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You Can’t Not See It: Of Helm’s Deep, Emmaus, and the Rosary

10 May

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
~ Flannery O’Connor

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Sola Which Scriptura?

27 Jun

“On what ground do we receive the Canon as it comes to us but on the authority of the Church?”
~ Bl. John Henry Newman

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Shopping for a Protestant Bible

9 May

“The idea of the unity of God’s people…is profoundly based in Scripture.”
~ Pontifical Biblical Commission

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Wipo of Burgundy: Our Easter Template of Ordinary Discipleship

28 Apr

When I left the Easter Saturday Mass at St. Monica’s yesterday morning, the alleluias were ringing in my ears. It had been an exhilarating way to round out the Octave, with lots enthusiastic singing and pervasive joy – alleluia indeed!

Of special note was Fr. Jacob Meyer’s resonant intoning of the Easter Sequence, Victimae paschali laudes (“Christians, Praise the Paschal Victim”) – in Latin. Since my own Latin is considerably rusty, I scrambled with a hymnal to find an English translation so I could follow along, and I couldn’t help taking note of the Sequence’s author at the bottom of the page: “ascr. to Wipo of Burgundy, d. 1048.”

Yes, that’s right, Wipo. Not exactly a household name (and neither are its variant renderings, “Wippo” and “Wigbert”), and I admit I did a big double take the first time I spied it. Nonetheless, you’ll find it in every hymnal’s fine print, although it’s usually hedged a bit with that appended “ascribed to” disclaimer – something that accompanies a lot of ancient attributions. However, the ascription is strong enough that it was repeated three times in the St. Monica hymnal’s index in conjunction with three different settings of the work.

Born around the year 1000, Wipo was ordained a priest, and then he served as a chaplain for the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. Wipo also wrote poetry and apothegms, and he authored several works of history and biography that are respected for their stylistic panache and relative objectivity. But, as far as ecclesial matters are concerned, Wipo is just a tentative footnote in our modern hymnals. Neither a pope nor a bishop; not a saint nor a Doctor of the Church; just Wipo – or Wippo, or Wigbert – who may have penned a great Paschal poem that was eventually incorporated into our Sacramentary and Eastertide observances.

In other words, a liturgical one-hit wonder.

And, yet, what a wonder it is. “One of the finest of the transitional Sequences,” according to Sr. J. Isaac Jogues Rousseau, SSND. We all heard Wipo’s masterpiece on Easter Sunday, when it’s obligatory every year, and maybe you’ve been hearing it (or singing it yourself) throughout the week at daily Mass. Like other Sequences, it precedes the proclamation of the day’s Gospel, and it’s an extra, especially jubilant recapitulation of the festival’s core themes – in this case, the Paschal feast’s good news of redemption through Jesus Christ, our resurrected savior.

About halfway through, it declares, “O Mary, come and say what you saw at break of day” – the ideal lead-in to yesterday’s Gospel wherein Mary Magdalene reports to the skeptical Apostles her encounter with the risen Christ. The Eleven likewise balk at a similar testimony from the two Emmaus disciples, and so Jesus finally confronts them in person – no denying the Resurrection at that point! After upbraiding the Apostles for their unbelief, Jesus repeats to them what he’d told Mary: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16.15).

That’s the same commission we heard at the end of the Sequence: “Share the good news, sing joyfully: his death is victory!” Wipo’s Easter poem jubilantly sums up the essence of what we’ve been celebrating throughout the Octave – what we’re living, in fact, as contemporary witnesses to our own transforming encounters with the risen Lord.

And, following Wipo’s lead, those encounters are worth rhapsodizing about, in word and deed. May we do so with flair and delight throughout the sequence of all our days, and may a Wipo-like obscurity attend our efforts that humility be preserved. For even if, with God’s grace, we end up accomplishing great things in temporal terms, it’ll be in our interests if “ascr. to” appends to our names, both now and forever. “Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one,” writes Thomas Merton, “but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.”

Amen. Al-le-lu-ia.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Glorious Exposure

13 Apr

Basilica_of_the_Sacred_Heart_(Notre_Dame,_Indiana)_-_interior,_The_Lady_Chapel,_mural,_The_Exaltation_of_the_Holy_Cross_by_Luigi_Gregori,_looking_straight_up-001

“All those who love must be known sooner or later as they are, without pretense, their souls stripped bare.”
~ Caryll Houselander

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Of Wound Healing, Scar Tissue, and Humility

10 Feb

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

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Of Papyri, Perimeters, and Possibility

27 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those Extra Books: Thoughts on the Catholic Canon

13 Dec

One of my students, a devout Protestant, sent me a message a few days ago. We’d had conversations in the past about Catholic matters, and I was delighted that she followed up with her questions. “Do you have any books or articles about the Protestant canon vs. Catholic, and how the books were chosen?” she wrote. “I’m assuming that if I were to believe some books were ‘kicked out’ that should’ve been included, I would have to think more seriously about some things.”

I replied that I’d be happy to provide her with reading materials, but, better yet, I’d set her up with an actual Catholic Bible – complete with all those kicked-out books. I always keep give-away copies on hand in my office for just such inquiries.

When she arrived, I handed over the volume (an NAB) and asked what prompted her interest. “I’m going to do a Bible study with some Catholics I’ve gotten to know, so I decided I needed to get a better understanding of this issue.” We chatted a bit about the Hebrew Masoretic text and the Greek Septuagint, and then I sketched out a rough history of how our respective traditions adopted varying lists of authoritative scriptural books – the role of liturgy and lectionary, for instance, and Martin Luther’s rejection of the deuterocanonical books in the 16th century. I also clarified that our Bibles only disagreed with respect to the Old Testament – that our New Testament canons were exactly the same.

Then she asked this remarkably insightful question: “So, if I decided that those extra parts of the Old Testament really do belong in my Bible, how would that affect my faith? What difference would it make?”

It seemed like her question required a two-part answer, and I addressed the easier part first. “As far as doctrine and belief, not much.” Maybe she’d have to re-think purgatory and praying for the dead because of certain passages in II Maccabees, but that’s about it. Sure, there would be unfamiliar narratives and characters – like Raphael and Tobit and the bird dropping story, and Daniel’s Solomonic intervention on behalf of the falsely accused Susanna. Aside from those bits, however, my student would hardly notice if the Deuterocanon (or what many Protestants call the Apocrypha) were introduced into her worship services. Take last Sunday’s reading from Baruch for instance: It seems to be a messianic gloss on Isaiah, and I doubt its prophetic cadences would raise a single eyebrow in most Protestant churches if it were read aloud.

The real challenge of the Deuterocanon, I told my student, was less its content than what it represents in terms of authority. Those seven OT books and scattered portions of Esther and Daniel – preserved only in the Greek of the Septuagint – stoked all kinds of controversy in the early church. St. Jerome, the Bible’s patron saint, was the most prominent opponent, and he wanted to exclude them from the Christian Scriptures. Nonetheless, Jerome bowed to Tradition and did end up including them all in his 4th-century Latin Vulgate translation – a decision that was ratified by various early councils and definitively ratified by the 16th-century Council of Trent.

“But councils are made up of fallible men,” my student protested. “How do we know they weren’t mistaken?” That launched us into further conversation about a Catholic understanding of the two streams of Divine Revelation – Scripture and Tradition – which are authoritatively interpreted for us in the present by the Magisterium.

We talked about the early church relying exclusively on the OT as their scriptural reference point while the NT books were being written and then circulated among the brethren; of how some of those NT books were subsequently rejected as being out of step with Tradition while others were adopted as faithful witnesses of apostolic teaching; of the ongoing dialogue between Tradition and Scripture through the centuries, a process of discernment that relies on inspired magisterial elucidation. “We both of us revere the Bible as God’s Word,” I told my student, “but it’s a static text – regardless of how you go about deciding what belongs in it – until it’s brought to life in the Body of Christ” (cf. DV 10).

So, who speaks for the Body of Christ? Given the varying ways in which the Scriptures can be (and certainly have been) interpreted, it’s no wonder we have tens of thousands of different denominations and churches – all claiming to have a bead on biblical truth. “In the end, there’s only one Pope and Magisterium,” I finally said, “or we’re all popes. And that seems to conflict with Jesus’ insistence on unity,” especially in his prayer right before his Passion. “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17.20-21).

There was a pause in our conversation – and a knock at my office door. A different student had arrived for a scheduled appointment. As edifying as the conversation had been, it would have to be continued another time. Besides, the Bible’s depths can never fully be plumbed, and our conversations with it and regarding it can always be extended.

And that’s definitely a phenomenon common to all Christians.
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A Radical Preference for Heavenly Treasure

14 Oct

Today’s Gospel sounds extreme. That’s because it is extreme. It’s a gut punch to our modern, more moderate sensibilities – which is why we should pay special attention.

A man kneels before Jesus and asks (with apparent sincerity) what he has to do to be saved. “You are lacking in one thing,” Jesus tells him. “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mk 10.21). It’s a classic application of the maxim, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” In this case, the man got the one answer – perhaps the only answer – that he couldn’t accept. “His face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

Then Jesus turns to his disciples with a zinger: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” – impossible if we take seriously the Lord’s camel/needle’s eye imagery. It’s a pastoral body slam! “Then who can be saved?” the disciples object, for they know that everybody tends to jealously guard his hard-won worldly fief. Peter even blurts out in self defense, “We have given up everything and followed you,” and we can picture the other disciples nodding their heads in agreement.

Yet total divestment of that which keeps us from Jesus can take many forms. You’ll recall that a few Sundays back, Jesus had to rebuke these same disciples for “discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest” (Mk 9.34). Can’t you just see Jesus shaking his head; can’t you hear him sigh? “If anyone wishes to be first,” he patiently told them, “he shall be the last of all.”

Again, total divestment is the point – of money, of power, of prestige, of all the world holds dear. Jesus makes discipleship sound extreme. It is extreme.

Just how extreme can be glimpsed in the life of St. Dominic Loricatus, OSB Cam., whose feast is normally observed today (Oct. 14). Born in 995, he received holy orders as a child after his family bribed a bishop – the sin of simony. Later, as a young man, Dominic repented of this sin, refused to exercise his priestly office, and fled to the Camaldolese monastery of Fonte Avellana in central Italy to do lifelong penance.

Ironically, Dominic’s repentant retreat to obscurity led to his fame. At the time, Fonte Avellana was home to St. Peter Damian, who advocated self-mortification as a spiritual discipline. Dominic followed this counsel and embraced the practice. For example, he took up a chain-mail vest, or lorica – the source of his nickname – and wore it next to his skin until his death in 1060.

Dominic also engaged in self-flagellation, which is how he merited a mention in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

By a fantastic arithmetic, a year of penance was taxed at three thousand lashes; and such was the skill and patience of a famous hermit, St. Dominic of the iron Cuirass, that in six days he could discharge an entire century, by a whipping of three hundred thousand stripes.

So…extreme? Perhaps – especially since Dominic couldn’t have been held responsible for his illicit youthful ordination. But this pious monk, with his sights firmly fixed on heaven, resolved to keep his distance from serious sin, despite his remote culpability – and who can argue with his choice? He might’ve foregone the inestimable gift of his priesthood and employed the harshest methods, but he won a crown in heaven.

How about us? Can we go to extremes for sanctity? “All things are possible for God,” Jesus tells us today. Let’s take him at his word.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange. A shorter version originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mishawaka, Indiana. 

Preaching With His Life: Blessed Pierre Bonhomme

9 Sep

“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (Is 35.5-6).

“Preach the Gospel at all times,” St. Francis is supposed to have said. “When necessary, use words.” There’s no hard evidence that the Troubadour of Assisi actually uttered this pithy phrase, but it’s the kind of thing you’d expect him to say, for Francis was all about putting faith into action.

But tradition also has it that Francis was ordained a deacon, which meant that he was trained to preach, and preach he did. He preached to the public, he preached to his followers, he even preached to the birds when nobody else would listen. Clearly St. Francis saw the value of preaching with words. He just matched those words with deeds.

Francis’s model for this, of course, was our Lord himself. Jesus spoke about healing and reconciliation, and he brought them about. It’s what we see in this Sunday’s readings. Isaiah had anticipated that the Messiah would do things like give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the mute – and Jesus proclaimed his fulfillment of Isaiah’s predictions (cf. Lk 4.21).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus backs up those claims with results. A deaf man with impaired speech is brought to the Lord for healing, Jesus responds decisively, and “immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly” (Mk 7.35). The Jewish crowd, well versed in messianic prophecy, caught the Isaiah associations immediately. “He has done all things well,” they started saying to each other. “He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

There’s a deeper meaning here beyond the fulfillment of prophecy however. By restoring hearing and speech to the man, Jesus also presumably restored to him his place in the social order and his ability to be gainfully employed – that is, Jesus also healed the man’s dignity as a human person. Even deeper still, however, there’s this: The healing that the man in today’s Gospel received would allow him to hear the Good News and then respond by proclaiming it himself, and in that he is a model for us today. We, too, want to hear all that Jesus would have us hear in the Word, and we, too, want to be full-throated witnesses to that effect.

Such was also the ardent desire of Bl. Pierre Bonhomme, a French priest, evangelist, and founder whose feast is ordinarily observed today (September 9). Born and raised in Gramat in the Diocese of Cahors, Fr. Bonhomme returned to his hometown after his ordination in 1827. He was a devoted pastor and tireless preacher, but he also extended himself to those at the fringes of society, particularly the sick, the elderly, and the poor. He established charitable and educational institutions, and recruited others to assist him in these works. In time, he succeeded in founding a religious community of women dedicated to such efforts, the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Calvary.

So, here’s Bl. Pierre, following in the footsteps of his Lord and Master, striving to match word with deed, and suddenly he lost his voice – right in the middle of preaching a retreat. He prayed for relief through the intercession of Our Lady of Rocamdour, to whom he had a special devotion, and he received a miraculous cure – just like the man in today’s Gospel.

Yet later, in 1848, he lost his voice again, and this time no amount of prayer brought it back. He was “obliged to give up preaching,” reads the Vatican’s biography, but the “priest did not despair; he trusted in God’s providence and believed that this would afford him the opportunity to dedicate himself to the flourishing congregation he had founded.” That is, like the Franciscan aphorism, Fr. Bonhomme kept right on preaching, even though he’d been deprived of words. In fact, his experience gave him a special awareness of the needs of the disabled, which resulted in his fostering new institutions to serve the deaf-mute population.

Fr. Bonhomme died in 1861, and Pope St. John Paul II beatified him in 2003. The Congregation he founded still thrives today, with sisters serving communities around the world, and they look to Bl. Pierre as their patron. Additionally, and maybe ironically, he is also deemed a patron of preachers, despite the fact that he lost his voice – not once, but twice.

And here’s another irony: In between those two periods of involuntary silence, Bohomme sampled self-imposed speechlessness on retreat with the Trappists and then resolved to seek quiet seclusion as a way of life with the Carmelites. “However, the Bishop of Cahors did not accept this proposal,” according to his Vatican profile, “and encouraged him to continue his missionary activities.”

Cloistered communities dedicated to prayer, like the Trappists and Carmelites, are a great gift to the Church and certainly have their place – indeed, a privileged place. But most of us, like Bl. Pierre, are called to remain active in the world, preaching the Gospel daily, one way or another, loud and clear.
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A version of this reflection appeared in the bulletin of St. Joseph Church, Mishawaka, Indiana.

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