundation which would result in the establishment of a parish which had already been formed in the eternal mind of Almighty God.

The little book about Our Lady of the Atonement was one of the first volumes I unpacked and placed on the bookshelves of that first small house on the northeast side of San Antonio which we called the Rectory, where I shared my office with the washer and dryer and an old manual typewriter. I made a promise to God that if He would allow my ordination as a Catholic priest to take place, and if He inspired the archbishop to establish a parish for those faithful people here in San Antonio who were also seeking entrance into the Catholic Church, then we would seek permission to erect the parish under the title of Our Lady of the Atonement. God made good on His side of the bargain. On August 15, 1983 I was ordained as a Catholic priest, and our parish was canonically erected under the patronage of Our Lady of the Atonement.

That was nearly twenty-four years ago. At that time ours was a tiny and optimistic group of eighteen people worshipping in a rented church with an unknown future. Today we are part of a strong and growing parish with an excellent school, a community of Catholics from a great variety of backgrounds with a reputation which is known far beyond our archdiocesan boundaries. Is it something we did ourselves? No, obviously not. God did it, just as God worked in the lives of Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana to accomplish His divine Will. And we, as they, have lived and continue to live in the power of those Scriptures revealed to Fr. Paul so long ago, teaching us that we have no power, no “Living Water” save that of the Holy Spirit; that we have one truth to proclaim, and that is the truth of the atonement of man with God through the work of Jesus upon the Cross; and that the fruit of this work is made a reality through the Holy Sacrifice which is offered upon the Altar. And overarching it all is the heavenly assistance which we know is ours; namely, the intercession of our Blessed Mother, known to us under her mysteriously beautiful title of Our Lady of the Atonement.

13 February 2007

The Catholic understanding of things...

The Catholic faith speaks to everything. It’s not just a “me and God” way of believing, but it guides our understanding of everything around us, everything we experience and everything we read or hear about. It is a complete system of belief revealed by God through His Church. To understand the world we must apply that revelation to every situation. It’s why the Church has official representatives in virtually every country across the globe. It’s why the Holy Father speaks out about almost every subject. As Catholics we have a responsibility to know what is happening in our society and beyond. Depressing though it may be, we need to keep up with the news. Frustrating as it is, we need to be able to look beyond the bias of most reporters and see events through Catholic eyes. There is a new blog which I recommend called GeoPolitics. It’s written by Catholics, but the subjects are not always specifically Catholic. It looks at the news and it gives insights which can be helpful to us as Catholics who very much live in the world.

12 February 2007

Looking ahead

As you can tell from the "countdown clock" posted at the top right-hand corner, Lent will be here in a matter of days. Those who have been part of the parish for any length of time know it's my favorite season of the year. The Masses, the additional devotions, the special sacrifices, it all makes for a time of spiritual growth which corresponds to the time of the year itself. It truly is a springtime.

I'm not trying to rush the coming of Lent, but it seems to me that the magnificent possibilities of our spiritual growth are especially evident on the Second Sunday in Lent with the Gospel reading of the Transfiguration. It was an impressive sight for Peter, James, and John, when they saw the Lord Jesus Christ radiating His divine glory, talking with Moses and Elijah. These disciples never forgot it. They wrote about it later. St. John wrote in His gospel, "We have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." St. Peter wrote: "We were eyewitnesses of His majesty." It was there, on a mountain, in full view of his three closest disciples, that Jesus manifested His glory, the glory that was His as the only begotten Son of the Father - God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God.

I mention this now because I wanted to share a hymn-text I wrote, which we use at the parish every year on that Sunday. It seemed to me that if I posted it early enough there would be others who might want to use it. The text is sung to the tune "Ewing," a majestic melody best known using the words, "Jerusalem the golden."



Behold our Lord transfigured,
In Sacrament Divine;
His glory deeply hidden,
'Neath forms of Bread and Wine.
Our eyes of faith behold Him,
Salvation is outpoured;
The Saviour dwells among us,
by ev'ry heart adored.

No longer on the mountain
With Peter, James and John,
Our precious Saviour bids us
To walk where saints have gone.
He has no lasting dwelling,
Save in the hearts of men;
He feeds us with His Body,
To make us whole again.

With Moses and Elijah,
We worship Christ our King;
Lord, make our souls transfigured,
Let us with angels sing.
Lead us in paths of glory,
Give tongues to sing thy praise;
Lord Jesus, keep us faithful,
Now and for all our days.

Text: Fr. Christopher G. Phillips, 1990
Music: "Ewing" by Alexander C. Ewing, 1853

10 February 2007

"Ye who do truly and earnestly repent..."

I love the Mass. I never get tired of entering into the mystery of it all. The fact of God’s coming in that way fills me with astonishment. It’s being in Bethlehem on the night of the Birth and it’s standing on the hill of Calvary hearing “Consummatum est.”

And I have a high regard for the liturgy itself, for its form, for its connection to the earliest days of the Church, and especially do I have a deep respect for the words themselves. The Latin words are beautiful, and no doubt about it. They’re beautiful in the way they sound and they’re venerable because they have been prayed by Catholics for the bulk of the Church’s existence. But most of my experience has been with the Mass in English, and because it is a language I truly love so I have a deep interest in the English form of the liturgy. With the rest of English-speaking Catholics I am anticipating the new translation of the Missale Romanum.

But until then, the vast majority of English-speakers are stuck with the ICEL version of the Holy Mass. And when I look at that, it makes me deeply grateful for The Book of Divine Worship, especially for its English order of the Mass. Now please understand, I have no doubt about the validity of the ICEL version. Without any question it achieves what the Church intends. But when I look at it just as an example of the use of English, it’s pretty thin gruel.

Maybe it’s just that I’m looking for a more emphatic clarity when saying holy things. Maybe I need more substantive words when expressing the deepest things of my faith. Whatever it is, I have to say that as an English expression of the Holy Mysteries, the present translation of the Mass of Paul VI is like trying to live on a diet of bread and water with the occasional bit of butter for the bread. But when I use the words of the Anglican Use Mass I get the sense of robust prayer. It’s English of the manly sort, it’s a meat-and-potatoes-with-vegetables-and-dessert expression of worship.

Just as an example, I compared the penitential rite from the Missal of Paul VI with the Anglican Use Book of Divine Worship. Compare this introduction: My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins, with this: Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.

With the second example, from the Anglican Use, there’s no doubt in my mind that something serious is going on. And then we get to the prayer itself, as it's found in the Missal of Paul VI:

I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do; and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord, our God.

It’s a nice prayer, certainly. It does the job. But where’s the passion, where’s the sense of the tragedy of having disobeyed God? Again, maybe it’s just me. It says what needs to be said, and no more – and maybe that’s all it supposed to do. But I think the human heart needs more than that. I think it needs something like this:

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Say those two prayers out loud, and see if you sense the difference. When I use the second prayer, the one from the Anglican Use Mass, it makes me think twice about what I've done, and it makes me grateful for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I know people say “they’re just words.” And they are. But words have meanings, and meanings have consequences. One of the consequences is that it makes me think that I’d better stop offending God because it’s serious business.

05 February 2007

Great days

What a wonderful time we've had at the parish over these past days with the ceremonies and events surrounding the blessing and dedication of the Casavant Freres pipe organ. Prayers and parties, music and Masses, and now Monday has come with its return to the normal schedule.

The Friday evening Solemn Choral Evensong with the Blessing of the Organ could not have been more beautiful. Plenty of incense, a thundering organ, the choir in top form, processions and chanting all done decently and in order, as an experience of the best in English worship it just couldn't be topped. The organ builder who had refurbished and installed the Casavant was there to record the event, and in his words,"I haven't heard anything like that since I was in Westminster Abbey!"

Saturday had some interesting wrinkles. Because James David Christie was holding a masterclass for organists in the main church, our ten o'clock morning Mass was moved to the Sacred Heart Chapel. It was First Saturday and St. Blase Day, so the place was packed. But I did discover that a hundred people really can fit in space for eighty. After the Mass, the Blessing of Throats, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament I actually was able to take in some of the masterclass, since a visiting priest offered to hear confessions for me. When I saw him later in the day he managed to croak, "I don't know when I have heard so many confessions..." I'll admit that I saw the line snaking for quite a distance, and I probably should have shared the load. But Father was insistent that he wanted to give me the rest of the morning free, so I selfishly took it. The "old organ student" in me came out, and I thoroughly enjoyed observing the masterclass.

Sunday morning was as usual. Mass at 7:30, another at 9:00, and yet another at 11:00, so three of the four Sunday Masses were done by 12:30. One of the deacons preached an excellent sermon at all the Sunday Masses, and there was plenty of anticipation for the afternoon dedicatory recital with lots of people telling me they'd see me later as they were leaving Mass.

People began arriving at 3:00 p.m. for the 4:00 p.m. recital. And they came in floods. By the time things were ready to begin I would estimate there were about three hundred people, ready to hear the program. And what a program it was! James David Christie truly is a master organist. There were the usual crowd-pleasers, Buxtehude and Bach. And then, a whole section entitled "Homage to Jean Langlais in observance of the centenary of his birth." In this portion of the program there was a brilliant juxtaposing of Langlais organ works with some of his simple choral pieces for "two equal voices and organ." This was where our wonderful students came into the picture. About fifty of our finest young choristers joined with the organ, and included in their pieces was the American premiere of the Messe d'Escalquens. It was pure, innocent beauty. The whole thing was recorded and we will be producing CD's which should include Evensong and the Sunday recital, so you can hear for yourself if you like.

The recital ended at about 5:15 p.m., and the crowd moved off to the reception in the Library to greet Mr. Christie, while several of us prepared for the last Mass of the day. At 6:00 p.m. we began the celebration of the evening Latin Mass. I noticed several of the visiting musicians who had been at the recital found their way into the church to hear our small but fine men's schola and for one last listen to the magnificent organ.

It was a great few days, and a lot of us are tired with that "good tired" which comes from doing something enjoyable but important. It really couldn't have gone better, and if it sounds as though I'm pleased it's because I am.

I'll get some deeper and more meditative postings going soon. Right now I'm finishing my cup of Earl Grey, and it will be an early night tonight.

03 February 2007

Sanctified time

I love the constant round of the liturgical year. The solemnities and feasts, the famous saints and the obscure, they all give the sense of adventure within stability. So many things to celebrate and ponder, but all within the steadiness of the Mass. In addition to the obvious -- the gaining of grace -- I think this accomplishes something else which is important for us.

We can become so accustomed to our surroundings that we almost stop noticing them. A view that strikes a stranger as being magnificent is scarcely seen by the person who lives with it every day. When we’ve lived with something for a long period of time it takes something or someone to especially call it to our attention. We have a tendency to miss what’s right in front of us. It becomes easy to take one’s spouse or children for granted. We neglect important friendships. They’re always there, so we slip into the habit of not noticing them as we should.

This is one of the reasons why the liturgical calendar is so important. The truths of our faith and the lives of the saints are given specific days on which we are to remember and celebrate them. We have them called to our attention.

Of course, things like the Incarnation, the Passion and Death of Christ, the Resurrection, the Coming of the Holy Spirit, and the lives of men and women which have been sanctified through the totality of Catholic truth aren’t intended just to pop onto our calendar once a year and be forgotten about the rest of the time. They’re always true, and make up the fabric of our faith. But if we don’t call them to mind specifically at particular times, there’s a danger of them simply slipping into the background of our thinking, and we might never really celebrate each of the wonderful things God has revealed to us.

02 February 2007

The Presentation of Christ

Let’s be honest. There isn’t anything quite as touching and beautiful than a child’s face bathed in candlelight. By that standard today’s procession for the Feast of Candlemas was a candidate for the front of a Hallmark card. Several children were chosen from the classrooms to represent all the students as we made our way from the narthex to the Lady Chapel, candles glowing, those in the procession doing their very best to follow the instructions to “hold the candle straight and don’t burn the hair of the person in front of you.” They were successful in avoiding any mishap.

During the homily I reminded them that it is a good and just king who obeys his own laws. And God was doing just that. As the Incarnate Word He conformed Himself to those laws meant to honor Him. And it took place in the very Temple which was built to worship Him. Old Simeon had waited for years and he had seen countless infants brought into the Temple, but by the stirring of the Holy Spirit within him he knew this was the One. The veil was lifted from his eyes, as on a future day the Temple veil would be torn in two. The Infant in Simeon’s arms foreshows the Victim on the arms of the Cross. And the aged prophet’s words to the Virgin Mother would be fulfilled in union with her Son’s suffering.

It was a beautiful celebration, this continuing epiphany, this ongoing revelation of our Lord. It reminds us of the importance of obedience as we see Christ’s obedience. It reminds us of the importance of waiting upon God as we hear of the waiting of Simeon and Anna. And it reminds us of the importance of offering our best love to God as we witness Joseph and Mary offering back to God the Beloved Infant entrusted to them. It is a eucharistic image, this presentation, as Christ is offered to the Father.

01 February 2007

A very beautiful day

Although today was a normal and ordinary day at the parish, still there was special sense running through it. It was ordinary in that there were the usual two morning Masses. The 7:00 a.m. Mass was in the Sacred Heart Chapel, the 8:45 a.m. Mass at the High Altar. As I've mentioned before, there is a special beauty about the earlier Mass, quiet and fewer in the congregation than at the later Mass. After the Masses I heard the confessions of the forty sixth grade students, and it was during that time that the sense of something special began.

The guest organist had arrived late last night, and this morning he was at the church to begin his preparation for the dedicatory recital this weekend. We will bless the new organ Friday evening at Solemn Choral Evensong, and then on Sunday the glorious recital will take place.

I was still in the confessional when the first sounds of his practice began. He is a wonderful organist, the teacher of our own two organists, and I could hear where their high standards of music came from. James David Christie is himself a very faithful Catholic and he was sensitive to the fact that confessions were being heard, so he kept things quiet until the last student was finished. I'll admit I hung around the church for a while to hear him open up on the Casavant. Throughout the day wonderful music was filling the church, making for a great sense of anticipation of the celebratory events of the weekend to come.

Students from our various school choirs were in and out of the loft to practice their part in the recital. With Mr. Christie at the organ, they will be singing the first American performance of Messe d’Escalquens, Opus 19, by Jean Langlais as part of the program.

What a sound! Pure young voices blending with a magnificent instrument being played by a master organist producing a work by one of the great musicians of the last century. It doesn't get much better than that.

All together it was a normal day, but special nonetheless.