24 February 2017

Our Lady, Mother of the Atonement

Our Lady of the Atonement, cradling her Crucified Son.
Statue located in the Parish Church of
Our Lady of the Atonement, San Antonio, Texas

Saturdays throughout the year are especially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and unless the liturgical calendar directs otherwise, traditionally we celebrate a Votive Mass of Our Lady. For us in this parish, we most love her title of Our Lady of the Atonement. Since the time our Lord Jesus walked this earth as the God-Man, there have been, over the centuries, numerous titles which have arisen to give honor to his most holy Mother. From the early centuries of the Church, she was known as Theotokos, or God-bearer, and as time passed, the Blessed Virgin Mary was honored with many other titles. Some of these titles are more widely known than others, but all convey a distinct attribute of Mary as a person who has found favor with God. Some titles describe her state of life, such as Our Lady of Grace. Others denote a location where she may have spoken spiritually to an individual, such as Our Lady of Walsingham. In some of her titles, she is associated with the redeeming work of her Son, and there are many such examples of this. But perhaps no other title in the world better describes the fullness of Mary's relationship with her Son as does the title of Our Lady of the Atonement.

The title embraces two mysteries of our faith: first, the atonement -- the wonderful at-one-ment which was achieved by our Lord Jesus Christ as He shed His Most Precious Blood upon the Cross at Calvary, through which came the reconciliation of man with God, and of man with man, making us "at one" in His Sacred Heart; and second, the role which Our Lady has in the atonement wrought by God -- her coƶperation with the Divine Will at the annunciation, and her participation in her Son's sufferings and death as she stood at the foot of the Cross. These words which Simeon spoke to her came to pass: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." The crowning act of Redeeming Love -- the Atonement upon the Cross of Jesus Christ -- is for all of us the means whereby mankind finds salvation. Here Jesus gave us the greatest gift: His precious life. Here he gave us His Blessed Mother. Here Mary stood, and here we stand next to her, at the foot of the Cross. We are children of The Atonement and the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother, is Our Lady who bears witness to Christ's Atonement.

21 February 2017

The Chair of St. Peter

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, and which is the title of the Ordinariate for the United States and Canada.

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.

“…On [Peter] He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigned a like power to all the Apostles, yet he founded a single Chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was; but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one Chair. So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?"

- St. Cyprian of Carthage, c.251 AD

O Almighty God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst give to thy Apostle Saint Peter many excellent gifts, and commandedst him earnestly to feed thy flock: make, we beseech thee, all Bishops and Pastors diligently to preach thy holy Word, and the people obediently to follow the same; that they may receive the crown of everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

19 February 2017

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

"He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” (St. John 6:54-55)

I grew up “hearing” those words, but I didn’t “know” those words.  Raised in a Methodist family, we had “Communion Sunday” six times a year, and our understanding was that it was a “memorial,” a “remembering” of the Last Supper.  Why it was important to eat a cube of white bread and sip some Welch’s grape juice from a very small shot-glass escaped me at the time, but I wondered about it.  I had heard what Catholics believed about their Mass, and I knew it was nothing like what we had as protestants. In fact, I found it a bit scandalous when I gave it any real thought, and I was happy just to feel sorry for those “poor Catholics” with what I thought was their superstition, and as I went through my teenage years and approached adulthood I was more and more confirmed in what I thought was the “superior” protestant understanding of what we called “The Lord’s Supper.”

So certain was I of the rightness of my position that I decided to prove it in what I thought would be a more scholarly way when I was in the second year of my undergraduate studies.  We were allowed to choose an “independent study” in theology, under the direction of a professor, which would be counted as a four-credit course, on any approved topic.  This was my opportunity, I thought.  I decided do my independent study on “The Understanding of the Eucharist in the Early Church.”  (I had no idea at the time, but this study would lead me to become an Anglo-Catholic, which eventually would lead me into the Catholic Church.)

Certain that my protestant understanding of things would be vindicated, I began.  I looked in the scriptures and began to assemble my references.  A little discomfort began to set in when I read in St. John’s gospel about our Lord speaking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  But not to worry, I thought.  I was certain there must be a simple explanation, until I realized that when Jesus first spoke those words in the synagogue at Capernaum, most people were scandalized. It seemed like nonsense to them, this “eating flesh and drinking blood.” The Jews were offended. People left him and wouldn't follow him anymore. They thought he was crazy or a blasphemer. And even worse, Christ let them leave.  He didn’t call them back and say, “Wait a minute.  Don’t take me literally.  I didn’t really mean it.”  Apparently he did mean it, and he let them go.  Even the disciples were deeply disturbed by Jesus' words, so much so that he asked them, “Are you going to leave me too?”  They stayed, because, as St. Peter said, “Who else has the words of life?” But they were thinking to themselves, “What could their Teacher possibly mean?”  They were puzzled, and remained puzzled, until that fateful night, the night of the Passover, the night in which Jesus was to be betrayed by one of his own, and would be given over to be tortured and killed.

An upper room had been prepared. The unleavened bread was baked. The Passover Lamb had been sacrificed and roasted. Jesus was at the head of the table with his Twelve, his Israel, his family. He took the large piece of unleavened flat bread that signaled the opening of the Passover meal. He gave thanks to his Father for the gifts. He broke it and gave the pieces to his disciples. Up until this point, theirs had been a Passover like any another Passover, recalling God's grace to Israel when he had brought them out of slavery in Egypt into freedom, through the blood of the lamb smeared on their doorposts.

Then Jesus spoke, and what he said at that moment had never before been said at a Passover meal. "Take, eat. This is my body, which is given for you." And again, after the supper, Jesus took a chalice of wine called the thanksgiving or blessing cup, gave thanks and then said something that had never before been said at a Passover meal, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." Jesus was treating the Passover as though it was his own, because it was. Jesus is the Lord, and this is the Lord’s Passover.

With these words, Jesus transformed the Passover meal forever, and as I came to realize this, my understanding began to grow.  As I read the early Church Fathers, I came to realize that under the outward form of the bread, Christ gives his body as food – the very body he received from his mother Mary; the body that was conceived in her through the Word spoken by the angel in the power of the Holy Spirit; the body that was wrapped in swaddling-clothes and laid in a manger; the body that was whipped and beaten, spit at and slapped; the body that was nailed to the cross, laid in the tomb, and raised from the dead on the third day. St Paul asked the question: “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” And of course, it is! Christ’s words declare it to be so, and his words are true. Jesus gives his body to us, as though it were bread to eat; but this which is in his hand, and in the disciples’ mouths, is truly and completely his body.

And in the cup, he gives his blood. This is the blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. The medieval artists who depicted a chalice at the foot of the cross and a stream of blood pouring into it from the wounded side of Jesus understood the force of Christ’s words. The blood that was shed on Calvary's cross is our drink.  Once again, St. Paul asked the question: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” Of course it is! Jesus' words declare it to be so, and his words are true. Jesus gives his blood to us as though it was wine to drink. This which is in the Lord's chalice, and in the disciples' mouths, is truly and completely his blood.  Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. He was offered up on the Cross for our sins, and in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, this offering is perpetually brought before the throne of Almighty God – and it is that which demands our understanding of Christ as our Eternal High Priest, who offers up himself as the Sacrifice.

Consider the eternal character of Christ’s priesthood.  It’s easy enough, of course, to see how he was exercising this office of priesthood when he laid down his life on the cross.   He was the Victim, “led as a lamb to the slaughter.”  But he wasn’t an unwilling or reluctant victim.  He didn’t die by constraint, as one who was compelled to yield up his life.  But he is not only the Victim.  At the same time he is the priest who offers up the sacrifice.  It was he who did this, and not another.  What could be more plain than his own words, when he said, “I lay down my life for the sheep… No man takes it from me, but I lay it down myself.”  In this way, he gave himself as a ransom for many.

But we need to understand also that Christ’s priesthood is eternal – his life was laid down, but his priesthood is not.  Certainly, his sacrifice was completed; scripture teaches us that he made that sacrifice “once for all,” and we believe it to have been “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”  So then, what need is there for Christ still to exercise the office of priest?  Why shouldn’t he have resigned that function when the sacrifice was finished?

We get a hint of the answer in the epistle to the Hebrews, which says, “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”  That passage, along with other references in the Epistle to the Hebrews, alludes to the ceremonies of the great Jewish day of Atonement.  In the ritual of that one day, the whole sacrificial system of the Jews culminated, and was gathered up into one point.  On that day alone in the year, the high priest entered into the Holy of Holies in the temple at Jerusalem.  But before he dared to venture into the immediate presence of the Most High God, the sacrifices first had be offered outside in the court.  There, at the altar of burnt-offering, the high priest was to slay the animals for the sin-offering; then passing through the veil, he was to bring the blood into the most holy place, that there, in the midst of a cloud of incense which he offered before the Lord, he would sprinkle the blood upon the mercy seat of God, and so “make atonement” for all the people of Israel.  It’s in connection with all of that that we read in Hebrews of Christ having “entered once for all into the Holy place…”

In the Jewish system of sacrifice, when the victim was slain, from one point of view, the sacrifice was complete.  In the sacrifice, the blood was shed which could alone make atonement for sin.  But from another point of view, there was still something lacking; namely, the presentation of the blood to God.  In more familiar terms, it’s rather like getting a gift for someone.  When it has been purchased and wrapped, one can say that you have a gift for so-and-so.  But there is more to it than simply that.  The gift must be “presented” to the one for whom it is intended, in order for it truly to be a gift.

This relates to Christ’s eternal High Priesthood.  The sacrifice was offered once for all on Calvary.  When the blood was shed, without which there could be no remission of sins, there still had to be the presentation before the Father in heaven – a presentation which must be made by the great High Priest who offered the sacrifice.  And this is what Christ does perpetually in heaven.  This is what he does each time the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered.  Remember, Christ is the celebrant of every Mass, and it is his all-sufficient sacrifice which he offers to the Father every time we offer what he has commanded. There he is, still continuing his work as the High Priest, exhibiting his sacred wounds, presenting before the Father the merits of his perfect sacrifice.                                                                                                                     
How much I was missing, but came to know in this larger, fuller and richer Catholic teaching.  In the Mass it is Christ who is our Mediator and High Priest, still pleading for us, and lifting up his holy hands before the Father on behalf of us all.  It is no dead Christ whom we adore.  It isn’t some distant figure from the past whom we revere.  No, our participation in the Mass is our appeal to a present, continuous, and abiding work.  We are claiming to be heard through the intercession of a still-active Mediator; and we are united with him in his continuous work of pleading the Sacrifice which, although a finished event, nevertheless is living in its operation and application – and it is for this we give continual thanks to Almighty God in the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

18 February 2017


O LORD GOD, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do: mercifully grant that by thy power, we may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

It is for the cause of unity...

"When all things were in quiet silence and night was in the midst of her swift course, thine Almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne..." and that Word took flesh untainted by sin from the Virgin chosen from the beginning of time. It was done for the healing of that tragic rift between God and Man.

God created all things to be in perfect unity. He made the universe as a reflection of His own divine order. He created Man in His own image, to be in perfect communion with Him. But through the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, disorder entered into the world, and perfect communion was broken. Ever since that time there has been a tendency in the natural order of things for there to be disintegration, the breakdown of things, a crumbling. Sadly, what should be unnatural has become normal in the world around us, and within us, and even within the Church.

Christ founded the Church to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic – and so it is. But our sin has caused division, and that is a clear contradiction to the Divine Will of our Lord. While there may be an invisible spiritual communion deeper than we know, especially through the bonds of baptism, nonetheless there is to be a visible communion also, because that is the Will of Christ, and the constant invitation from God is that we work and pray to build up both the spiritual and visible unity of Christ’s Body.

It is this purpose – the building up of unity – which is outlined at the very beginning of Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum coetibus.  But even from the first days of its implementation this stated purpose has often been glossed over in the search for the particulars of the Personal Ordinariates.   So much time and energy has been spent on questions of who can belong, of the details of the liturgy, of who can be ordained - indeed, any number of other things – that the more important purpose of building up the unity of the Church sometimes is pushed to a lower place.

In fact, the very reason for the great generosity of the Church in giving us Anglicanorum coetibus is to help bring about the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer “that they all may be one.” It is not accidental that the first three paragraphs of the Apostolic Constitution speak of the Church as “a people gathered into the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and that the Church was instituted by Christ as “a sacrament…of communion with God and of unity among all people,” and that this Church is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. Then, recognizing that there are “many elements of sanctification and of truth [which] are found outside her visible confines,” Pope Benedict says that these “are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.”

What had been broken, the Church is inviting us to repair. The communion which has been impaired, we are being asked to restore. The fellowship which has been strained, we are being asked to strengthen.  This is a foundational purpose of the parishes and communities of the Ordinariates, using the tools of our heritage, our liturgy, our spirituality – indeed, our whole ethos – and already we can count in the thousands those who have been restored to the unity of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church through the ministry of the Pastoral Provision, and now the Ordinariates.

This is what is spoken to us through the Virgin Mary’s title of Our Lady of the Atonement: that we are to be “at one” with God and with one another.  The Blessed Mother shows us the way as she unites her human will with the Divine Will of the Triune God.  It would gladden her heart for her children to be one again. She, who stood beside the Cross and saw her Son in agony, would be comforted by us taking away this pain of separation. There are few things that touch a mother’s heart more than to see her whole family together at one table. This is why the Church has given us the Apostolic Constitution: so that we can put division behind us and join together with one voice and one heart in “that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel” to the whole world.

“Lord Jesus, make us one, as you and the Father are one.” Amen.

12 February 2017

Remembering our beginning...

The original outdoor Shrine to Our Lady of the Atonement

The outdoor Shrine as it is today

In the courtyard between the church and the school is an outdoor altar which marks an important place on our church grounds – the site of “the finding of the crucifix,” and also the spot where the first Mass was celebrated here on the property thirty years ago. This is the story of how it came to be where it is.

After the parish was canonically erected on 15th August 1983, I began to search for a permanent location for us to worship and to grow from our original eighteen people. We were, at that time, meeting at San Francesco di Paola Church, in downtown San Antonio. It is a lovely little place, built by Italian immigrants, but the location was ill-suited for us. Everyone had to travel quite a distance, and it was difficult to build up our parish life in a place which was fairly remote for all of us. So I began to look for some land.

It seemed to me that the future growth of San Antonio would be taking place on the northwest side of the city. Everything pointed to it, and that has indeed come to pass. The archdiocese had (several years before) purchased a small plot of land for the possibility that a territorial parish might be needed. When I inquired about locating our parish there, the answer was, “Yes, that would be fine. There’s not much happening out there anyway, and we probably won’t need it for a territorial parish.” The short-sightedness of that statement aside, it worked out well for us. To get the property, we were required to pay a rather hefty sum to the archdiocese, which eventually we did.

As soon as I saw the land, I knew this was the place. On my first visit to it, I had to crawl through the underbrush, literally on my belly, to make any kind of exploration. I had a small medal of Our Lady of the Atonement with me, and I buried it in the earth as I was making my slow progress through the woods and brush, claiming it for our Lady and her parish. Shortly after burying the medal, I came into a small clearing, allowing me to stand up. With the thick undergrowth surrounding me, I saw in the middle of the clearing a wooden cross stuck into the ground, and fastened to the rough cross was a small crucifix. How it got there, and why it was put there, I do not know; however, I took it as a sign. It confirmed to me that this was the place. This was where our Lord and His Blessed Mother wanted us to be, and this confirmation came at exactly the right time, because at the same time as I had requested the possibility of getting the land for our parish, some Dominican priests had approached the archbishop about staffing a chaplaincy for the University of Texas, which is a short distance away. Even though we had asked first, the archbishop thought perhaps a better use for the land would be to give it to the Dominicans. I told the archbishop, “You can’t! I’ve already claimed it for Our Lady of the Atonement.” He expressed his regret, but told me his mind was set. I warned him that we would begin praying very seriously about this. And so we did.

For nine evenings we gathered to pray the Novena to the Holy Ghost. By the fourth evening, the archbishop contacted me. “I don’t know what kind of prayer you’ve been saying,” he said, “but the situation with the Dominicans has fallen through. You can build there.” We finished the novena as an act of thanksgiving. We were intensely grateful to God, but not surprised at what He had done. Mind you, I have nothing against the Dominicans, but the Blessed Mother had other plans for the land.

I saved that little crucifix. We built a simple wooden shrine to Our Lady of the Atonement on the property where the crucifix had been found, and fastened it onto the peak of the shrine’s roof. In time we made plans to celebrate a Mass there, which we did on 9 July 1985, to prepare to break ground for a new church.

Today, on the spot where the first Mass was offered on the property stands the shrine, a copy of the original wooden one, but now in stone. Encased within the altar is the simple wood altar which stood there originally, now protected from the elements. And the little crucifix is there. It is mounted in the place where the tabernacle would normally be, if this were an indoor altar. So it reminds us of our beginnings, and of how God guided and protected us as new converts to the Catholic faith. There are plaques on either side of the shrine, briefly telling the story of the finding of the crucifix and the celebration of the first Mass, so our children and their children will never forget that the Lord and His Mother heard our prayers.

The first Mass offered on our property, 9 July 1985

The crucifix which was found on the parish land

09 February 2017

St. Scholastica

(Mass at Montecassino, in the Crypt Chapel where Ss. Benedict and Scholastica are buried)

Twins often share the same interests and ideas with an equal intensity. Therefore, it is no surprise that Scholastica and her twin brother, Benedict, both established religious communities within a few miles from each other.

The twins were born in 480 of wealthy parents. Scholastica and Benedict were brought up together until he left for Rome to continue his studies.

We don’t know much about Scholastica's early life. She founded a religious community for women near Monte Cassino, five miles from where her brother was the abbot of a monastery.

The twins visited each other once a year in a farmhouse because Scholastica was not permitted inside the monastery. They spent these times discussing spiritual matters.

According to an account written by Pope St. Gregory, the brother and sister spent their last day together in prayer and conversation. Scholastica sensed her death was close at hand and she begged Benedict to stay with her until the next day.

He refused her request because he did not want to spend a night outside the monastery, thus breaking his own Rule. Scholastica asked God to let her brother remain and a severe thunderstorm broke out, preventing Benedict and his monks from returning to the abbey.

Benedict cried out, "God forgive you, Sister. What have you done?" Scholastica replied, "I asked a favor of you and you refused. I asked it of God and he granted it."

Brother and sister parted the next morning after their long discussion. Three days later, Benedict was praying in his monastery and saw the soul of his sister rising heavenward in the form of a white dove. Benedict then announced the death of his sister to the monks and later buried her in the tomb he had prepared for himself.

Setting foot on Monte Cassino today, you'd never know it was the site of a horrible bombing during World War II, with great loss of life and the destruction of the monastery. Founded by St. Benedict in 529 after moving from Subiaco, it was here that he wrote his famous Rule, which would become the model for monastic rules throughout the Church.

It's a wonderful place to visit, and when we do we always celebrate Mass in the Crypt Chapel where the saintly twins, Benedict and Scholastica, are buried.

The last time we were here we had many of the members of our Upper School Honors Choir with us. The chapel grew more and more full as visitors in the main church found their way down to the crypt where we were celebrating Mass, enchanted by the music.

O God, who for a testimony to the path of innocency didst cause the soul of blessed Scholastica, thy Virgin, to enter heaven in the appearance of a dove: grant unto us; that by her merits and intercession, we may walk in such innocency of life; that we may be worthy to attain to everlasting felicity; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

01 February 2017

The Presentation of Our Lord

It is a good and just king who obeys his own laws. And at the Presentation in the Temple 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 is 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.

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly beseech thy majesty: that, as thine Only Begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.