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Why I’m Catholic: It’s Home

3 May

The whole flailing, disastrous mess — all true, all somehow in accord with what is, and, despite itself, ably engaged in bringing our distorted grasp of things in line with that reality.

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Saturday Mornings and the Discipline of Daily Mass

24 Mar

“It is necessary, above all in the beginning of our spiritual life, to do certain things at fixed times.”
~
Thomas Merton, OCSO

One of the challenges of getting to daily Mass is the illusion it creates of superior personal piety. Those of us who’ve adopted the practice, though, are under no such illusions. We don’t go to daily Mass because we’re holy; we go to daily Mass because we know we’re not.

Saturday mornings, for me at least, readily demonstrate this reality.

For decades now, I’ve done my best to work daily Mass into my schedule. It was one of the first lessons I learned from Jim, my sponsor, in the months leading up to my reception into the Church. Retired now, Jim served as a public high school teacher in Chicago for many years, which was exacting, exhausting work. He also ran an Uptown soup kitchen twice a week – he still does! – serving hundreds of guests and involving the coordination of scores of volunteers.

Yet, somehow or other, he still gets to church nearly every day. It has been the lifeblood of his spirituality, a foundational discipline that had both fed and formed him. I could see firsthand how the practice was central to who Jim was and what he did: nourishing him as he taught and cared for his students; strengthening him as he managed the controlled chaos of soup kitchen week in and week out; buoying him in the ordinary battles of faith.

Jim would’ve laughed if you’d called him a saint, but his hunger for sanctity was nonetheless palpable. He not only shepherded me into Catholicism, but also became himself a de facto template for how to take it seriously, and central to that was daily Mass. I wanted to be like him, and so I followed his lead. Plus, it just made sense. If it was true, as I’d read in the Council documents, that the Mass was “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (LG 11), then why wouldn’t I want to participate in it as often as possible? Sunday Mass was obligatory, I knew, but daily Mass, while optional, was optimal.

Every morning, then, even before I could receive the Eucharist, I’d trudge up Kenmore Avenue to St. Thomas of Canterbury for early Mass. It was like liturgical remediation for this lifelong Evangelical, a daily immersion in the wonder of the Eucharistic drama that I’d been on the edges of for so long. And it increased my hunger for the sacramental communion that awaited me at the Easter Vigil – an augmenting of the long Lenten fast I was experiencing before I could finally feast on the Lord on Holy Saturday.

Yet, it was a different story on all those preceding Saturdays. Herein lies my tale.

Heavily Catholic communities like Chicago are golden for those who frequent daily liturgies. Parishes dot the map everywhere, and each has its own sacramental schedule. Most will have Masses in the morning seven days a week – some at 7:00, some at 8:00 or 8:30, and school parishes will even have them at 9:00 or 10. Then there are the downtown churches (and Catholic hospital chapels) which will frequently feature midday Masses to accommodate the lunchtime crowd. Some parishes will also offer early evening liturgies to catch folks on their way home from work – or to accommodate those whose early morning schedules make it impossible for them to get to daily Mass otherwise.

Hence, getting to weekday Mass is less a matter of schedule coordination than it is a matter of the will. That’s especially the case now that I live in South Bend, which, like Chicago, is very Catholic. But in addition to all the variables I listed above, we also have the University of Notre Dame in our backyard, and there are daily Masses all over campus, morning, noon, and night. It’s an embarrassment of Latin-rite riches such that, if I’m determined to get to Mass Monday through Friday, there’ll undoubtedly be one that fits into my agenda. I just have to get myself there.

But Saturdays?

Saturday Mass is complicated by the fact that it is liturgically encroached upon by Sunday. That is, the Catholic sabbath, liturgically speaking, begins Saturday evening, so there’s no such thing as a true Saturday evening weekday Mass. Plus, priests and pastors have obligations in preparation for the Sunday celebrations – not the least of which is the preparation of a Sunday homily – and it seems fitting to leave a bit of a liturgical breather between Saturday morning and Sunday vigil Masses. Thus, even Saturday midday Masses are generally cut from weekday schedules.

That leaves Saturday mornings alone for daily Mass habitués, and, in Chicago at least, that was complicated by our frequent Friday night reveries following soup kitchen, often into the wee hours of the morning. So it was that, despite my best intentions, I tended to skip Saturday morning Mass when I lived in the city, which disrupted my daily Mass routine in imitation of Jim. That disruption was perpetuated after I married Nancy and God started blessing us with babies. By the time the end of the week rolled around, getting up early for Saturday morning Mass was a taller order than ever, and over time I simply gave up on the idea.

Recently, however, I’ve made a liberating discovery. It’s been a boost to my spiritual equanimity, and I want to share it with you: The 8:15 a.m. Saturday Mass at St. Anthony’s.

You see, while I don’t have babies around the house any more, my aging frame nonetheless groans mightily when I attempt to rise at the crack of dawn on the weekend. Try as I might (and I’ve tried), I just can’t seem to make it regularly to the Saturday 7:00 at my own parish, or even any of the 8:00 opportunities around town. Maybe that’s sloth, pure and simple, but there’s something about St. Anthony’s 8:15 that helps me get past my inherent indolence.

Perhaps it’s the psychological assurance of that fifteen minutes past the top of the hour – a trick my brain plays on my will to push me beyond my lethargy. “Let’s see,” I’ll tell myself if I roll out of bed at 7:30 a.m. “I can still shower and dress and get there before the Gospel.” That sounds shamefully crass, I know, but it’s enough to get me moving, and I almost always get there in time for the opening rites.

What’s more, I’m not the only one. It seems like the Saturday 8:15 is a magnet for all manner of daily communicants, and not all of them are St. Anthony’s parishioners. Routinely, I spy numerous faces I recognize from other daily Mass hotspots around town – folks who’ve I’ve come to know by sight (if not by name) because we regularly cross paths at St. Patrick’s or the med center during the week. I’ve no idea if their reasons for being there on Saturday morning are similar to mine, but it’s comforting to see them all the same. They’re like my comrades on the spiritual battlefield, and meeting them at St. Anthony’s is like a weekly reunion of yawning saints in the making.

Which is, of course, the point. Daily Mass, like any spiritual discipline, isn’t an end in itself. “The ultimate end of all techniques,” writes Thomas Merton, “is charity and union with God.” If my efforts to get to Mass every day (including Saturdays) should begin to overshadow my commitments to family or interfere with my work – or if, what’s worse, I begin to pharisaically imagine myself somehow holy because of those efforts – then, by all means, I’d best set them aside. Nonetheless, as Merton writes, we all have to employ spiritual discipline of some kind, and it must “have a certain element of severity about it.” He goes on:

If we do not command ourselves severely to pray and do penance at certain definite times, and make up our mind to keep our resolutions in spite of notable inconvenience and difficulty, we will quickly be deluded by our own excuses and let ourselves be led away by weakness and caprice.

For me, participating in Mass every day is that one spiritual discipline I’m resolved to follow whenever possible, and the Saturday 8:15 has become its keystone. Even if you’re not ready to take up a daily Mass discipline yourself, why not join me at St. Anthony’s next weekend and check it out for yourself – maybe adopt it as part of your Lenten discipline. If you’re not in the South Bend area, see if you can find something comparable in your own area. Trust me, you’ll be among friends who won’t think twice about your yawns, and you’ll definitely encounter our Eucharistic Lord no matter what.

Who knows? You just might become a regular.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Monikers Matter: St. Pacian of Barcelona (c. 310-390)

9 Mar

“With nothing to consider they forget my name.”
~ The Ting Tings

In today’s Gospel, Luke narrates his version of a familiar story. “Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him” (Lk 5.27-28). Mark’s version is essentially the same as Luke’s, and yet when we hear or read either one, we automatically substitute the name “Matthew” for “Levi” – which is what St. Matthew did in his telling of this watershed moment.

Some Bible scholars speculate that the Levi version is original, and that the author of the first Gospel substituted Matthew’s name to bestow an apostolic lineage on this sinner so singled out by the Lord. But tradition holds otherwise, and I like John Delaney’s summation on the discrepancy. “Called Levi (though this may have been merely a tribal designation – that is, Matthew the Levite),” Delaney writes in his Dictionary of Saints, “he was…a publican tax collector at Carpharnaum when Christ called him to follow him, and he became one of the twelve apostles.”

In other words, Matthew was the official’s name, but Levi marked out his heritage and family – what we might call first name and surname today.

There’s a parallel in how we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. When asked our religion, we’ll typically refer to ourselves as “Roman Catholics” or just “Catholics,” but, if pressed, especially in conversations with evangelicals or fundamentalists, we might go on to specify that we’re Catholic Christians – that is, while we’re named “Catholic,” our religious family is already (for the information of those intent on proselytizing us) “Christian.”

St. Pacian of Barcelona would demur.

A 4th-century bishop and church father whose virtues were noted by none other than St. Jerome, Pacian was a strong advocate for Christian unity and papal authority. In particular, as his few extant writings demonstrate, he was an ardent opponent of the Novatian heresy which stipulated that lapsed believers could never be reconciled with the Church. Pacian sided with Pope Cornelius who maintained that contrite apostates could be readmitted to full communion after a period of penance.

Pacian is most famous for a single Latin epigram that appears in one of his letters to a Novatian schismatic:

And yet, my brother, be not troubled; Christian is my name, but Catholic my surname [Christianus mihi nomen est, catholicus vero cognomen]. The former gives me a name, the latter distinguishes me. By the one I am approved; by the other I am but marked.

Here, the good bishop draws a line in the sand: Anybody can call himself a Christian – it is, after all, just a nickname, a label, a tag – but only Catholics can lay claim to a direct association with the Church established by Christ. “In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head,” the Catechism states. “The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost and will always be so until the day of the Parousia” (CCC 830).

This was true in the early church as well. At first, those who accepted the Gospel were simply referred to as “disciples” of Jesus or followers of The Way. Yet we know from St. Paul that there were divisions even among these original believers. Here’s what he wrote to the Corinthians:

It has been reported to me by Chlo′e’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apol′los,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Paul’s insistence that there can’t be parties within the church echoes Jesus’ prayer, on the eve of his crucifixion, that all his disciples remain united. “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word,” he prayed, “that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17.20-21).

Of course, the label “Christian” does have an ancient provenance and a legitimate biblical pedigree. Luke testifies in Acts that the term was applied to the disciples in the city of Antioch around the same time that Paul himself was ministering there. Even so, the tendency of the church to fragment was apparently tough to contain, and each of those fragments, no matter how heterodox or schismatic, stuck to the Christian appellation like glue.

So it was that the church of authentic apostolic origins adopted the name “catholic” to differentiate herself from imposters and interlopers. “Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather,” writes St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans around the year 107, “just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” It’s the earliest recorded application of the word to the corporate body of Christ-followers, and the fact that Ignatius (himself from Antioch) assumes his readers know it indicates that it had already been long in use.

But why “catholic?” The word means “universal” in Greek, and so it squared with the early explosive spread of the true Gospel of Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, despite the deviations of false gospel campaigners. But there’s more. “The term was already understood even then to be an especially fitting name because the Catholic Church was for everyone,” writes Kenneth Whitehead, “not just for adepts, enthusiasts or the specially initiated who might have been attracted to her.”

Nor just for saints, either. That’s the beauty of St. Pacian’s battle against Novatianism: the good bishop was committed to preserving the Catholic Church’s catholicity by welcoming back repentant infidels, schismatics, and sell-outs, no question. That’s in line with the latter part of today’s Gospel – the part where Jesus dresses down the Pharisees and scribes who’d been murmuring about the rabbi’s hobnobbing with miscreants. “Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners’” (Lk 5.31-32).

Today (March 9) is St. Pacian’s feast. Take the opportunity to reflect on your faith names and their implications, give thanks to God that you’re part of the Catholic clan – sinners and saints alike – and resolve to spend your Lent responding to the Physician’s invitation to healing and wholeness.

St. Pacian, pray for us!
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

A Pivotal 4×4: Of the Marks of the Church

20 Feb

“The inner reality abides changeless; Christ made his Church thus; it can never be otherwise.”
~ 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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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Fathers Stay Put: Of Paternity, Stability, and Canon 522

22 Sep

“Efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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A Plethora of Percys: On Fidelity to Christ and Ecclesial Coherence

26 Aug

I like the idea of being a descendant of the Northumberland Percys because they were recusants and a couple of them lost their heads as martyrs.
~ Walker Percy

“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,” Joshua tells the Israelites in today’s first reading, “decide today whom you will serve…. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” Note that Joshua’s affirmation of loyalty to the God of Israel is not a declaration of personal preference, but a summation of his clan’s corporate identity. He’s announcing that he and his family (and, ultimately, his people) consider fidelity to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be essential to who they are, and that nothing – not even the prospect of annihilation at the hands of the Canaanites – can make them budge.

A similar stubborn fealty is on display at the end of today’s Gospel. Jesus had just finished his bread of life discourse with a startling twofold proposal: First, that he himself was the new manna, and that, second, everyone should partake of his lifegiving flesh. “Do you also want to leave?” the Lord asks his disciples after most of the rest of the crowd, alarmed by Jesus’ words, had split. “Master, to whom shall we go?” St. Peter flatly states on behalf of the Twelve. “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6.67-69).

As we now know well, Peter and the apostolic band will come to pay dearly for that conviction. They were hunted down, tortured, and martyred in a variety of grisly ways, but their belief in Jesus stood firm because they’d known him, they’d been with him for years, they saw what happened on Calvary, and yet they’d encountered him – alive! “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands,” St. John relates on behalf of his confreres, “we proclaim also to you” (I Jn 1.1, 3). That unshakeable faith, combined with extraordinary outpourings of grace, gave the Apostles courage – as a group, as a band, as an ecclesial brotherhood – to remain ambassadors of the Gospel and steadfast witnesses to Christ until their last breaths were taken from them.

It’s the same kind of tenacious communal commitment to the Lord that we glimpse in the heroic legacy of the Percys during the English Reformation. The elder Sir Thomas Percy participated the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising against Henry VIII following the King’s repudiation of Papal authority, his suppression of the monasteries, and other royal anti-Catholic actions. After Percy’s conviction for treason, he was drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1537, and is “considered a martyr by many” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Because of Percy’s crimes, his young sons, Thomas and Henry, were estranged from their noble privileges, but they were rehabilitated in 1549. The Catholic Queen Mary restored the Earldom of Northumberland to the younger Thomas in 1557, citing his “noble descent, constancy, and virtue, and value in arms.” Six years later, despite misgivings regarding Thomas’s likely Catholic sympathies, the Protestant Elizabeth I bestowed on him the Order of the Garter.

In time, however, Queen Elizabeth’s persecution of those loyal to the Pope and the old Faith grew too much for Thomas, and he took a leadership role in the 1569 Rising of the North, an effort to seat Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. The effort failed, and Thomas, like his father, was captured, tried, and convicted of treason. Although offered a commutation of his death sentence in exchange for a renunciation of his religion, Thomas refused and was beheaded in 1572. Pope Leo XIII declared Thomas Percy a martyr and beatified him in 1895, and his feast is ordinarily observed today (August 26).

Before his death, Bl. Thomas’s final words summed up his organic, integrated vision of family and faith: “I am a Percy in life and in death” – that is, just as his bloodline couldn’t make him anything other than a Percy, his convictions couldn’t make him anything other than Catholic, and if that meant the chopping block, then so be it.

Percy’s ultimate witness to the Faith, like so many of the lay English martyrs, is especially instructive today. With the sole exception of St. John Fisher, all the English bishops had previously given in to Henry VIII’s schismatic demands, as did many of the clergy. Faithful lay Catholics like Thomas Percy and his kin were spiritually on the lam with little or no support from the hierarchy or institutional Church. Intrepid Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries managed to administer them the sacraments from time to time, but even that was hit and miss – more often, miss. And so, you have to wonder: What kept folks like Percy going? Why’d they stay Catholic? Why didn’t they just give in, take the path of least resistance, and conform?

Frank Sheed provides a ready answer. “Institutional Israel, the Chosen People, as the Prophets show it, was even worse than the harshest critics think the Catholic Church: yet it never occurred to the holiest of the Jews to leave it,” Sheed writes in Christ in Eclipse (1978). “They knew that however evilly the administration behaved, Israel was still the people of God. So with the Church: an administration is necessary if the Church is to function, but Christ is the whole point of the functioning.” Sheed continues, and it’s noteworthy that he refers back to the English Reformation for an object lesson:

We are not baptized into the hierarchy, do not receive the cardinals sacramentally, will not spend eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. St. John Fisher could say in a public sermon, “If the pope will not reform the Curia, God will”: a couple years later he laid his head on Henry VIII’s block for papal supremacy, followed to the same block by Thomas More, who had spent his youth under the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, lived his early manhood under the Medici pope, Leo X, and died for papal supremacy under Clement VII, as time-serving a pope as Rome had had.

St. Thomas More, in other words, was in the same boat as Bl. Thomas Percy: both had been lay heads of household who were compelled to defend the Faith with their lives in the face of a full-out episcopal abandonment. No doubt many thought the two men foolish, irresponsible, and utterly selfish. Many would’ve argued that, given the apparent perfidy of the bishops, More and Percy could’ve felt justified in cutting corners of conscience in order to survive.

But they could not, for their Catholic identity was not subject to deliberation, dilution, or dissembling. Here, again, I think Sheed captures the nub of what might’ve been in the minds and hearts of lay martyrs like Percy and More, and he is worth quoting at length:

Christ is the point. I myself admire the present pope, Paul VI; but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I sometimes find the Church as I have to live in it a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope could do or say would make me wish to leave the Church, though I might well wish the he would. Israel, through its best periods as through its worst, preserved the truth of God’s Oneness in a world swarming with gods and the sense of God’s majesty in a world sick with its own pride. So with the Church. Under the worst administration – say as bad as John XII’s a thousand years ago – we could still learn Christ’s truth, receive his life in the sacraments, and be in union with him to the limit of our willingness. In awareness of Christ, I can know the Church as his Mystical Body. And we must not make our judgment by the neck’s sensitivity to pain!

A distant relation of the Tudor Percys distills Sheed’s insights into a single line: “When it is asked just so, straight out, just so: ‘Why are you a Catholic?’” writes Catholic writer Walker Percy, “I usually reply, ‘What else is there?’” It’s as if, in the midst of tumult, disillusionment, and shame, that latter-day Percy is reminding us of the extemporaneous insight of the Fisherman and first pope: “To whom [else] shall we go?” And we pray, like Bl. Thomas Percy and St. Thomas More, that we all might meet with fortitude the consequences of adopting that insight as our own.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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