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Stuck on the Way: The Simon-Veronica Loop

16 Jul

“For a moment, a vision more wonderful than that of Tabor is granted to the woman whose compassion drove her to discover Christ in a suffering man.”
~ Caryll Houselander

Where do you sit in church? Do you automatically gravitate to a region time and again, maybe even a particular pew?

Everybody does it, it seems – at least that’s what I hear from priests. Pastors know where their parishioners normally sit and what Sunday Mass they normally attend, and they take note if they’re missing – or if their perched in an unexpected location.

Then there’s us: Inveterate congregational nomads. Side aisle, center aisle, Mary’s side, Joseph’s side – who knows where the Beckers will end up?

These days, however, on those rare occasions when we have a quorum attending Mass together (hard to do when you have older teens who can drive themselves), we usually end up on St. Joseph’s side of the church near the cry room. I’m not sure why – we haven’t had a wailing baby for much too long – but I’m happy to defer to familial consensus.

But when I’m on my own? For daily Mass? I prefer Mary’s side between Simon and Veronica – between, that is, the fifth and sixth Stations of the Cross. It’s a physical space where I feel spiritually at home, an intervening territory that pretty much epitomizes the state of my soul most the time.

Simon, you’ll recall, was the country bumpkin that the Roman soldiers grabbed from the crowd to shoulder Jesus’ hefty burden. The Gospel accounts indicate that he didn’t volunteer, and the burden was reassigned to Simon only after the Lord, weakened by beatings, had stumbled under its weight.

Even so, Simon’s act, whether willing or not, is a striking metaphor for what it means to become a Christian, to be a Christian: We take up the Cross by taking up our own crosses, whatever they may be. Jesus told us as much himself – it’s right there in Gospels for all to read – so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that lived Christianity is associated with suffering and dying: Dying to self, dying to our pride and niggling selfishness, dying in ways we resent and resist. Dying, dying, dying, over and over again, way before we have to face biological death.

So that’s our starting place as believers – “Simon helps carry the cross,” the Fifth Station. A short stroll and a genuflection brings us to the Sixth, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,” and we’re confronted with an advanced stage of discipleship. Contrary to Simon, a drafted Christ-imitator, Veronica represents a willing, even eager apprentice. She lunges through the crowd, defying the Roman guards and their scourges, and applies a towel to the bloody face of love.

It’s a desperate spectacle of compassion and affection, a moment of intimate connection between savior and saved, that leads to an unexpected result: A transfer of divine visage from Christ to cloth. The Lord’s face grew bloody again soon enough, but Veronica’s courageous compassion earned her a permanent and precious memento.

Unlike Simon the Cyrene, however, Veronica has no biblical pedigree. “As we read the Gospel account,” writes Frank Sheed, “we miss one familiar figure – for Veronica was not to arrive for a good many centuries yet!” It’s true that her deed of compassion was well established in the Stations by about the 14th century, and that the traditions associated with a wondrous transfer of Jesus’ battered likeness to a towel go back much further. In fact, the towel itself, its sacred portrait faded into obscurity, is still preserved in the Vatican as a holy relic.

But did Veronica even exist? Her name could be seen as a clever amalgam of the Latin vera for “true” and the Greek icon for “image,” which itself seems to have been originally applied to the relic itself. It could well be that the “veronica” cloth paved the way for the Veronica character of the Sixth Station; that she was a pious invention which dovetailed nicely with an instructive narrative exhortation. “The name Veronica is to be found in none of the early martyrologies,” writes P.K. Meagher, “nor does it appear in the present Roman Marytrology in connection with this legendary woman.” St. Charles Borromeo himself yanked liturgical honors associated with her story from the Milanese Ambrosian Rite.

Still, legend or no, Veronica is right up there on the wall of my church – as she is in your church, in virtually all Catholic churches and chapels. “Consider the compassion of the holy woman, Veronica,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori in his classic Way of the Cross. “Seeing Jesus in such distress…she presented Him with her veil.” Maybe there was no first-century Veronica; maybe the Sixth Station didn’t go down exactly like we recite it every Friday during Lent. Her legacy lingers intact nonetheless, and for me it endures as a singular spiritual goal.

For as much as I identify with the unwilling (or at least balking) Simon, my desire is to be a rash Veronica who assimilates the very likeness of Christ – no fear, no hesitation. It’s as if I’m drawn to that void stretching from the fifth to the sixth Station. It’s like a taut string on a steel guitar, and I get to be the empty bottle sliding fret to fret – from a religiosity of obligation to occasional high notes of energetic self-surrender, and back down again, over and over and over. No picking; no grand chords; no Christopher Parkening lightly skipping through Bach’s “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Just a sloppy slide, a wavering rhythm, a warbling tune.

And if that image suggests a corny country-western song or a downer Memphis blues, so be it. Either (or both) could appropriately accompany my perpetual interior languor – “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9.24)

Which, of course, is why I keep showing up for daily Mass. I’m confident that its Music will continue to draw me forward – regardless of where I sit.
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Of Creeds, Conversion, and Cribbing at Mass

11 Jun

“I’m not asked on a Sunday morning,
‘As of 9:20, what do you believe?’”
~ Jaroslav Pelikan

Read more…

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Discovering Good Friday on Queen Anne Hill

14 Apr

“God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.”
~ from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday

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Of Aging, Angst, and Anticipating Holy Week

9 Apr

“The liturgical rites detonate an explosion, but the radiation from these sacramental outbursts is not intended to be contained by the blast walls of the sanctuary.”
~ David Fagerberg

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Of Lab Coats, Chasubles, and Playing Priest

13 Mar

“Without priests, we have no Jesus.”
~ Mother Teresa

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Of Mrs. Rice, Daily Mass, and the Camaraderie of Faith

5 Feb

southbendmassmob

“The Blessed Eucharist is precisely food, which explains why it is the one sacrament meant to be received daily.”
~ Frank Sheed

“How’d you know Mrs. Rice?”

The question came from a St. Pat’s regular I recognized, but rarely speak to. A midweek, midday Mass had just concluded, and the church was emptying.

“Mainly from here,” I replied. “In fact, I couldn’t help looking over to her pew when I came in today.” I paused and added, “I’ll miss her.”

He nodded. Mrs. Rice had passed away a couple weeks prior, and my questioner and I had both attended her funeral Mass. After a brief exchange regarding our mutual connections with the Rice family, he and I departed St. Pat’s to get on with our days.

The great thing about that subtle interaction is how perfectly it illustrates the singular experience of daily Mass habitués, especially the anonymity. Daily Mass-goers frequently gravitate to churches other than their home parishes. It’s a matter of geography and chronology: “When can I get to Mass today? Where will I be? What is the closest Mass I can get to?” More often than not, it’ll be some little parish downtown, or maybe a Catholic hospital or college chapel, so the crowd that gathers for daily Mass will be gathering from home churches all over town. Sometimes we know each other by name; typically we don’t. We nod to each other in recognition, we take our usual spots, we worship, we line up for Communion, and then we leave – again, with acknowledging nods – until we meet again: maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day.

What binds us together is that unspoken common concession that we’re losers in need of grace – that we all have gaping chinks and deficits, and that we all share a craving for Christ. Each time we show up for weekday Mass, we’re silently admitting our weakness to the strangers around us, and we’re confident that, in some way, those strangers around us have our spiritual backs.

That was certainly true for Mrs. Rice, whether you knew her or not.

Her full name was Mary Elizabeth Rice, but she was always Mrs. Rice to me. She was a commanding figure in the South Bend Catholic community, and not just because of her family connections and progeny. It’s true that she’d been married to legendary Notre Dame law professor Dr. Charlie Rice, outspoken defender of the Church, the unborn, and traditional family values – and that she’d supported him in all his many undertakings for over 50 years. Moreover, it’s also true that Mrs. Rice raised a houseful of children (11 in all) who’ve become prominent figures in their own right – not to mention her many accomplished grandchildren. Mrs. Rice embraced her vocation as wife and mother with a fierce devotion.

Plus there was also her own industrious volunteer work: Founding a center for training in natural family planning; supporting the work of the Women’s Care Center and other pro-life organizations; teaching CCD and catechizing First Communicants; helping out wherever needed in her parish, parish school, and beyond. “Her empathy and kindness led others to share their life stories within minutes of meeting her,” reads her obituary, “and she helped countless people with the smallest of problems and the most overwhelming of tragedies.”old-st-pats

But that’s not how I remember her.

“She was a daily Communicant,” the obituary notes, which is something I can attest to myself. Sometimes at the Medical Center, sometimes at the Cathedral, but usually at old St. Patrick’s or St. Hedwig’s in downtown South Bend. She always sat towards the back, and frequently took her seat in the pew just as Mass was starting, so I wouldn’t see her until the sign of peace. Turning and seeing her there at those moments, I never failed to experience a mini rush of solicitude and grace – like, “Phew, there’s Mrs. Rice.” Her wee nod and quick wink at that point, instead of the classic peace sign or wave, was such a gift – like a muted, Julian-like affirmation that “all shall be well,” regardless of what worries or missteps plaguing my thoughts.

Mrs. Rice would be the first to admit that we don’t go to daily Mass because we’re holy. We go to Mass every day because we’re not holy – because we want to get holy, or sometimes because we just want to want to get holy. Deep down everyone is desperate for the divine, and daily Mass-goers are utterly convinced that the liturgy is a readily accessible threshold of heaven – that the altar is the place where the divine crashes to earth each day; the place, right around the corner, where we have the outrageous privilege of physically approaching God.

“If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured,” the woman with the hemorrhage says in a recent Gospel – that’s us at Mass, isn’t it? At least it’s me. I’m so screwed up, I’m selfish and petty, and even my meager attempts to be virtuous are fraught with ego and mixed motives – if only I can touch what is touching him! That’s what daily Mass is all about, even when we don’t receive Holy Communion. We’re there to bask in his presence, to retreat from our patterns of pride and our routine rebellions, to gain hope, eternal perspective, and, often enough, the sustenance to carry on. Ridiculously, he calls us to be saints, and yet he matches that unprecedented demand with the stuff to carry it out: himself, his own life, his very love-drenched personhood extended to us as a morsel. “Take and eat,” he says, and when we refuse that offer, for whatever reason, he says, “Take your time – for now, just rest nearby.”

And, speaking from experience, I know that kind of Communion-less rest, when it has to happen, goes a lot easier when folks like Mrs. Rice are praying along with you. She was like a latter-day Anna the prophetess, a parochial fixture whose very being quietly “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Like I said, I’ll miss her at Mass – as will others who may not have known her name. What’s more, I’ll continue to look over to her pew at St. Pat’s, confident that she’s praying along with us still.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Godchildren, Detox, and RCIA

22 Jan

old-fashioned-baptism

“Three times a week Sister Aloysia came to give me a catechism lesson….”
~ Dorothy Day

My students were finding their seats, pulling notebooks out of bags, silencing their phones (praise God!). One of them, Michaela, had recently started a regular babysitting gig for a former student of mine and her young family – a young family that happens to include my godson, Dominic.

“How’s my godson doing?” I asked Mic. “Didn’t you sit for him last night?”

“Yes,” she replied. “He’s doing fine – he’s so cute!” I smiled – no argument there.

Next to Michaela sat Kat, another of my med-surg students, who piped up, “How many godchildren do you have anyway?”

I teach at an Evangelical college, so few of my students are practicing Catholics, and I’ll generally jump on opportunities like this one to do some simple catechesis. Besides, my students are accustomed to my answering straightforward questions with anecdotes and long digressions, and I didn’t want to disappoint.

“Let me tell you a story,” I said. “A friend of mine in Chicago, the man I call my godfather, used to tell me that he couldn’t remember all the godchildren he had.” It’s true. Jim, longtime resident of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a legendary pillar of the do-gooder community there, has served as godfather for countless babies over the decades – including one of my own. “I always thought it was scandalous,” I told Kat and Mic, “because baptism and godparenting duties are so sacred and important. I used to think that I’d never forget my spiritual children should I ever have the privilege of becoming a godfather.” They nodded their understanding, and I continued.

“After I became a Catholic myself, I got my chance,” I said, “and I’ve gotten my chance again and again. Now I can’t remember the exact number any more, although I do pray for my godchildren collectively every day – sometimes by name if God brings them to mind.” I added that I’m certain my godfather does the same, and, by way of catechetical clarification, I added, “Jim’s not really my godfather by the way – I was already baptized when I became a Catholic. Really he was my sponsor when I joined the Church, but I just call him my godfather.”

“Sponsor?” Kat asked, raising an eyebrow. “You mean like AA?”

There was a weighty pause as I considered her comparison – one I’d never considered before. “Well, yes,” I finally agreed, “yes, a lot like Alcoholics Anonymous!”

I think Kat’s onto something there.

Consider: Without grace, we’re addicted to sin, aren’t we? We develop dependencies on our self-destructive behaviors, and we come to crave the evils that keep us separated from God. In fact, we routinely refer to “habits” of vice, just as we refer to “habits” of virtue – perfidy and purification as moral extensions, in opposite directions, of our human reliance on rote action.

Baptism is the drunk tank of our withdrawal from sin. It’s an ecclesial intervention to disrupt the downward slope of our unregenerate routines – a sacramental wake-up call, a liturgical splash of cold water in the face. When we receive baptism as adults (or seek full communion with the Church via the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), we’re in effect embracing the first step of AA’s famous 12-step program of recovery:We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (read: sin) – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Simultaneously, we’re also ticking off our acquiescence to the next two steps as well – namely, that we believe that a “Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and that we’re turning “our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

The overlap between Catholic conversion and Alcoholics Anonymous is all the more illuminating if you take the full communion route, for while non-Christians will require baptism when they join the Church, those who were baptized previously need only make a profession of faith and make a good first confession. With that in mind, get a load of the next four AA steps:

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  2. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  3. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  4. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Sound familiar? Whether you stumbled through it as a second-grader, or sweated through it as a grown-up, you’ll remember all those elements in your own first confession.

Then there’s the last two AA steps which constitute the essence of Christian praxis – communion and witness – regardless of when we’re initiated. Step #11 starts off, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God,” and step #12 follows with a restatement of the Great Commission: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (read: other sin-addicts) and to practice these principles in all our affairs” – that is, get out there and preach, but be sure to practice what you preach.

I know a little about this stuff because my dad was an alcoholic and he was an AA meeting regular – at least when he was sober. In fact, I seem to recall going to a meeting with him once as a teenager, but that might be wishful thinking on my part. In any case, I definitely grew up yearning for his sobriety constantly, and I came to associate his teetotalling lulls with his participation in AA programs.

And I remember he always had a sponsor.

“How does sponsorship help the newcomer?” reads an AA pamphlet. “It assures the newcomer that there is at least one person who understands the situation fully and cares – one person to turn to without embarrassment when doubts, questions, or problems linked to alcoholism arise.” For one thing, the AA sponsor is a recovering alcoholic himself – he’s been there; indeed, he is there. The sober sponsor can truly empathize with the fellow addict at the very cusp of recovery. But, even more important, the sponsor will be there long after sobriety is reached, because it’s a “continuing responsibility for helping a newcomer adjust to a way of life….”

Precisely. The same goes for the RCIA sponsor – at least, the same goes for Jim.

“The candidate should be accompanied by a sponsor,” reads the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “If someone has had the principal part in guiding or preparing the candidate, he or she should be the sponsor” (#396). And what’s the sponsor supposed to do? The RCIA gives us a clue in paragraph #75.2: Prospective Catholics “become familiar with the Christian way of life and are helped by the example and support of sponsors….”

Jim was there for me when I had doubts, questions, and problems as I considered the outrageous claims of the Church. He was that one person I could rely on to shepherd me through controversy and qualm, and to assure me that my stumbles and scruples were not exceptional – he’d been through it all himself.

He’s continued to be there for me after 30 years. Thanks, Jim. I can only hope and pray I’ll be the same kind of sponsor/godfather for Dominic – your spiritual God-grandson.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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