30 January 2007

The Nave Organ

I mentioned in the previous post that I would have a picture of the Nave division of the organ at Our Lady of the Atonement. The main organ is the Casavant, located in the gallery. The small organ pictured here is a separate division, located half-way down the nave, and contains several ranks of pipes from our original organ.

We are blessed in having two extremely talented musicians, both organists and choral directors, who are husband and wife -- Edmund and Chalon Murray. Both of them held major positions in the Archdiocese of Boston before relocating to San Antonio. In addition to their work at the church, they also teach music at the school. Each student from third grade through high school sings in a choir, learning the great music of the Church (including chant!). We have a Sung Mass at school every day, and the student choirs take turns providing an anthem. The whole student body sings the Ordinary of the Mass, as well as a hymn (a real hymn -- not a song!) at the Offertory.

Traditional music is alive and well here!

Ad Majorem Dei Gloria

The heart-beat of our liturgical life here is music. Even before we had a permanent building we had a pipe organ, temporarily installed in our rented facility, and then moved to the church as soon as it was built. The first instrument was small but quite beautiful. It provided excellent support for congregational singing, which is such an important part of our public worship. Also it was able to sustain a fairly good range of musical literature, adding great beauty to the celebration of Mass and other services.

However, it was never envisioned as the final instrument, and when the expansion of the church began we considered how we would also expand the organ. At exactly the time we needed to make some decisions the magnificent Casavant Freres, Opus 2016, 1950, became available because of a church closing. With the cooperation and hard work of many people this beautiful instrument has found its home at Our Lady of the Atonement Church. This Friday evening at 7:00 p.m. we will celebrate Solemn Evensong, when the organ will be blessed and dedicated to the glory and worship of Almighty God. On Sunday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. the Dedication Recital will be given by James David Christie, Professor of Organ at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Artist in Residence at Holy Cross College.

Also, our original organ (plus some new ranks of pipes) is being installed as a Nave organ, located about half-way between the altar and the rear gallery. This is able to be played from the Casavant console, and can be used separately or together with the large gallery organ. The picture above shows the Casavant in the gallery. As soon as I have a picture of the Nave organ, I will post it.

28 January 2007

Common and ordinary things

Thinking about today’s Gospel, maybe it’s true that you really can’t go home again. I would have liked to have been the proverbial fly on the wall when Jesus showed up in the synagogue in Nazareth where He had grown up. The sage elders, the worn and treasured scrolls, the atmosphere of agelessness and familiarity combined, and into it all comes a young man remembered by most but understood by none.

He comes making claims. “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” He says. And they almost believe it at first. There’s an authority in His voice, they’re riveted by the very thought that the long awaited Kingdom is here. But then they sober up. This is the carpenter’s son, after all. Surely the words of the prophets wouldn’t be fulfilled by a boy who had played with their children and had visited their homes and had helped in the local woodworking shop.

Those who were in the synagogue that day were very human in their thinking. They couldn’t imagine that God would work in common and ordinary circumstances. Surely the Kingdom would come with legions of angels processing down from the sky. There would be a routing of the Romans. Israel would be first among the nations. There would be some show of power. Surely it wouldn’t come with this young rabbi standing in the middle of their small-town synagogue.

But God does work through common and ordinary circumstances. He uses common things like water and oil and bread and wine to bring His grace to us. He calls common and ordinary people to be popes and priests and parents. We need to be careful that we don't spend so much time looking upwards for something spectacular that we miss the work of God being done in our own common and ordinary lives.

We all have a calling from God, issued at our baptism, to be His ordinary instruments in the world, to be tools to work His purposes. We may not be anyone special -- but then, Jesus was only the carpenter’s son.

23 January 2007

"Serve the Lord with gladness..."

This past Friday evening we celebrated a Mass for all the men and boys who serve at the altar at Our Lady of the Atonement. It was a beautiful event with an impressive procession which had servers still entering at the back while those who led in were already in the sanctuary. Afterwards we had a banquet to honor them all, from the longest-serving to the newest. Pictured above are the forty-eight who were able to be present. There are another nineteen servers who, because of work or other responsibilities, could not be with us that evening. At the present time, we have a total of sixty-seven men and boys who are faithful in this special service for God and His Church.

As I look at them, how thankful I am for this very special group. And I cannot help but pray as I look at this picture that somewhere among those younger faces is my eventual successor!

22 January 2007

Drawn like a magnet

In 1967 I was a seventeen-year-old college freshman, living away from home for the first time. I was raised in a Methodist household, and had been very active in the local church: Sunday School, followed by the eleven o’clock service, and then back on Sunday evening for the weekly meeting of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. When I had packed my things and gone off to begin my college studies, it wouldn’t have been possible to have appeared any more solidly Methodist than I did. But it was the sixties, protest was in the air, and this was my time to be rebellious. On my first Sunday morning away from home, I made my decision. It was brash… almost devilish, I thought. I decided not to go to the Methodist Church. Rather, in the free spirit of protest, I headed off to the Presbyterian Church. I suppose I was what might be called a rather conservative rebel.

I tell this story because my path of protest was actually Nassau Street in Princeton, New Jersey. The Presbyterian Church was several blocks away, and to get there I had about a thirty-minute walk. On the way there, I would have to pass St. Paul’s Catholic Church. Up until this time, all I knew about the Catholic Church from the part of New England where I had grown up was that an awful lot of Italian and Portuguese people seemed to belong to it. I had been in a Catholic Church only once, as a very young boy, and I didn’t remember much about it except for a very large, very pastel statue which I imagined was staring at me.

But now, here I was, a young man of seventeen, hundreds of miles away from home, feeling slightly naughty for shunning the Methodists, and now seeing a Catholic Church just ahead on my right. Crowds of people were pouring in. Whatever the Catholics were accustomed to doing on Sunday mornings was about to begin. I had to step a bit sideways to try and get by the stream of people, but unsuccessfully. I’d heard of people getting swept along by the crowd, and now it was happening to me. As I got further up the walkway towards the front door, it struck me: this was, perhaps, my punishment for neglecting my Methodist duties.

There I was, right on the threshold and so I decided not to resist. I went with the flow of people right into St. Paul’s Catholic Church. What greeted me astonished me. Statues, votive candles, dangling rosaries, kneeling people. Something was beginning. There was chant, there was the whiff of incense, there was mystery. It would have been in Latin, I suppose, although I can’t say that I noticed. I was overwhelmed. And all the time I couldn’t take my eyes off the veiled tabernacle, marked by a hanging lamp.

What it was, I did not know at the time. But what it was touched my heart in a way that it had never been touched before. I suppose, in a sense, I was following in the steps of my spiritual forebear, John Wesley, whose “heart was strangely warmed.” But rather than being, as he was, at Aldersgate, my “heart was strangely warmed” in St. Paul’s on Nassau Street.

When it was over I walked outside and went off to the later service at the Presbyterian Church. What the preacher said there I don’t remember. All I could think about was what I had seen, and what I had experienced, and that I didn’t understand. After that, every time I passed St. Paul’s, my feet carried me inside. And although I couldn’t admit it to myself then, nor could I begin to explain it to myself, every time I went inside I felt like I was somehow “meeting Christ,” and those feelings would lead me out of the Methodist Church into the Episcopal Church after transferring to another college, and then finally – years later -- home, to the Catholic Church.

21 January 2007

One heart, one life at a time

I have a confession to make. Well, not an actual confession, but more like an admission. I actually considered giving today’s pro-life rally a miss. It was only a passing consideration, though. I made my way downtown as I have every year for the past twenty-five years that I’ve been in San Antonio, once again to mourn the decision which set a new moral low in our nation.

I don’t know why I was having those thoughts about not going. It was almost like when I was child trying to get out of going to school. I’d linger in bed in the morning and make a kind of inventory of a possible stomachache, or maybe a headache, or a sore throat. When I couldn’t bring myself to fake it, I’d get up and get going. School was never as bad in reality as it seemed when I was laying in bed thinking about it.

But that’s what I found myself doing when it came time to head down to the rally. I was whining to myself that I had already celebrated three Masses, and had preached at all of them. I still had the evening Latin Mass to say, and the sermon to deliver one more time. I had baptized three children. I was tired. The recliner chair looked awfully comfortable. But I knew I was only whining to myself, and that I should go.

I’m glad I did. The main speaker was terrific, a heroine in local pro-life work, the founder of Project Rachel here in town. She was introduced by a fine priest, known for his orthodoxy and good work, and the main point of her talk was pretty simple but an important reminder to us all. Pro-life work isn’t about an issue, she said, it’s about real human lives. She compared Carrie Nation’s crusade against alcohol to the work of Bill W. in Alcoholics Anonymous. Carrie was campaigning about an issue, and her work ultimately failed. She managed to smash a lot of barrooms, but prohibition ultimately was a failure. Bill W., on the other hand, approached alcoholism as something personal. Personal to himself and personal to others. And he succeeded by changing hearts, and his good work has spread throughout the world, changing lives. This is what we need to do, she said. Of course, her talk was a whole lot more effective than my little synopsis, but she made a powerful point. We’re not very effective when we approach it as an issue. We can accomplish much more when we approach it compassionately, person by person.

The rest of the rally was good. Typically home-grown. A group of young people with Down Syndrome and other handicaps, provided music. A young man from our parish, an altar server, led the Pledge of Allegiance. A Baptist preacher who was described as “coming lately to pro-life work” gave the benediction. I noticed lots of people from the parish there. In fact, I’m pretty sure ours was the largest group. Sadly, other than the priest who introduced the speaker, I think I was the only other Catholic priest there, although I did see a deacon whom I’ve known for many years. In an archdiocese of more than 600,000 Catholics, and who knows how many protestant evangelicals in the city, the showing was pathetically small. For that reason alone, I guess, I’m glad I went.

But it was more than that. Abortion is the defining moral matter of our age, a bitter and rotten fruit of the contraceptive mentality. Getting together, even a small number of us, is a way of incarnating our need to continue working to help real mothers who are expecting real babies. I suppose some might find it discouraging to keep gathering every year but seeming to make little progress. We’ve been working at this a long time. I see young parents at these rallies who were children in strollers when I first started going. But every year there are little glimmers of hope. Proud adoptive parents whose precious child was saved from being killed. A handicapped but productive young person whose parents were told by some doctor that their lives would be ruined if they went through with the pregnancy. People who at one time were rabidly pro-abortion but have been struck by the horrifying reality of what they had advocated and who now work tirelessly for life.

I’m glad I went. I always am. The day might come when we don’t need to rally any more, but until then we’ll keep working, as today’s speaker reminded us, by changing one heart at a time.

19 January 2007

And not a balloon in sight...

We’ve just finished the Mass, and the students are back in their classrooms. It always impresses me to see how attentive they are, how engaged they are in what is taking place. They hear it pretty often: “The Mass is the most important part of our day,” and wonder of wonders, they believe it and their behavior shows that they believe it.

Visitors invariably remark about “how well behaved they are,” as though it’s something unexpected. In my twenty-three years of being pastor here I’ve learned a few things. One of the things I’ve learned is that if the celebrant behaves himself in the sanctuary, the people will behave themselves in the pews. I don’t mean that to sound flippant. It’s just one of those rather obvious facts. I’m not a great joke-teller, so there’s not a lot of laughing during Mass. Not that there’s anything wrong with humor and levity, it’s just that there’s a time and a place for everything. And it doesn’t seem to me that standing at the foot of the cross is the most appropriate place to launch into a comedy routine.

We never “dumb-down” the Mass here. It's apparent to me that this is the one place where the level should be raised, where we should be lifted up, rather than dragging it all down to some lowest common denominator. I can only shake my head in disgust when I hear some of our spiritual leaders going on and on about how people won’t understand “consubstantial,” and how they’ll be confused by “for you and for many,” and by all the other liturgical language they’re too stupid to get. This is the kind of “expert” who would be horrified to see what took place in the church this morning. There were five hundred students there, some of them as young as four years old, and they were being subjected to… the Mass in Latin! All of us were facing east together, including the celebrant, and they didn’t seem to find it confusing at all. They were chanting things like Kyrie eleison and Pater noster and Agnus Dei, and they were doing it at full volume. Those who received Holy Communion did so kneeling at the rail. The younger ones stayed quietly in their places. There were no hand-puppets, no guitars or drums to entertain them.

God was quite entertaining enough for us.

17 January 2007

A time for quiet prayer

I’ve felt rather like a country parson over these past few days. The icy weather cancelled school. The daily Masses have been lightly attended and in the chapel. Traffic into the church yard has been minimal, with very few of the usual visitors stopping in for a quiet prayer or an inquiry about this or that.

When I compare our bit of ice with the winter storms I knew in the northeast it’s almost laughable. But something of the same feeling enveloped us here as I had experienced when a big snow would blow in. That sense of a quasi-holiday, the fairly certain knowledge that unless it was an absolute emergency there was no reason to go out and it was pretty certain that no one would be stopping by for anything but the most serious reason.

Since it was so cold I checked on things in the church frequently, just to make sure a water line hadn’t burst or something like that. What passes for a heating system doesn’t do much other than take the raw chill off the air. We need heat so infrequently in this part of the world that we really tend to concentrate more on having really good air conditioning. It would have been nice to have one of those big New England-style furnaces where you could almost fry an egg on the radiator. No point in wishing for something that would be useless for about 363 days a year.

But as I said, it meant that I checked on things. It was beautiful, going into the quiet and cold church. It gave me an excuse to stop by the various shrines, almost as much for the warmth of the votive candles as for the devotion. I couldn’t help but have a sense of the prayer of lots of faithful people as I saw the reassuring glow of the banks of candles. The Lady Chapel, the St. Joseph Shrine, St. Patrick in his niche, the Pieta, all of them bathed with the flickering evidence of prayers offered on previous days. I stopped and prayed myself, feeling very much as a pastor praying with his people. What intercession each candle held, I do not know. And I didn’t need to know, because God does. It was enough to join my prayers with those already there. A bit of icy weather, the occasional storm, can do a lot of good. It makes us stop for a bit, when otherwise we might not have.

Winter in San Antonio

This is a view of Our Lady of the Atonement Church, after our recent ice storm. I'm sure our Yankee readers are scoffing, but for us this is deep winter! There are a few other pictures on our parish website.

16 January 2007

With all the company of heaven...

I can’t believe how soft I have become. After growing up in New England, you’d think a little freezing rain and temperatures in the 20’s wouldn’t bother me. Well, it does. My blood has thinned, I guess, after almost twenty-five years in south Texas.

Classes at the parish school were cancelled today, and quite rightly. The roads are a bit slippery, and since most people here are unaccustomed to driving in icy conditions, it’s best that people stay home if at all possible. We did, however, keep our usual Mass schedule. It wasn’t difficult for me to get here, living just around the corner from the church as I do, and I sent out an e-mail to parishioners to let them know the Masses would be said, just in case anyone ventured out.

There were only five of us at the 7:00 a.m. Mass. The Sacred Heart Chapel was quiet and beautiful, the wind was blowing outside, with a mist of rain freezing over everything. One of the teachers had managed to drive in, and I asked him after the Mass if he would be able to serve at the 8:45 a.m. Mass, which he was happy to do.

As the clock was approaching the time for the second Mass to begin, he asked me, “Do you think we’ll be by ourselves for Mass?” I knew what he meant, but I couldn't resist saying, “No, the chapel will be packed!” His quizzical look didn’t disappoint me. It enabled me to go on to say, “It’ll be crowded with angels and archangels and more saints than we could count.” His smile showed his understanding. And by the time we began the Mass, there were several others in the pews, too.

That thought is frequently in my mind when saying Mass. I like to picture legions of angels gathered around the altar. I like to think of saints from ages past standing shoulder to shoulder, praying in unison with those of us still in the Church Militant. Of course, it’s nice when the pews are packed. But even if they’re almost empty, the place is still crowded.

15 January 2007

My conversion story

Everybody likes a good story. And it’s even better if it’s true. As Catholics we’re always interested in conversion stories, hearing why someone was attracted to the fullness of faith, finding out what brought a person home.

A number of people have asked me about my own conversion. I have mentioned bits and pieces of the story as I have been writing for AtonementOnline. The people in my parish know the story probably as well I do. But I really am, one of these days, going to sit down and put it all in written form.

Until then, however, there is an audio recording of the August, 2002 interview on Marcus Grodi’s program, “Coming Home.” I have put a link to that recording on this site so those who are interested can listen to it. You’ll need RealPlayer to make it work. I recently listened to it again, just to make sure I hadn’t embarrassed myself. Actually, it presents my story pretty accurately, and some of you might enjoy listening. You’ll find it under “Links to interesting places…”

To serve the common good...

St. Paul is profound and practical when he writes to the Corinthians, "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." This is the antidote for the pervasive selfishness we sometimes find, even amongst Christians. In His loving generosity God gives us gifts, and too often we repay Him by grasping them tightly to ourselves. We treat them as misers do their money.

The gifts of wisdom, of knowledge, of faith, these are given so they may be shared. Our work for God is to be of service to others. We are to show kindness even when we feel anything but kindly. We are to exercise charity, even when we would rather not.

It is easy to be selfish, mean-spirited, ill-tempered. But we have been called to a higher way, the Way of Christ Jesus our Lord. The Spirit is manifested in our lives so that we may be conformed not to the world, but to God, who has done all things "for the common good."

12 January 2007

God's growing family

Today I had the privilege of receiving a young husband and wife into the Church. They have children in the school, and God moved in their lives, partly through that fact -- one more example of how God works through Catholic schools. They might well have gone through their lives with a spiritual hunger unfilled if they hadn't been brought face to face with the Catholic faith through their children.

It was a happy and quiet occasion. Their children were there, of course. And some friends who had encouraged them to make this step forward. They had been well prepared through our Inquirers' Classes, led by a very able catechist in the parish. We gathered near the St. Joseph Shrine. It seemed appropriate to do such a thing under the gaze of the Patron of the Universal Church. I held the Bible, their hands touching the holy book as they read out their profession together. What a beautiful sound, those voices together stating firmly but somewhat nervously their belief. Belief in God, belief in what He has done, belief in the Church which He founded. Rejecting every error and schism condemned by Holy Mother Church, "so help me God and these Gospels which I touch with my hand." Yes, it was beautiful.

And then I asked them, "Are you ready to make your confessions?" Without a second's hesitation, "Yes, yes please!" And so they did. Their first experience after entering into the full communion of the Church was to receive absolution. That, too, was very beautiful.

After they finished I reminded them that there was even more to come, that the next Mass they attended they could receive Holy Communion. "Thank you, Father," was what they said. Actually I should have thanked them for giving me the privilege of assisting them in the fulfillment of their desire to be godly parents, for the privilege of helping them to follow the invitation of Christ and to use His grace.

As I headed towards the sacristy I looked back. They were still at St. Joseph's Shrine, embracing one another and their children. God's little Church they were, that family. To have taken part in it made my day especially joyful.

10 January 2007

"In the Cross of Christ I Glory..."

I’ve mentioned our Chapel of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. For some reason, it's just about my favorite place to say Mass. There’s something about its proportions, the baldacchino protecting the altar, the deep red ceiling and walls, the dark oak wood, the black granite of the columbarium. I can’t explain it, but I have a special sense of anticipation as I follow the server toward the entrance. Every Mass is a joy to celebrate, of course. It’s not that I think the Mass is somehow more special here. It’s the place. There are certain places that seem to have a particularly good feeling about them, and this is one of those places for me.

The west wall of the chapel is taken up with a huge stained glass window depicting the crucifixion. There is Christ on the cross as the central figure. Our Lady of the Atonement stands beside the cross, along with St. John the Divine and St. Mary Magdalene nearby. Angels suspended mid-air hold chalices to collect the Precious Blood. The background is a swirling mass of color, recalling God’s original creation of the universe and the new creation which flows from the sacrifice taking place. Each time I turn from the altar I see this image. Each time a communicant returns from the communion rail, this is what he sees.

As a stained glass window it is very nice. As a symbol it is overwhelming. It may seem strange for me to say, but I wouldn’t mind it at all if this were the last thing I saw at the end of my life, right after celebrating Mass. Of course, I also wouldn’t mind if several decades went by before that happened!

God, a book, and a boy

I grew up on a farm in Connecticut. It wasn’t like one of those high-class places in the movies. No pristine white rail fences, just plain old barbed wire to keep the livestock off the road. The house had sections which pre-dated the American Revolution, but it couldn’t have passed as elegant. It was just comfortable, as well-used farm houses are comfortable.

We shared it with my grandparents. Families used to do that sort of thing. They lived in one part, and we had ours. Visiting them was as easy as walking through a door from our front room into their kitchen, and it was a route I knew well as a child.

My grandparents had what was known as the back room, which had been a bedroom when my father was growing up. The reason for its demotion from bedroom to back room was evident: its location in the northeast corner of the house gave it little protection from howling winter winds, and since insulation was nearly unknown when the house was built, it was pretty darned cold in there. Certainly no place someone would want for a bedroom, if it could be helped.

Its changed status meant that it became a repository for everything that had no other place to be put. It became my treasure-trove. Old pictures, Nana’s unwanted knick-knacks, boxes with forgotten contents, all of it found its final resting place in there.

There were two things in the back room that I came close to coveting. One was an oval-shaped bas-relief carving of the Descent of Christ from the Cross. How such a thing found its way into the possession of a protestant family, I’ll never know. But I loved it, and when I asked my grandmother if I could have it, for some reason she told me that if I was ever ordained I could claim it. I was, and I did, and it hangs in my rectory to this day. The second thing was a book, a very particular book, which had belonged to my great-grandmother. It was a combined Book of Common Prayer (1662 edition) and the Holy Bible (King James Version). Its leather binding was cracked, but not badly. There was an ornate brass cross attached to its front cover. I wanted it very much, and it was given to me. So began my love affair with the formality of Anglican prayers and with the Holy Scriptures.

It seems odd that a ten year old boy would be able to find something of God within cracked leather and yellowed pages, but I did. It was as close as I had to a Real Presence, and my inability to understand all the words emphasized the Mystery I was seeking. There would seem to be little use for “A Table to Find Easter-Day; From the Present Time till the Year 2199 Inclusive,” or for “Forms of Prayer for the Anniversary of the day of the Accession of the Reigning Sovereign,” or even for “A Table of Kindred and Affinity,” although it was fascinating to learn that one’s mother's father's wife may not marry her mother's mother's husband. But for the rest of it, these were my first faltering steps towards Catholic beauty, Catholic order, Catholic truth.

The prayers did it for me. And the words of the Scriptures. I would speak them sotto voce in my room, just because the words sounded so beautiful, even to my ignorant ears. I suppose, by most external points of reference, it was an odd thing for a child to do. Certainly, I had plenty of friends, activities at school, involvement in the local church, duties at home. But my soul had a hungry corner that would not stop its demands until it was satisfied. I had never heard Augustine’s words about the restless heart, but I surely knew what he meant.

One of the wonders of the Catholic faith is that it reaches into such unexpected places and in such extraordinary ways to draw the unsuspecting to itself. Indeed, this is its catholicity. It feeds both farm boy and pope.

09 January 2007

The bishop wore white...

Here I go, reminiscing again. Actually, a most unexpected news story is to blame for my meandering to past years. I happened to read about an upcoming wedding. What made it a somewhat startling story was the identity of the bride. That’s the unexpected part. The bride-to-be is the present bishop of my former Episcopal diocese.

I have to admit that as I tried to wrap my mind around it, I couldn’t help but remember the “old days” in the Diocese of Rhode Island (that’s a sure sign of creeping age, when someone starts in with “I remember back in my day…”). I couldn’t help it. I was taken back to the very end of the 1960’s when I was an undergraduate in Rhode Island. One of my professors was an Episcopal priest, and I was quite taken with him. He had plenty of time for a young student who had lots of questions, and before I knew it I decided to pursue ordination. He took me to see the bishop.

And what a bishop he was! The Right Reverend John Seville Higgins, D.D., was as close to a prince-bishop the Episcopal Church ever had. I can remember approaching the door of the Bishop’s House. Palatial as would be expected, we entered what seemed to be a sanctum sanctorum, and the bishop received us. I don’t remember much else about the place or the meeting, except for the strange feeling that I had been to see God. It wasn’t because of an overt feeling of holiness. It’s just that he had such dignity.

That’s what I thought of, when I read the story of the upcoming nuptials. Not that there’s anything wrong with a fifty-nine year old woman finding true love at last. I think it’s lovely. But when I think of the dignity that had defined the position she now holds, it’s somewhat disconcerting. When greeted by the likes of John Seville Higgins there was the feeling that he was the Ecclesia Anglicana personified. Not one’s maiden aunt who finally finds a gentleman friend, and is giddy with talking about wedding gowns.

Having come into the fullness of the Catholic faith by boarding the Barque of Peter, it is strange to look at that place which once was home, and to see how disheveled it has become. I have little cause to be concerned about things Episcopalian now that I am not part of it. But one cannot help but look back from time to time when hearing of such things as the bishop’s impending wedding. It causes me to recall Dr. Johnson’s famous description of a dog walking on its hind legs. “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

There is no great spiritual message here, nothing on which to meditate, nothing to lift one’s mind to the things of God. But it is interesting. The pity is, the Episcopal Church was once like a great lady. Not completely put together, mind you; not without her inconsistencies, and a bit dotty – but a great lady, certainly. To look at her now, though, is rather like finding the rector’s wife drunk in a gutter. One wants to look away, but one cannot help but glance at the sight, and perhaps offer a prayer for the old girl.

08 January 2007

Bless me, father, for I have sinned...

Over the years of his life, a priest hears many thousands of confessions. It is one of the great privileges given to a priest, to pronounce the words of absolution which free a penitent from those chains which have bound him. There is perhaps no other time that the priest feels so deeply the sense of that fatherhood which gives him his title. A child of God speaks the words, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned…” and in the quiet of the confessional the power of Christ is stirred for the renewal of the soul. That which was broken is healed. What was so heavy at the time of coming is lifted. It is its own magnum mysterium as new birth is once more imparted to the penitent. The divine hears through the human ear. The fruits of Calvary are applied, and the waters of baptism flow once again over the sullied soul. In the confessional we are made young again. As a child is brought to the font, so the soul is presented to our Lord for Him to do His work. And when it is done, those happy words: “Go in peace, for the Lord has taken away your sins.”

06 January 2007

Before we leave the manger...

One of the beloved cradlesongs to the Infant Jesus is "Away in a manger," and certainly there isn't a child in the English-speaking world who hasn't lisped his way through this lullaby. I am certain it has found its way into other languages as well. While we are still in the Christmas season, I wanted to share some additional verses as a meditation on the mystery of the Word Made Flesh, resting peacefully in the manger.

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

Dear Mary, his Mother, sang sweet lullabies,
as Jesus, awaking, gazed into her eyes.
The most holy Virgin, with loving caress
embraced the world’s Saviour with Love’s tenderness.

Good Joseph stood guarding the Mother and Child,
his soul filled with awe and his heart undefiled.
The birth of young Jesus made angels to sing,
but Joseph in silence kept watch o’er his King.

What once was a stable may our hearts become;
may God’s holy fam’ly in us find a home.
With Mary and Joseph and angels above
we worship the Infant, the gift of God’s Love.
Text: V.1, Traditional
Vv. 2-4, Fr. Christopher G. Phillips, 1995
Music: Cradle Song, William James Kirkpatrick, (1838-1921)

The Light was the light of men

Epiphany is about light. "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you." It is about the coming of the true Light into the darkness of this world. "Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome." "In Him was life, and that life was the light of men."

The chief image of Epiphany is the star in the East whose light guided the Magi to the Child-King enthroned on His mother's lap. The Light of God's love had come to shine on the Gentiles, too. "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined." The Gentiles worship Him with gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Magi rejoice in the light, and bow down and worship Him.

Light was the first word spoken by God into the chaotic darkness of creation. "Let there be light." And there was light. “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness."

Our lives are given to reflect the light of God's glory, and this is the noblest and most blessed purpose of all. We are, in a mystical way, to be an “epiphany” of Christ, so that every man can see His glory, and so welcome His Light into the dark world.

05 January 2007

The privilege of being a priest for God's children...

I make it no secret that I absolutely love being a priest. I have never understood the whole "burn-out of priests" issue. I don't doubt those who say it happens, but I can't really understand it, and I pray earnestly that God preserves me from such a thing, however it comes about in the life of a priest. I hope I am on fire for Christ, but I can't imagine burning out. For more than twenty-three years I have looked forward to getting up in the morning to say Mass, and to care for God's people as best as I can. It gives me a quiet joy. For that I am very grateful, and I hope for another twenty-three years, at least.

I especially love being a priest who is pastor of a parish with a school. I can't imagine why every parish doesn't have a school. To me, that is a mystery (and not of the theological kind). It seems to me that the Council of Baltimore was right. The bishops of this country, in an earlier age, enjoined the pastor of every parish to build the school first, before anything else. They were answering the question that must have been in their minds, "How can we raise up a generation of educated and faithful Catholics if we entrust their education to someone else?"

The children in our parish school are soon arriving back from their Christmas break. I'm really looking forward to their return. As full as the parish schedule has been over these past holy days, there has been something missing. Actually, what's been missing is about five hundred students around the place.

When we built our recent expansion for the church and school, I was able to move my office to a location just inside the front doors. This means that I see the children and their parents constantly. Very often, someone will stop by to chat, or to make a confession, or to ask a question. I have had parents come in to talk about getting their marriage regularized, because through their children they've seen how important the Catholic faith is. Our high school students will drop in to talk about the things that young people talk about. Scarcely a day goes by that one of the little ones doesn't come to my office to bring me a hand-drawn picture, or a sample of cursive writing. And yes, sometimes someone will stop by to register a complaint or a concern, and I need to hear those, too. It's all part of the care of souls.

What priest wouldn't want to be in the path of daily blessings like that? And I actually get to say Mass for these children and their teachers every single day! You can't hear five hundred children praying and singing together, without humbly thanking God. And I am always impressed, as we approach the solemn moment of consecration, that there is absolute silence. Five hundred children -- from four-year-olds to high school students -- five hundred of them know, absolutely and assuredly, that the Lord Jesus Christ is preparing to make Himself present on the altar in front of them. And on Fridays, something special -- they're children, after all, and they like to show off a bit, even to God. We have Mass every day, but on Fridays we have Mass in Latin. How they love to chant. Kindergarten voices chanting "Pater noster..." Surely God is pleased. I know I am.

God with us

Living in the grace of God involves a cost. There was a cost felt by the first disciples of Jesus when they left everything to follow Him. As they did this, so each person called to be a disciple must be willing to give up something in the short term in order to receive the Gospel and to live by it.

A willingness to sacrifice doesn't mean that we cannot attempt to improve our lives and the lives of our children. But we do need to be cautioned against letting our lives slip so out of focus that we lose sight of the fact that God-with-us must be the true center of our lives. To improve one's state in life is good, but not at a cost to others. To be centered on material well-being and security, and not on Jesus Christ, is empty. It is so easy to make idols of things. Remember: it’s not our outward appearance, it’s not the position we have in life, it's not the home we live in, or the job we have, that enables our success in God's kingdom. It’s not the possessions we gather about ourselves that give us personal security. Rather, it’s what happens to us on the inside – our on-going conversion to Jesus Christ.

Jesus came to proclaim the good news that He is God with us. He came to us through the Virgin Mary, and He remains with us in the Most Holy Sacrament. But we’ve got to do our part, and this is our part of the covenant we have with God: to allow Him to be the center of our lives.

04 January 2007

The Lady Chapel

After his act of charity of giving half his military cloak (cappa) to a beggar, St. Martin of Tours wore the remaining portion around his own shoulders as a cape (capella), which then was preserved as a relic after the death of the saint. A small oratory was built in which to place the capella, and the name was used eventually to refer to the building itself, becoming our English word, "chapel." The practice developed of erecting chapels, either as separate buildings or as small oratories within larger buildings, as centers of devotion to a particular saint or mystery, where the Divine Office could be prayed and where the Holy Mass could be celebrated.

One of the most common purposes for separate chapels was to provide a special place of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in those places where such a chapel was located it was referred to as the "Lady Chapel." While not unique to England, it was a rare cathedral or larger parish church in that country which did not have its Lady Chapel. So important was the veneration of our Lady in pre-reformation England, that the whole land was known as "Our Lady's Dowry," and there were more churches dedicated to her there, than to any other saint.

Traditionally, the Lady Chapel was most often situated near the sanctuary of the cathedral or church, in remembrance of the fact that the Blessed Virgin "stood beside the cross" when her Son was crucified. To have her chapel near the high altar where that sacrifice is offered is a constant reminder of our Lady's faithful witness and comfort to our Crucified Lord.

The Lady Chapel at Our Lady of the Atonement Church (pictured above) is adjacent to the main sanctuary, and it is what greets one's eyes when returning to one's place after receiving Holy Communion. Very often, people will make a brief visit to her chapel on their way back to their pews, providing an opportunity to "wait with Mary beside the cross."

Whether lighting a candle, or writing a request for prayer in the Intercession Book located there, the Lady Chapel is a small refuge of its own, and an important place of devotion to our Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady of the Atonement. It is as though the "capella" of Mary's love enfolds her children who come there.

Our Lady of the Unexpected Joy

Near the lectern, at the entrance to the Lady Chapel, there hangs a small icon. It was obtained on one of our parish pilgrimages to the Holy Land some years ago. It is lovely, but at first glance it does not catch one's attention. It is called "Our Lady of the Unexpected Joy," and is a mid-19th century hand-painted copy of an older Russian Orthodox icon. It depicts the moment of repentance and forgiveness in the life of a man. He is a man whom we do not know, but the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child know him. His sinfulness was not extraordinary, but it was something he had not taken seriously, as is the case with so many people, who are quick to excuse themselves, but not so quick to seek true and divine forgiveness. I find this little icon to be profound on many levels: the sinful man, the loving Mother, the forgiving Saviour -- an unknown life changed, a man prepared for eternity with God -- all done so quietly, and put before us by an unknown artist.

This is the story:

There was a man who, despite living a sinful life, nonetheless had a pious love and devotion to the Mother of God. Without fail, he prayed daily before her image, saying those words once spoken by the Archangel Gabriel, “Rejoice, thou who art full of grace!”

It happened that as he was about to go off to engage in some sinful activity, he turned to pray before the icon of the Mother of God. Immediately he began to tremble, as he saw the image of the Mother of God appear to move. The wounds on the hands, feet and side of the Divine Infant opened, and from them blood began to flow. Falling down before the image, the man cried out, “O Lady, who has done this?”

The Mother of God answered, “You and other sinners once again are crucifying my Son. You call me merciful, but then why do you insult me with your lawless acts?” “O my Mistress,” answered the sinner, “may my sins not overcome your inexpressible goodness! You are the only hope of all sinners. Entreat your Son and our God on my behalf.”

Our Lady twice repeated her prayer to the Infant Christ, but He remained adamant, until finally He responded to the persistent entreaties of the Mother of God: “I will fulfill your request. May your wish be granted. Because of you, this person’s sins are remitted. Let him, in token of forgiveness, kiss My wounds.”

And so, the forgiven sinner, before whom the inexhaustible mercy of the Mother of God was manifest in such a wonderful manner, raised himself up from the ground, and with inexpressible and unexpected joy kissed the wounds of his Saviour. From that moment, he lived a clean and pious life.

On this icon is depicted the man, on his knees, praying before the image of the Mother of God. Below the image are written the opening words of the story, “There was a certain transgressor...”

This can be the story of each of us. We are called to repentance; Mary intercedes; Christ forgives, and we are changed.

03 January 2007

The Vicar of Bray Syndrome

While it is not the purpose of these observations and musings to peek into the spiritual lives and religious practices of others, there are some things which cause such wonder that a few thoughts expressed might be forgivable. I cannot help but think of those good people who attempt to soldier on in the place where my own ministry began many years ago, but where I could not stay because of very real concern for the spiritual well-being of my family and myself.

As long ago as the mid-1970’s it had become evident to me that with the crisis of authority in Anglicanism, there would be a gradual disintegration of what had been a venerable (although incomplete) expression of the Christian faith. To change discipline has long been a legitimate part of the life of the Church, but the idea of changing doctrine at the whim of a simple majority vote is antithetical to the will of Christ. When a very small majority of a very small part of the Anglican Communion could make a decision about ordination which struck at the very foundation of sacramental life, or were able to cobble together a justification for abortion in certain cases, I realized that the Episcopal Church was not a safe place to be. For me, it was not so much the issue of the ordination of women (as impossible as that is, in a Catholic understanding of Holy Orders), nor was it that some were able to wander off into a moral wasteland; rather, it was that the authority to make such decisions was claimed by those who were able to push forward their desire for this. “What next?” was all I could think. And indeed, we have seen what has come next – a series of decisions which even calls into question the Christian status of the Episcopal Church.

There are still so many good people there, one cannot help but wonder how they are able to continue. It may be unfair, but when I see otherwise faithful people remaining where they are while their religion falls apart around them, I could not help but think that perhaps some of them have what might be called “The Vicar of Bray Syndrome.” There was a clergyman who managed to hold his position as parish priest in the village of Bray from the days of Charles II until the accession of George I of the House of Hanover, quite comfortably becoming Catholic or protestant according to the religion of the reigning monarch. He is described by Isaac D’Israeli (1766-1848) in his Curiosities of Literature, in this way:

“The vicar of Bray, in Berkshire, was a Papist under the reign of Henry the Eighth, and a Protestant under Edward the Sixth; he was a Papist again under Mary, and once more became a Protestant in the reign of Elizabeth. When this scandal to the gown was reproached for his versatility of religious creeds, and taxed for being a turncoat and an unconstant changeling... he replied, ‘Not so neither; for if I changed my religion, I am sure I kept true to my principle; which is, to live and die the vicar of Bray!’”

There is a famous ballad, sung over the years by many an Anglican theological student, with not a little derision for such a dulled conscience:

In good King Charles's golden time
When loyalty no harm meant,
A zealous high churchman was I
And so I gained preferment;
To teach my flock I never missed
Kings are by God appointed
And damned are those who dare resist
Or touch the Lord's annointed.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When Royal James possessed the crown
And popery came in fashion,
The Penal Laws I hooted down
And read the Declaration,
The Church of Rome I found did fit
Full well my constitution;
And I had been a Jesuit
But for the Revolution.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When William was our King declared
To ease the nation's grievance,
With this new wind about I steered
And swore to him allegiance;
Old principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive obedience was a joke,
A jest was non-resistance.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When Royal Anne became our Queen,
Then Church of England's Glory
Another face of things was seen,
And I became a Tory;
Occasional conformists base
I blamed their moderation,
And thought the Church in danger was
By such prevarication.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When George in pudding time came o'er
And moderate men looked big, Sir.
My principles I changed once more
And so became a Whig, Sir.
And thus preferment I procured
From our new faith's defender.
And almost every day abjured
The Pope and the Pretender.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

The illustrious house of Hanover
And Protestant succession,
To these I do allegiance swear
While they can keep possession
For in my faith and loyalty;
I never more will falter
And George my lawful king shall be
Until the times do alter.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!
I scarcely want to think it, but is it possible that for some, it is more important to be Anglican than to know the truth, wherever that leads? To attempt to live and pray and worship under an unstable authority, which speaks of "Gospel values" while at the same time giving sanction to every debased behaviour imaginable, is not something I could do.

There are things I knew as an Anglican which I love: the beauty of holiness, things done "decently and in order," a stateliness in worship, a dignified liturgy. These things, and others like them, we have been encouraged to keep as Catholics within the Anglican Use. But for the rest of it -- that which leads to those things abhorrent to God -- I say, "good riddance."

02 January 2007

The parable of the three trees

I wish I could remember the source of this little parable. If anyone knows, please let me know. Meanwhile, it is here for your meditation on how our human will should be conformed to God's Divine Will.

Once upon a time, three great trees were growing in an ancient forest. The first tree prayed that when it was cut down, it might become part of the timbers of a noble palace, the most magnificent building ever shaped by the creative hands of men. Instead, it was faced with the bitter fact that its lovely grain was being used to throw a rude stable together. But it was the stable in which the Christ Child was born.

The second tree petitioned God that when the axe was laid to its roots, its planks might be fashioned into the hull of the greatest vessel that ever sailed the seven seas. Instead, when it was chopped down it was used to form the hull of a lowly fishing vessel, and the tree resented the insult to its grandeur. But that insignificant boat was the one from which Jesus preached His incomparable words at the edge of the little Sea of Galilee.

The third tree beseeched God that it might never feel the bite of the cruel axe, but that it might go on for years pointing its proud finger toward the sky. Instead, the dark day came when the woodsmen arrived and laid the sharp blade to its resisting roots, and it cried out against God with every blow. But the shaken tree was fated to become the Cross of Calvary, destined to point its noble finger toward the sky forever!

Not a single one of those trees lived to see its fondest wish come true. Not a single one got its deepest prayer answered, nor its own will fulfilled. But God, in fulfilling His Will for those three trees, granted them a fulfillment infinitely beyond anything they could have desired or hoped for. As each one met the axe, how hopeless it seemed – yet, what glory God worked for each of them.