All Hands on Deck: Of Kids, Confirmation, and Calamity

14 Feb

Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.
~ St. Thomas Aquinas

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Of Wound Healing, Scar Tissue, and Humility

10 Feb

“Be content that you are not yet a saint…. Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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Blessed Tommaso da Olera (1563-1631)

4 Feb

Sometimes holy people are declared saints right after they die. On the other hand, sometimes canonizations grind on and on…and on.

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Of Driving Lessons, Fatherhood, and the Moral Life

29 Jan

“Conversion to Christ does not
automatically make us virtuous.”
~ Frank Sheed

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Pope St. Vitalian: Of Calendars, Celts, and Christian Unity

27 Jan

I’m finally reading through Sheed and Ward’s Saints are Not Sad (1949), a collection of hagiographic portraits by some of Catholic England’s most notable authors of the last century. Just recently, I finished Fr. Vincent McNabb’s chapter on St. Columbanus, the Irish missionary-monk and founder of Italy’s Bobbio Abbey, a bulwark against Arianism and a benchmark of orthodoxy for centuries. The saint’s life story is a fascinating one, but I was especially diverted to discover his connections with the Easter controversy – that knotty calendrical conundrum concerning how Christians should calculate the date we commemorate the Resurrection every year.

Unlike Christmas, which is a fixed date that can fall on any day of the week, Easter has always been observed on a Sunday – at least since the fourth century when the Council of Nicaea made it mandatory. But which Sunday was to be the Easter Sunday each year was left up for grabs, and Christians have been divided over the question ever since – especially Christians East and West. Catholics and virtually all Protestant denominations follow one method for determining the date of Easter, and most of the Orthodox world follows another. Rarely do our Easter celebrations coincide – an ecumenical blight that is not likely to be repaired any time soon.

But even the West was divided on the Easter question for many centuries. By Columbanus’ day, the bulk of the Catholic world followed a Roman calculation, which disregarded Jewish Passover reckonings, yet, until the late seventh century, British and Irish Christians followed an older, possibly more Hebraic formulation – a formulation that St. Columbanus vigorously defended. “Little is known of how the British and Irish Churches computed their Easter,” writes McNabb. “Only one thing is quite certain, that they kept the Easter as first taught them by Rome” – that is, they refused to follow what was then the fashion in Rome because they were dedicated to the tradition that they’d received from Rome many centuries before that. And when the British churches started caving to the contemporary majority Roman usage, the Irish churches stubbornly clung to what they saw as the preeminent and more ancient Apostolic practice.

Such a Romish kerfuffle could only be sorted out by a Roman Pontiff, and that’s exactly what happened. Elected in 657, Pope St. Vitalian had to grapple with various heresies and rambunctious autocrats, but perhaps his crowning achievement was shepherding a resolution of the Easter question, along with other disputes between Rome and Ireland, thus bringing the Celtic churches completely into the Catholic fold.

In this, St. Vitalian demonstrated what for me, while still a Catholic wannabe, was so attractive about the papacy – that is, why we need it and how it works. “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful,” reads Lumen Gentium (§23) – specifically, the bishops and faithful already in union with the successor of Peter himself. We don’t need a CEO of the whole world – or even of all Christians. What we need – what Christ provided us – is a supreme pastor and final arbiter who’ll settle our own in-house disputes first and keep the family together.

And that’s what Pope Vitalian did. Maybe the rest of Christendom went on doing their own thing when it came to Easter – a tragedy, to be sure. Yet what was essential, at least for the Papa, was that all his own flock came around to celebrating the feast together every year. With God’s help, he pulled it off in the end, and we universally rejoice in his triumph each spring. Alleluia!

Vitalian died in 672 on January 27 (his feast day), and he is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica.
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Of Papyri, Perimeters, and Possibility

27 Jan

“So keep still, and let Him do some work.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

Earlier in January, as the Christmas season progressed, we heard from the First Letter of John during the weekday Mass readings. One morning, out of curiosity, I grabbed a handy New American Bible at home to refresh my memory about the Epistle’s backstory. I read the Introduction, and then, my curiosity further stirred, I turned to the Introduction for the Second Letter of John. “Written in response to similar problems,” it began, “the Second and Third Letters of John are of the same length, perhaps determined by the practical consideration of the writing space on one piece of papyrus” (emphasis added).

I paused and pondered, and then I envisioned St. John sitting down to write these two missives destined to become Sacred Scripture. He’s anxious about specific difficulties in the fledgling communities he’ll be addressing – false teaching, harmful divisions, a lack of hospitality – and yet he’s limiting his communication, whether by choice or paucity of resources, to a single page each. Both letters are indeed very brief – 13 verses for II John, and 15 verses for III John – and perhaps they adequately served their purpose in the churches which originally received them.

Regardless, these two short memos came to be accepted by the Church as Holy Writ, and both Letters have cameos in the Lectionary every couple years. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering what else was tumbling around in John’s head as he came to the end of each physical page. Evidently there was plenty. “Although I have much to write to you,” he notes in the Second Letter, “I do not intend to use paper and ink” (v.12).

It strikes me that all this is a helpful image of how God is eager to work through us despite our limitations – and despite our own doubts concerning his ability to do so. That’s a weird notion, in any case, because we see plenty evidence in Scripture and Church history of his accomplishing amazing things through very imperfect people. Peter is the easiest example – a hotheaded fisherman who denied the Lord at the first sign of trouble, and yet whom the Lord appointed as the first pope. And then there’s St. Paul, who was well aware of his personal shortcomings (“I will…boast most gladly of my weaknesses,” he writes the Corinthians), not to mention his burdensome past involvement in persecuting the very Christ he came to embrace – something we heard about at length on his feast day last Friday.

But these drawbacks didn’t seem to matter at all. The Lord chose him anyway, which he revealed to Ananias in Damascus before dispatching him to heal the blinded future Apostle. “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine,” God told the skeptical Ananias in a vision, “to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel” (Acts 9.15). Sure enough, Paul went on to preach the Gospel and plant churches all over the Mediterranean, despite his being the equivalent of a very limited apostolic papyrus.

These reflections came to mind today as I listened to NPR’s “Big Picture Science.” The featured guest was Rob Dunn, a biology professor at North Carolina State University, who enthusiastically described the vast variety of hidden critters – arthropods and microbes, bugs and bacteria – that peacefully and (praise God) invisibly coexist with us in our own homes.

At the end of the show, Dunn contrasted his domestic explorations with the assumption he’d harbored as a young researcher that new discoveries can only happen in exotic, far-flung places. “Over the last few years, I realized that many of the things we can find in the rainforest, we can find in homes – not the same species but the same potential for new discovery,” he said. “If we could just sort of re-focus people on the potential for discovery around them, [then] we could have wonder-filled lives.”

We have a tendency to think that we have to make monumental changes in ourselves before God can work anything through us, let alone wonders. Nonsense. God is accustomed to making use of ordinary, fallible human beings to accomplish his purposes all the time, and we’re no exception. By all means, put away sin, receive the sacraments, and get to Mass – daily if possible. But don’t wait until you feel like a saint to start attempting saintly things. That is, don’t hedge on action because you’re not a spiritual rainforest. Instead, expect to discover that God can already make wonders happen by means of your humblest efforts, and despite your humdrum limitations.

And please don’t dawdle until you’re the equivalent of a thick sheaf of pristine papyri before you allow the Lord to write his story on you and through you. Take it from the Apostle John: When it comes to fleshing out the Word of God, any ol’ page will do.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

St. Sebastian – Pray for Us!

18 Jan

If you have (or ever have had) children in Catholic schools around here, chances are good that they played sports at some point. And if that’s the case, then the chances are even better that you know the Inter-City Catholic League (ICCL) Athlete’s Prayer by heart. It’s recited before every Catholic school match-up, and it ends with this enthusiastic invocation: “Saint Sebastian, pray for us!”

Why St. Sebastian? If you didn’t already know, your student-athletes would’ve filled you in long ago: Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes, of course!

We know very little about the real St. Sebastian except that he was a martyr and that he was buried in the Roman catacombs. St. Ambrose, the 4th- century bishop of Milan, confidently wrote that Sebastian originally hailed from his city and that he perished under Emperor Diocletian, but all other stories about Sebastian date from the 5th century, and, while edifying, are entirely fictitious. Fictitious as well are the many depictions of a muscular St. Sebastian riddled with arrows – a popular Renaissance artistic theme.

What’s not fictitious is the value of St. Sebastian’s intercession – for safety, for sportsmanlike conduct, for maximum effort. Plus, as a martyr, Sebastian is certainly an excellent role model for our student-athletes (and all of us), regardless of the actual details of his story. “Every Christian is called to become a strong athlete of Christ,” Pope St. John Paul II observed, “that is, a faithful and courageous witness to his Gospel” – just like the real St. Sebastian. And Pope John Paul, himself no stranger to athletics, followed up his observation with some advice: “To succeed in this, he must persevere in prayer, be trained in virtue and follow the divine Master in everything.”

Those are the rules of the Christian game, according to the Holy Father. Moreover, as St. Paul insisted, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim 2.5).

This is the first weekend of Ordinary Time, and it coincides with the feast of St. Sebastian (January 20). He’s an ideal companion for us in our ordinary routines, day in and day out, as we follow the rules, strive for holiness, and seek the crown of heavenly glory.

Game on.
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This meditation originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Parish, Mishawaka, Indiana.

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