Of May Crowning, Corniness, and the 4-H Fair

17 May

“It turns out that Mary is a really big deal for the Catholics.”
~ Dave Barry

What a sap I am.May-Procession-005

Last Friday was May Crowning at my parish, and so I arrived loaded for bear: Two clean hankies at the ready, not to mention optimal pew positioning – close to the center aisle, but not too close to anyone I knew.

Why? It’s so predictable: Once the procession begins and we start singing those corny Marian songs, I commence blubbering – like clockwork, every year. Usually I can hold off through “Immaculate Mary” and “Sing of Mary,” but the clincher is always “Queen of the May:”

Bring flowers of the fairest,
Bring flowers of the rarest.

Picture the children in their Sunday best, with hands pressed together and eyes (for the most part) directed forward, solemnly approaching the statue of Mary in the sanctuary.

Our full hearts are swelling,
Our glad voices telling,
The praise of the loveliest
Rose of the vale.

And then there’s us in the back pews, the moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, oohing and aahing, snapping photos, recording videos.

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

Even with the distractions and the pictures, how can we resist being drawn into the schoolchildren’s sweet devotional gesture? I know I can’t. I sob, dry my eyes, and sob some more – a  mawkish mess. Sure it’s sentimental, saccharine even, but how any Catholic can withstand that surge of emotion is beyond me.

G.K. Chesterton had a similar idea when he wrote about Marian devotion – particularly the over-the-top sentimental variety:

In people who are Catholics, or call themselves Catholics, I want the idea not only liked but loved and loved ardently, and above all proudly proclaimed. I want it to be what the Protestants are perfectly right in calling it; the badge and sign of a Papist. I want to be enthusiastic about the existence of the enthusiasm.

maycrowningHence enthusiasm (complete with sobs) at May Crowning, and almost without regard to one’s typical level of Marian fervor. It’s all about mom, after all – like Mother’s Day for Mary. We’re so glad to be doing something simply to please her and thank her. And like any good mom, Mary isn’t all that particular. She doesn’t care if it’s a dozen roses or a dandelion from the backyard – an expensive Hallmark card, or a scribbled crayon drawing on a paper scrap. What matters is that we remember – not for her sake, of course, but for our own. It’s good for children to remember their mothers.

It’s good, first of all, because gratitude is a character trait that must be cultivated, beginning with gratitude to our mothers. Our human moms gave us life; Mary gave us Jesus. “Let it be to me according to your word,” was her reply to Gabriel, and it was in that simple Fiat that we have any access to spiritual life at all. Moreover, not to be outdone in generosity, Jesus in turn gave us Mary. “Behold, your mother,” he told the Beloved Disciple, and, through him, all of the church – which is only fitting, given that the church is her own son’s Body.

As my pastor pointed out at Friday’s May Crowning, Mary’s care for us is an extension of the care she provided Jesus throughout his earthly life because now we are truly part of him, the Mystical Body of Christ. As such, we seek to be ever more conformed to his likeness, and it is here that Mary’s maternal care is preeminently manifest. John Paul II, quoting Lumen Gentium, wrote:

As Christians raise their eyes with faith to Mary in the course of their earthly pilgrimage, they “strive to increase in holiness.” Mary, the exalted Daughter of Sion, helps all her children, wherever they may be and whatever their condition, to find in Christ the path to the Father’s house.

Therein lies the second reason it’s always good to lavish our affection on Mary at opportune moments like a May Procession – when it’s easy, for example, and everybody is doing it. Such tokens establish (or reinforce) the habidorothyt of turning to her when it’s not so easy or pleasant. “Wherever they may be or whatever their condition,” the Pope noted. That means the mom who receives our blossoms and childish sentiments at May Crowning will also receive our pleas for assistance when our situations are much more dire and disturbing. “She is the Mother of fair love,” wrote Servant of God Dorothy Day, “of fear and of knowledge and of holy hope.” The former Bohemian and socialist, no stranger herself to the rougher sides of life, further expanded this theme:

No matter where it is, no matter how perverse and distorted, no matter how dark and tortured, there is still in all love a suggestion, a hint of this love of God.

Once again, we do well to remember that she is not particular, and her acceptance of our meager gestures, no matter how broken or bent, can and will transform them into glorious tributes.

That brings me to the St. Joseph County 4-H Fair. For the last few years, I’ve had the privilege, along with several local Knights of Columbus, of manning the Legion of Mary’s Catholic Information fair booth in the evenings. It’s a blast, and I look forward to it every year – almost like a mini-retreat. The Legion provides a wealth of pamphlets and written material about the Catholic Faith as well as information about various Catholic practices and prayers – all to the good. But my favorite part are the Rosaries – loads of them, and all free! When I relieve the Legion ladies who’ve been occupying the booth all day, the first thing I do is load up my arms with a variety of Rosaries – blue, pink, green, purple – and then stand out in front of the booth to pass them out.

This is when the fun begins, for it’s simply amazing how many folks will take them: Young, old, girls, boys, from every culture and walk of life, and certainly Catholics (regardless of how active they’ve been) as well as non-Catholics. “Really, it’s free?” they’ll ask.grange-fair-2

“You bet, and here’s a little booklet to tell you how to use it,” I’ll say, usually with the follow-up, “in case you’ve forgotten.”

Sure, some of the younger fair-goers will take a Rosary as a joke, but not as often as you’d think. Instead, when the non-Catholics hear about using the Rosary for prayer instead of just wearing it as an ironic accessory, quite a few grow curious and want to hear more.

“The Rosary isn’t about worshiping Mary,” I’ll tell them. “It’s actually about praying with Mary to her son. In fact, it’s asking the Mother of Christ to be our mother, too!”

Do they all get it? Will they all go home and pray their pink and green and purple Rosaries that night? Probably not – maybe never. Some of the Rosaries will collect dust in forgotten junk drawers; some will be discarded; others might be retained as good-luck charms. Yet the fair-goers who accepted them did so freely, and at some level the idea sunk in that an unwavering mother’s love was involved. That’s not mere sentimentality. It’s a seed that, with time and grace and Mary’s care, just may germinate and grow.

“All I think I ever asked of her,” Dorothy Day observed of Mary, “was that she should take care of me.” That’s not just a comforting notion for schoolchildren, and we needn’t be ashamed that it brings tears to our eyes.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Ecumenism, Boundaries, and Amicable Disagreement

10 May

Above all, it is necessary to recognize
the unity that already exists.
~ John Paul II

There’s a 7-Eleven across the street and down a couple blocks from where I teach – Bethel College in Mishawaka. I often go there for an afternoon caffeine boost. I could walk, but if I’m pressed for time (or it’s winter), I’ll jump in the Hond711a and make a quick jog over there, fill up my travel mug, and head back to my office.

To an outside observer, unfamiliar with the local terrain, there’d be nothing noteworthy about that: Just another coffee addict stopping in at his local supplier for a fix. However, my java jaunts have real legal ramifications, for the 7-Eleven is on the South Bend side of that street, and my college is on the Mishawaka side. On the surface, and in practical terms, it’s an amorphous, virtually invisible border. But if I got in an accident coming or going? Legal boundaries – possibly even measured in feet and inches – would have real world significance: Is the accident under the jurisdiction of South Bend courts or Mishawaka courts? Which police department would we call? How will one jurisdiction impact insurance and liability claims versus the other?

That’s one picture of superficial fluidity of boundaries; here’s another.

When I was a kid, my family visited the Four Corners Monument. It’s the spot where four Southwestern states meet up at one single point – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. I remember having a blast with my brother running around the concrete slab that marks out the borders leading up to the common point, announcing as we tore around which state we were occupying at any given moment. The legal divisions between those four states is normally very clear, especially when it counts – like marijuana possession and usage, legal in Colorado, but in Utah, not. Yet at that particular spot in the middle of the Navajo desert? Nobody’s hawking pot, so the legal borders are purely a source of amusement, even joy. While marking out true divisions, the Four Corners Monument serves to draw together rather than divide.

Both these images of fluid boundaries capture different approaches to ecumenism, but I much prefer the second. Before I explain why, let me take a moment to define “ecumenism” – a word that is not commonly invoked these days, nor is it well understood. It’s based on a FourCorners1 Greek word that loosely translates as “the whole world,” and, in ecclesiological and theological terms, it refers to anything that touches on matters common to the “whole world” of the church, small “c.” This should be distinguished from interfaith or interreligious matters – those concerns and enterprises involving people of varying major religions (including Christians along with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and others). While important, interfaith contacts are the equivalent of a United Nations approach to religion, whereas Christian ecumenism is more like a huge family reunion.

And it’s a family get-together that can and should involve all the clan’s disparate branches – reconciled and unreconciled. It includes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants of all types. What’s more, it includes high church and low church, liberal and conservative, traditional and Pentecostal – everyone who calls Jesus Lord, believes in the Good News of salvation from sin, and lives today in the hope of heaven tomorrow. There are disagreements, to be sure, but it’s amicable disagreementa facile disjuncture that allows for rich relationships, and yet respect regarding differences. We come to enjoy each other’s traditions, quirks, and peculiarities; we laugh with and even at each other – in the same way cousins laugh at each other when they get together for the holidays. Behobbit-day-Bilbos-birthday-partytter yet, think of Bilbo’s birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring. There’s competition, grievance, and dispute between various branches of the Hobbit family tree, and these are not rationalized or ignored. Still, at least for that moment, everybody is overlooking their differences and getting along, which fosters mutual good will upon which real unity can be built.

This was the vision of ecumenism promoted at the Second Vatican Council, and it was one of the Council’s aims – “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ.” In the Decree on Ecumenism, the Council Fathers went even further and stated that the “restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.”

Why? Because it was one of the principal concerns – perhaps even the principal concern – of Jesus himself. Quoting John 17, the Council Fathers wrote:

Before offering Himself up as a spotless victim upon the altar, Christ prayed to His Father for all who believe in Him: ‘that they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me.’

He commanded us to “love one another” first, and then sent us the Holy Spirit in order to make it possible. “There is one body and one Spirit,” St. Paul wrIn this panoramic view, bishops of the world line the nave of St. Peter's Basilica during the opening session of the Second Vatican Council Oct. 11, 1962. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the council, one of the monumental events in modern religious history. (CNS photo) See VATICAN-LETTER Jan. 27, 2012.ote the Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.”

Thus, unity was a priority for Jesus and the early Church, and so it’s naturally a priority for us. And while nothing can disrupt the invisible unity of the Body of Christ, there’s no question that wide and innumerable divisions have effectively dismantled the visible expression (subsistere) of that Body. We have our work cut out for us!

Yet a word of caution is in order: Authentic unity cannot be accomplished at all costs. “This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal,” the Council Fathers insisted, “which can hinder real progress toward unity.” St. John Paul II addressed this same idea very tactfully, yet clearly:

Good will is needed in order to realize how various interpretations and ways of practicing the faith can come together and complement each other. There is also the need to determine where genuine divisions start, the point beyond which the faith is compromised.

That brings us back to those anecdotes I related above – the 7-Eleven run and the Monument: Both involve real divisions despite practical permeability, but only the second image – messing around at Four Corners – involves clearly demarcated boundaries. That’s preferred, beecumcause the goal of ecumenism – at least from a Catholic perspective – is the real and thorough structural reunion of all Christians, not a mere superficial, subjective one. And overcoming division, no matter how it is accomplished, necessitates both an a priori acknowledgement that divisions exist as well as a thorough grasp of their precise location.

How then are we to carry out the ecumenical enterprise? There’s lots we can say about the record of ecumenical efforts over the centuries, particularly since the halcyon days following the Second Vatican Council, but generally the most successful ecumenical efforts include at least these three dimensions:

  1. Common ground: This involves seeking unity where possible, and understanding when it isn’t. Of special importance are those formal gatherings, usually conducted by those with authority in their respective traditions. The point of these meetings isn’t to water down differences, nor is it to engage in apologetic debate. Instead, ecumenical gatherings bring together representatives of different traditions to foster good will, increase understanding, and contribute to the mitigation of structural division.
  1. Common prayer: Closely related to common ground, and always included in formal dialogue, is shared prayer – what the Catechism, quoting Vatican II, refers to as the “soul of the whole ecumenical movement.” In this regard, it’s important to emphasize that lack of structural unity precludes intercommunion under most circumstances. This is a source of great pain for those interested in ecumenical rapprochement since the Eucharist is the pinnacle of unity that Christ himself instituted for his followers. At the same time, however, that painful sacramental separation motivates us to work all the more diligently toward real reunion.
  1. Common cause: Short of full reunion, here’s the best kind of ecumenism in my book – the most organic and natural, and certainly the most visible in terms of witness. “Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them,” the Council Fathers wrote, “and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant.” This happens when Christians of all stripes come together to defend the unborn, the death row inmate, and the marginalized of every kind; when we work for peace and an end to all violence and bloodshed and war; when we strive together for justice and reconciliation in every corner of our society and world.

For a glimpse of how ecumenical common cause works in practice, try The Keys of the Kingdom, starring Gregory Peck as Fr. Francis Chisholm, a missionary priest laboring with seemingly meager results in rural Chimethodistsna. At one point in the film, a Methodist missionary couple, Dr. Fiske and his wife, Agnes, arrive to minister in the same village, and Fr. Chisholm calls on them. “Tell me, Fr. Chisholm,” Dr. Fiske asks, “do you resent our coming here?”

Fr. Chisholm expresses consternation, and then says: “You know, sometimes I wonder how the Christian faith must appear to the Chinese mind – with all the different sects, all crying at the same time, ‘Come over here. This is the one. This is the true one.'” There’s no denial in this statement that real divisions persist in the church, nor any dismissal of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the true church. Instead, there’s a practical acceptance that, at least in that far-flung corner of the world, Catholics and Protestants can serve God best by showing as much unity as possible. That applies to our own far-flung corners, wherever we find ourselves.

Later, in the film, as Fr. Chisholm is leaving, Dr. Fiske says, “I can’t tell you how happy you’ve made me by your friendliness. And, by the way, I’m not a bad doctor. Let me be of some help to you.” With that statement, Fiske anticipates the teaching of Vatican II:

Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth.

Chisholm’s reply to Fiske is equally amicable and the perfect remedy for the sad divisions in the church that he alluded to earlier. He says simply, “We’ll help each other.”

“Right!” is how Dr. Fiske responds. Let that be our response as well.

A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

But It’s God

3 May

Sir, there is no idolatry in the Mass.
They believe god to be there, and they adore him.
~ Samuel Johnson

First Holy CoCHILDREN WAIT TO PROCESS IN FOR FIRST COMMUNION AT MARYLAND CHURCHmmunion season is upon us, and it was a topic of conversation in Nicky’s Atrium last week.

Atrium is the preferred term for the specially constructed classroom utilized in the Montessori-based Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, or “COGS” as we call it, includes a measure of didactic instruction, but hands-on activities are emphasized, and there’s a great deal of latitude with regards to pace and trajectory. There’s order, to be sure, and structure, although the kids are given lots of room to explore on their own and at their own speed. Frequently that freedom, coupled with the natural cognitive pliability of youth, gives rise to profoundly peculiar insights.

Case in point.

Nicky’s catechist in the Atrium is Cathy, our good friend, and she tracked me down last week before departing the Parish Center. “I have to tell you the latest from your son,” she said. Apparently Nick, an experienced communicant, had been describing the Sacrament for his classmates who had yet to receive it themselves. “Nicky told them it was a lot like Halloween,” Cathy told me.

“Halloween?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, quoting Nick. “At Halloween, you go up to grown-ups and you say ‘Trick or treat,’ and they give you candy. Holy Communion is the same. You put out your hands and say ‘Amen,’ but it’s God.”

This is sage and eminently accessible wisdom. Virtually every child has a grasp of what Halloween is about, and Nicky instinctively drew on that common experience in order to capture a heady reality: The gift of Holy Communion is utterly unprecedented – like the grand American tradition each October of children approaching perfect strangers who cheerfully fork over seemingly limitless sweets! And in both cases, there’s no catch: Just put out your hands, acknowledge the giver, and receive the prize. What could be more innocent or childlike?

That was what Pope St. Pius X had in mind when he signed and promulgated the curial decree Quam Singulari in 1910. Responding to various voices in the Church who argued that Eucharistic Communion was properly reserved to those with 20130909_062239_tricktreat_500an adult faith, St. Pius insisted that the bar be set much lower. “The age of discretion for receiving Holy Communion is that at which the child knows the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and ordinary, material bread,” he wrote. “Perfect knowledge of the things of faith, therefore, is not required.” As the Pope observed, this is in keeping with the Lord’s own directive. “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”

We might forget just how radical this all is because we’re so used to it. Every spring, we rightly enjoy the sweet spectacle of row upon row of second-graders, dressed in all their finery, approaching the altar and the priest, and receiving the Blessed Sacrament for the first time – wonderful. Yet, consider how wild that is! A touching ceremony, yes, “but it’s God.” Mere youths, seven or eight years old, being handed the Divine Essence in the guise of a cracker – scandalous! Those youngsters can’t possibly know what it’s all about, can they? Moreover, all their friends are likewise receiving, as are all the gathered family and friends. It’s a free-for-all, it seems, like a neighborhood bash, and everyone is invited to partake – “but it’s God!”

That clamorous image is reinforced by St. John’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand – a “mess,” in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, and yet so clearly connected to the Eucharistic fejrr_tolkienast of which it was a prelude. All those hungry people, no doubt tempers flaring – like they do around those relief trucks that hand out bags of rice after disasters. It’s a scene that seems to have appealed to Tolkien in the eucharistic context:

Make your Communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children. It will be just the same (or better than that) as a Mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people.

Never mind the crowds, in other words. There’s never a shortage when Jesus is the distributor as well as the distributed – there’s lots! – and he’s not all that particular: Just “put out your hands and say ‘Amen,’ but it’s God.” What’s more, everybody who approaches is guaranteed some God; nobody need fear getting a Charlie-Brownesque rock or its equivalent.

And the messiness is all part of the package. Unlike First Holy Communion day – when most everyone is attentive and orderly and spruced up; when communicants and their parents are enraptured and enthusiastic and maybe even pious – we all of us frequently approach the Eucharist distracted and broken and still pretty darn sinful. Here’s the crazy thing though: Jesus bids us come anyway! Our distraction? Mitigated. Our brokenness? Ameliorated. And our venial sins? Forgiven! Only intentional, serious sin can really keep us away, and even then, only until we receive absolution – something else that the Church divvies out indiscriminately and freely.

Nicky displayed complete confidence in the reality of God in the Eucharist, but also a glorious juvenile disregard for propriety in making his analogy. Halloween, a bacchanal of gluttony and toopope-saint-pius-xth decay, is a terrific exercise in wanton self-interest: People are giving away free treats? Then, heck yeah, I’m going to get me some! That being the case, oughtn’t we wince at the suggestion that receiving the Eucharist is in any way comparable?

Maybe, but before we do, let’s mull over these words from the Pope Pius’s decree and how they throw in relief a most startling divine assertion:

It is clearly seen how highly He held their innocence and the open simplicity of their souls on that occasion when He called a little child to Him and said to the disciples: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

There’s no question that we should strive to be properly disposed and “prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment” (CCC 1385). However, on those occasions when we might not be as disposed and prepared as we could be, we do well to put aside overwrought grown-up scruples. Instead, call to mind the grubby candy-grabbers we’ll see in October, and err on the side of guileless spontaneity: He beckons, and all we need do is put out our hands, say “Amen,” and get our God.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Altar Server Surrogate

25 Apr

The role of server is integral to the
normal celebration of the Mass (

It’s Monday. I arrive early for the 5:30 p.m. Mass, settle down in a pew to read through the Gospel, and quiet my mind after a busy day.

Prayer, then drifting, eyes wandering over the sanctuary, the big Crucifix, the icons. There’s Fr. Dunkle, lighting candles on the altar – he forgot to light the Paschal candle. Now he’s carrGiacomo_di_Chirico_Ministrantying chalices over to the credence table.

Wait. Father is carrying the chalices and lighting the candles? Where are the altar servers? I’m fully alert now, and moving up to the sanctuary, a quick genuflection, a hand motion to Father – he’s carrying out the Sacramentary now.

“No altar servers, Father?” I ask in a whisper.

He shrugs. “Nope, I guess not.”

That’s very unusual for St. Matt’s. We have superbly trained altar servers at our parish, and at least three are scheduled for every Mass. There’s a nice division of labor as they assist at the altar – the Bell, the Book, and the Cross they call themselves – but if one or two don’t make it for some reason, all the essential jobs can be undertaken by a single server in a pinch.

“Can I help?” I offer as I follow him into the sacristy. I haven’t served Mass for a long time, but after watching my own kids learning the ropes throughout the years, I thought I could handle it.

“That would be good,” he says. “Even just to carry things over from the credence table.”

“Should I wear an alb?”

“No, that’s OK,” he replies. “Let’s go.”

To be Christ’s page at the altar, to serve Him freely there,
Where even the angels falter, bowed low in reverent prayer.

We process out of the sacristy and genuflect toward the tabernacle. Fr. Dunkle walks around and reverences the altar with a kiss, and then we both proceed to the side of the sanctuary. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Let’s see, he’ll need the Sacramentary for the Collect – when do I fetch it? Distracted, not tuned in to the penitential rite. Then I see Father put his hands out in the Orans position: “Let us pray.” Oh, right, that’s my cue. I retrieve the Sacramentary from the niche by the sacristy and stand before Father with the book open on my hands. He prays; we sit; the lector moves to the ambo – calm, quiet, listening.

To touch the throne most holy, to hand the gifts for the feast,
To see Him meekly, lowly, descend at the word of a priest.

First reading, St. Stephen’s trial (think, think, what’s next); Psalm and response (do I need to be remembering anything?); alleluia and acclamation, stand up – the Gospel. I lean toward Father and murmur, “Do you want me to accompany you with a candjohnberchmansle from the altar?” He shakes his head and makes his way over to the lectern. John 6, Bread of Life discourse preliminaries, homily – focus, focus, listen.

Father returns to his seat, pause, then we stand – intercessions. “We pray to the Lord.” Lord, hear our prayer. At the second intercession, I return to that niche for the Sacramentary and the pillow it rests on to prop it open on the altar. After setting it in place, I head over to the credence table – two chalices, paten, linens – and then return to the altar. Corporal open first, right? Which way does it go? The Chi-Rho is upside down – a quick switch and all is well. Chalices in place, paten – Father is done with the intercessions and moving in this direction. The cruets! I forgot the cruets! The priest and I pass each other exchanging grins as I head to the sacristy.

Wine, water – there they are in the mini-fridge, all ready to go. Father is done with the first part of the Offertory – I’m just in time; he turns to me. The stoppers – remove the stoppers. I set the water down on the altar and open the wine cruet before handing it to Father. After I unstop the water, we swap cruets – lavabo next. I’m on the wrong side of the altar – should I just walk behind him to the credence table? Father hands the water cruet back to me, and I scoot behind him to make a beeline for the basin and towel – no doubt a liturgical faux pas.

To hear man’s poor petition, to sound the silver bell,
When He in sweet submission, comes down with us to dwell.

After Father dries his hands on the towel, I replace the water and basin on the table, and then return to the side of the altar – prayer over the gifts, Preface dialogue, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.” Holy – Sanctus – Sanctus bells next. We kneel for the Canon, and I put my hand down on the ringer. When do I do these again? I miss the Epiclesis signal, but I get ready for the Minor Elevations – I won’t miss those. EP II: “For this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” (Jingle, jingle, jingle – hold still.) “Do this in memory of Me.” (Jingle, jingle, jingle – silence them on the carpet.)

Finally (*sigh*), that’s it. The rest is all matter, form, and minister – my ancillary duties are more or less complete. I default to interior drift, eyes wandering again, but this time behind the altar, immediately below the huge Crucifix that dominatesmatthewcath our Sanctuary. I look up – the Lord’s feet are right above me, nailed to the wood, bleeding and beautiful. “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him.” I’m transfixed – servers see that every day. The Lord’s Prayer. “Agnus Dei.” Every day our servers have this exceptional perspective on ultimate surrender and mercy. Holy Communion.

No grander mission surely could saints or men enjoy;
No heart should love more purely than yours, my altar boy.

Following the Dismissal, as the congregation recites the Prayer to St. Michael, Fr. Dunkle and I retreat to the Sacristy. “Thanks,” he says simply. “My pleasure,” I reply – who am I kidding? Not so much pleasure, but rather privilege, boon, outlandish extravagance. And pleasure? On the threshold of Calvary? To assist with the wrenching of Heaven down to earth? To drink in so directly unfathomable love?

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered,” Chesterton proclaimed, and “an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” The trifling inconvenience of absent altar servers precipitated a monumental adventure for me. It should be I who does the thanking.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Saints, Suffering, and Scleroderma

19 Apr


In my flesh I complete
what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1.24).

“Hello, Faddah!”

I’m guessing it was probably the first time Pope John Paul II heard that one in the Vatican’s audience hall. It was my sister, Adeline, who was visiting Rome with my mom and dad many years ago. None of them were Catholic at the time, but my pastor had helped them secure an invitation to a general audience. Although my family had tremendous respect for the Pope, they went to the audience mainly as tourists – devout evangelical tourists, to be sure, but tourists all the same.

Following his remarks and a blessing, John Paul made his way down the center aisle, nodding and smiling and embracing the faithful as he went. My sister, right on the center aisle, was distracted as she gathered up belongings. Suddenly she felt a stillness overcome the crowd around her – she turned. The Holy Father was passing and looking directly at her! “I had no idea what to say,” Addie recalls. “The only thing that came to mind was that line from that movie we watched as kids.” She meant Going My Way, and the scene where Tony Scaponi, a neighborhood ruffian, guiltily addresses Fr. Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). “Oh, hello Faddah!” Tony tosses out with a breezy hand gesture, trying to deflect attention from a stolen turkey. My sister inStanley Clements (L) in Going My Way (1944) Rome, suddenly confronted by a pontiff, stole Tony Scaponi’s line, channeling a bit of Allan Sherman in the process. “The Pope paused and smiled,” Addie remembers, “and then he looked at Mom.”

I’m told Mom was crying – weeping openly, if I know my mom – and John Paul reached out to clasp her hands. They were hands gnarled by disease, hardened and bandaged and pockmarked with lesions. Vulnerable, hurting hands, belonging to a vulnerable, hurting invalid who’d prefer they belonged to someone else.

Sclerodactyly is what the docs call it, a thickening of the skin on the fingers. Plus, my mom suffered from Raynaud’s syndrome (acute sensitivity to cold and limited circulation in the extremities) and calcinosis (scattered deposits of calcium in superficial tissues). All of these are common symptoms of scleroderma – a terribly disfiguring autoimmune disease that mainly affects the body’s connective tissues, namely collagen. The immune system goes awry and attempts to fend off nonexistent threats by producing more collagen than necessary. This results in characteristically tough, stiff flesh, especially in the hands and face. In fact, the word “scleroderma” literally means “hard skin,” and my mom had it bad.

My mom’s (and our family’s) journey with scleroderma started back when I was in high school. It was summer, and I was on a church work trip to Voice of Calvary Ministries in Mississippi, working on a farm in rural Mendenhall and rehabbing houses in Jackson. One afternoon I was napping after a long day of yanking out nails and hauling refuse, and I lay on the floor surrounded by fans, hoping for relief from the heat. I woke to someone jostling my arm, and I looked up into the face of a VOCM staffer. “We got a call from Colorado,” he said. “Your mom is sick – real sick. I’m to have you call home.”

I got hold of my dad at Boulder Community Hospital. “She’s OK, Ricky,” he said. “It was a perforated ulcer, and they’re dealing with it. But there’s something else.” I was still a bit groggy from the nap and the heat, and I tried to focus as I heard Dad pass the phone to Mom. “The doctor thinks I have something called scleroderma,” she told me. “It’s why I’m having pain and numbness in my arms, and my fingers are getting so stiff.” She told me not to worry. “Just pray for me, Ricky,” Mom asked. “Pray for healing.”

No healing came deOL-Lady-of-Lourdesspite loads of prayers, not to mention countless doctors and specialists and experimental treatments. You see, there is no healing for scleroderma, but rather only symptom management and “optimizing” one’s quality of life. Mom couldn’t buy that, and she was determined to prove the experts wrong. Acupuncture and biofeedback and herbal remedies led to a trip to China and a world-renowned natural healer. No luck. At one point she considered visiting Oral Roberts’ Prayer Tower in Oklahoma to plead for God’s mercy and a miracle. Even Lourdes wasn’t out of the question – no small thing for my staunchly Presbyterian mother. She had great faith, and she never stopped believing that she’d be completely healed of that nasty disease.

Yet time went on with no relief in sight, and Mom began to express her faith in anger. “Why isn’t he doing something about this,” she’d fiercely exclaim. “What’s taking him so long?” She refused to allow some illness to keep her from her busy life: Typing and clerical work for the high school, playing the piano and organ, caring for her family, home, and beloved pets. In time, though, as her rigid, curved fingers grew increasingly immobile, she had to accept the limitations her condition imposed on her. What’s more, there were indications that the disease was progressing and was beginning to affect her internal organs.

Mom sought out comfort and palliation where she could find it – prayer meetings, support groups, and, of all things, a Benedictine abbey just a couple miles down the road. By the time her scleroderma was becoming a mortal challenge, I had became a Catholic in Chicago, and I would spend a lot of time at St. Walburga’s Abbey on my sojourns home to Boulder. Eventually my mother’s curiosity overcame her anti-Catholic scruples, and she agreed to accompany me to the Abbey every now and then to find out what it was all about.

On one of those occasions, she met Sr. Augustina, a hardy German nun who served as the Abbey’s baker. Sr. Augustina herself was burdened by physical infirmity – a pronounced kyphosis, or curving of the spine, which, combined with her diminutive stature, meant that she could look most adults in the eye only by straining hesaint-walburga-01r neck upward. Nonetheless, Augustina was inevitably cheerful and generous, and if her health bothered her, you’d never know it. Always quick with a wink and a mischievous grin, she was also known to keep bags of her homemade cookies at the ready for distribution to visitors, especially children.

For my mother, Sr. Augustina was an especially welcome relief, and they became friends in no time. It was an odd friendship, I suppose – a cloistered Benedictine nun and a Protestant suburban homemaker. As far as I know, Mom never went to Mass at St. Walburga’s, nor did she participate in the Divine Office or any other formal spiritual exercises. She just went to chat with Sr. Augustina, and the nun would hold my mom’s hands and stroke them. On the surface, they had little in common beyond a shared faith and the experience of physical ailment, but that was plenty. Tears flowed abundantly, as did the prayers I’m sure.

“Almost always the individual enters suffering with a typically human protest and with the question ‘why,'” Pope St. John Paul wrote in Salvifici Doloris. “Nevertheless, it often takes time, even a long time, for this answer to begin to be interiorly perceived.” And what are the outlines of that answer? The Pope offered insight that is both compassionate and revolutionary:

It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption.

Still, my mom wouldn’t have been interested in the Pope’s insights. All she knew was that she was suffering and afraid and angry at her God. That’s why Sr. Augustina became such a treasured confidant, for her calm, soothing demeanor assured Mom that, even though the disease wasn’t going away, there was still meaning in life – that Mom wasn’t, and would never be, irrelevant. If nothing else, Mom’s reception of the ministrations of others made present the reality of Christ in yet another little corner of the world. And that’s precisely in line with the vision of Pope John Paul who was well aware that the suffering person

feels condemned to receive help and assistance from others, and at the same time seems useless to himself. The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling.

In a way, Sr. AuPope-John-Paul-II-Blesses-015gustina helped my mother – and those around her – to see that God wasn’t in the business of choosing saints to endure hardship. Instead, He allowed hardship in general to help make us all saints and, in so doing, save the world. “Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s Redemption,” John Paul notes, “and can share this treasure with others.”

And this treasure-sharing happens even when we resist it and rebel. He’s no idiot, this God we worship. The second Person of the Trinity is intimately familiar with corporeal existence and pain and agony, so He is aware that suffering, physical and otherwise, stinks. Sure, we want to get healed, and He gets that. Saints, though! Saints! We follow a crucified God, so how can we be surprised that suffering is part of what draws us closer to Him. It’s what shapes us into what He would have us become: Holy, despite our flaws and weaknesses, conformed to His likeness through our own versions of His Cross. Crucified! And so, saints!

My mom, a resolute Calvinist steeped in solid anti-Catholic Masonry, fixed her eyes on the beaming face of a saintly Pope and sobbed. They stood there for a moment, the Vicar of Christ and my ailing Protesting Mom, a tiny, tight circle of revelatory love. No words were exchanged, but the communion I’m told was palpable. Then, the Pope released Mom’s hands, gave her a blessing, and continued on his way.

Mom died within a couple years of that encounter with John Paul, and then the Pope died a couple years after that following his own valiant struggle with chronic illness. Maybe their paths have crossed on the other side – who knows? If so, I couldn’t pick better background music for that moment than the Wesleyan hymn we sang today at Mass:

Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Thanks, Mom, for your example of courage and perseverance. Rest in peace.

A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

An Uncertain Pilgrimage: Of Mother Jones and Making a Ruckus

12 Apr


All over the country she had roamed, and wherever she went, the flame of protest had leaped up in the hearts of men; her story was a veritable Odyssey of revolt.

~ Sinclair Lewis

Read more…

Of Catholic Schools, Down Syndrome, and Hospitality

3 Apr

The best portion of a good man’s life are his
little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
~ William Wordsworth

I sat across the table from Miss Retseck, the principal of our parish grade school. It was spring, and we were discussing how I’d manage tuition for my kids the following fall. “You’ll have four Beckers on your hands,” I jested. And then, in passing, I added, “Of chomeourse, if Nicky wasn’t going to the public school, you’d have five.”

“The public school?” Miss Retseck shot back. “Why?”

“Well,” I faltered, “with Nick’s Down syndrome and all, we figured the public school was the best option – you know, for therapy and services.”

Miss Retseck’s eyes narrowed; her reply, solemn. “Why don’t you let us try?”

It was an epiphany. “Alright,” I said after a brief pause. “Sure. Why not?”

Miss Retseck’s sober determination to accommodate Nicky’s special needs was a watershed moment in his life and the life of our family. It cemented our vision for keeping all our children together in Catholic schools as long as we could, and it reinforced our desire to focus on Nicholas’ strengths rather than his perceived deficits.

There’s one more thing that Miss Retseck’s proposition subtly manifested that day: Our school, like our parish, was in the business of welcoming. Parish schools are perpetually strapped, and so it’s always a struggle to provide what better funded institutions take for granted. Nonetheless, Miss Retseck made it perfectly plain to me that Nick could belong at St. Matt’s School and that she’d be committed to his welfare.

Today Nicky is in fourth grade and thriving. With the help of his teachers and Miss Retseck’s successor, Mrs. Clark, we’ve cobbled together a mesh of support services, both in school and out, that has allowed Nicholas to stay at St. Matt’s and pretty much keep up with his class (with certain adjustments here and there). Plus, he couldn’t be in a better cohort – a very special group of boys and girls who’ve become his buddies. Nick sings in the choir, he has a part in the spring play, and he goes to birthday parties with the rest of the gang.

Little did Miss Retseck know what a gift she’d given us that day so long ago – what a legacy she’d initiated, and what a sign of hope she’d created for others as we10402836_10152369753644034_3736989850264125269_nll. In fact, I’d say that Miss Retseck’s request accentuated three different ways that Nicky is a living emblem of what makes our parish – our Church – exceptionally hospitable. Here’s why.

First off, his very presence is a witness. To paraphrase my friend E. Michael Jones, to be a special needs student – to be any kind of student – you must first exist. That may sound strange coming from Nick’s own father, but remember that we live in world that terminates preborn Nickys at a rate upwards of nine out of every 10 diagnosed Down syndrome pregnancies. School children with Down’s are relatively rare these days not because such kids are being barred from educational opportunity so much as they’re being winnowed out of the population altogether.

At St. Matt’s, however, like most Catholic parishes and schools, kids with Down syndrome don’t stick out. Our Nick is not unique, you see, and it’s common to spot several kids with Down’s at Mass on Sunday. They’re visible and beautiful, but not uncommon. Like all the fifteen-passenger vans in the parking lot, the presence of St. Matt’s parishioners with Down syndrome is only extraordinary relative to their scarcity in the wider culture.

Another way Nicky is an emblem of hospitality is how he is cared for – how he is valued as he is. As I mentioned earlier, he’s got a great bunch of pals who include him and watch out for him. Maybe they’re vaguely aware that Nicky has special needs – that he wears orthotics and goes to therapy – but, well, that’s just Nicky! For whatever reason, this particular bunch of school children intuitively recognizes that everybody has weaknesses, everybody needs extra help now and then, and so they make room for everybody – “duh!” they’d undoubtedly add. christ_washing

Did Nick luck out? Did he just happen to wind up in a class of unusually kind classmates? Maybe, but there’s more at work here I think. For one thing, remember that this is a parish where Down syndrome is unremarkable – a community already oriented to a fundamental hospitality. The kids have heard the Church’s pro-life message and they’ve internalized the Culture of Life in a radical way. Moreover, I’m convinced they’re imitating their parents in this regard as well as their teachers, who have demonstrated a tremendous flexibility in ensuring that Nicholas is an integrated member of his learning community.

Sure, they have to make accommodations for him, and it’s always a challenge to figure out how much we ought to expect from him compared to the bulk of his class, but the teachers are always willing to try – just like Miss Retseck promised. Nick might not acquire the same set of skills and knowledge as his peers – or at least not at the same rate. That’s OK, because he is constantly being pushed to grow and progress – to flourish along with all the other students at St. Matt’s. What more could we ask for?

Finally, there’s this: Nick’s gentle and simple bearing naturally invites charity, and people cheerfully respond. This was captured in a very moving way at last night’s Holy Thursday liturgy where Nicky had the honor of participating in the foot washing ceremony.

Following the homily, as Monsignor put on his apron, we took our seats on the benches set up in the 10928204_10204792867834664_4231497712542858075_nsanctuary. “Do I take off my shoe now?” Nicky whispered.

“Yes, son,” I replied. “Your sock, too.”

After Monsignor washed and dried my foot, he turned his attention to Nick. “Thank you for who you are and what you bring to our parish,” the alter Christus murmured as he knelt before us. “You always make me smile.”

And that was it. Monsignor moved on, Nicky grinned and scanned the congregation to make eye contact with mom, and we returned to our seats. No grand revelation, no spotlight, but rather a little encounter that contributed to the overall swamp of goodness that we splash around in at St. Matt’s.

It was also an illustration of what Pope Francis asserted when he said that “we all have a duty to do good.” Continuing, he said:

If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much.

Do good, yes, and also receive good, humbly and graciously. That’s easier said than done in a society bent on maximizing self-reliance and minimizing dependency. The more we do it, however, the more we smooth over the rough edges that persist all around us, and the world becomes all that more inhabitable.

Lots of life, room for weakness, and opportunities for goodnesslittle opportunities, small gestures of kindness, both given and received. That’s our school in a nutshell, and I’ll bet that characterizes your parish and school as well. They’re incubators of love, and thus microcosms of the Church, don’t you think?

And just the kind of place you’d expect to find somebody like my Nicky.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.


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