Alone If Necessary: Of Nicea, Nixon, and Nerve

4 Oct

“I do not care very much what men say of me,
provided that God approves of me.”
~ St. Thomas More

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When History Shrugs: Pope St. Urban I (d. 230)

1 Oct

“It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

~ C.S. Lewis

My designated “Papa chair” is now located near a window, nestled between two bookcases. It had been in a different room altogether, but recent redecorating and refurbishing there required that my ratty old perch be shifted elsewhere.

Which is just fine. In fact, its new situation is ideal, particularly with reference to the wealth of analogue information within easy reach. I’m not a cell phone guy, and I’ll be the one they’ll have to jail someday when Big Brother decides that everyone has to have a smart phone. Consequently, when I’m sitting in my dad spot every morning, sipping my coffee and doing some meditative reading, I don’t fire up a gizmo to track down answers to fleeting questions. Instead, I grab a book – which, like my chair, is often enough ratty and old, and frequently requiring a quick puff along the top to disperse accumulated dust.

Recently, something in my early a.m. reading caused me to snag a weathered Encyclopedia of the Papacy off the shelf. Maybe it some oddball papal reference I’d come across and wanted to check up on; maybe it was my random church history cursor going off – who knows? In any case, I grabbed the Encyclopedia, blew off the dust, and thumbed through the pages, back to front. I made note of the earliest entries and their relative brevity compared to later ones. Indeed, some in St. Peter’s immediate line of succession only merited a line or two. “Stands to reason,” I thought. “The later the pope, the more likely there’d be surviving, solid documentation.”

Then my eye fell on the entry for Pope Urban I, who served the Church of Rome for eight years before his death in 230. Here’s the entry in its entirety: “Nothing of note occurred during Urban’s pontificate.”

Huh – really? How could that be? The first few centuries of the Church were filled with persecution and ecclesial wrangling, doctrinal division and staying one step ahead of imperial anti-catholic law. Eight years of petrine service in the chaos of pre-Constaninian Rome, but “nothing of note?” Nothing worth commenting on? I picture the faithful adorning Urban’s earthly remains with an “I sat in the throne of St. Peter, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” covering before committing him to the catacombs.

I examined the Encyclopedia a bit further: Publication date, 1958; author, one Hans Kühner; publisher, The Philosophical Library out of New York. Ah, a secular treatment of papal history – I should’ve known. Maybe something a bit more Catholic could reveal some edifying tidbits about poor Urban I.

So I turned to the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia and read E.G. Weltin’s brief treatment of Urban. I was glad to find that Weltin provides a few more details than Kühner, but not much. It seems that Pope Urban dealt with lingering dissension and Christological heresies, but these seemed to be already on the wane by the time he was ensconced. Plus, Weltin points out that Urban’s pontificate coincided with the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus “who was favorably disposed toward Christians,” so the Pope probably died in his sleep – not martyred like so many of his predecessors.

Further investigations didn’t prove all that fruitful. The time-honored 1912 version of the Catholic Encyclopedia has a longish article on Pope Urban I by J.P. Kirsch, but little more in the way of solid facts. Kirsch provides context in terms of the controversies in play during Urban’s reign (namely those stirred up by the schismatic Hippolytus) and background on Emperor Alexander’s strikingly benign attitude toward Urban’s Church. Kirsch also reviews Pope Urban’s appearance in the legendary Acts of St. Cecilia and discusses various proposals regarding his burial location and associated inscriptions. Yet, even Mr. Kirsch has to conclude that “[n]othing is known concerning the personal labours of Pope Urban.”

In desperation, I even turned to Wikipedia, but the only additional info I came across there was that Urban I has a cameo in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Maybe the Kühner’s Encyclopedia of the Papacy is right after all.

Wrong. For although Kühner dismisses the business side of Urban’s papal tenure, he overlooks what we already know from the liturgy: Pope Urban I is a saint. And sanctification, as we all know from experience, is always noteworthy and hardly the stuff of insignificance. It’s the whole point of the Christian enterprise, and it’s, frankly, grueling – at least for most of us. It’s why we keep going to Mass and saying “Amen” when the Body of Christ is held up to us at Holy Communion. It’s why we strive to keep our disordered appetites in check and choose virtue over vice when it’s inconvenient, or even seemingly impossible. And it’s why we go to Confession, over and over again, surrendering our selfishness at the court of last resort – really, the court of only resort – and promise to try again.

No, Pope St. Urban I led a significant life, despite the historians’ inability to divine the details. He’s a saint, after all – a saint! To paraphrase Leon Bloy, becoming a saint is all that matters, but that “becoming” is wild – like a steeplechase in a puzzle in a whirling tumbler. And the vast majority of all that is interior – acts of conscience and intention and self-abandonment – so how could anybody keep track of anyone’s path to glory with all its hidden ups and downs?

So it will be for you and me should we realize, with God’s grace, the same heavenly prize as Pope Urban. Sure, he’s an obscure figure as far as the scholars are concerned, but can there be any doubt that he cares little about that now? Similarly, all those who’ll join him in Paradise won’t care a whit if their doings are recorded in a book – not even a single line. Nobody on earth will know about the extra prayers and fasting you undertook for your ailing grandma; nobody will know about the kindnesses you doled out on strangers in need; nobody will know when you didn’t do the wrong things you wanted to, nor right things you embraced when you were inclined otherwise. But God knows. God knows our doings, God knows our hearts, and that’s plenty. Indeed, it’s everything.

Oh, and if you do want to give Pope St. Urban I his due, consider marking his feast next May 25. I know I will be.
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

A Ditch to Die In: Of Boniface, Battles, and Being Dad

19 Sep

“An ‘adult’ faith is not a faith that
follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty….”
~ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

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Blessed Babbler: Notker of Saint Gall (c. 840-912)

17 Sep

“For although I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge.”
~
St. Paul

“N-O-T-K-E-R,” my wife spelled out to me. “Ever heard of him?”

Nope – football maybe? Some obscure character from Shakespeare?

“Saint,” she said.

Nancy was scrambling to contact all the confirmands for our parish’s upcoming Confirmation Mass: Nailing down details about attire and arrival, times and seating arrangements, and, of course, Confirmation names.

“Apparently he’s the patron of stutterers.”

I’m guessing if you’re of a certain age (my age, that is), you can’t hear the word “stutterer” without immediately thinking of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. “B-b-b-baby, you just ain’t seen n-n-nothin’ yet,” they sang – arguably the most famous stammer in modern history. The funny thing is that the 1974 song was a really an elaborate prank. Randy Bachman wrote it for his brother, Gary, who had a speech impediment, and the recording itself was meant for Gary alone – it wasn’t supposed to wind up on an album or the airwaves.

Of course, it did – and it went soaring to the top of the charts. In fact, it turned out to be BTO’s only #1 hit. “When it was all over, to realize that I could have a million-seller and a number one record without sitting down with mental giants…you really can’t,” Randy Bachman commented later. “The magic is out of your hands.”

Magic indeed – a top hit featuring a sputtering lead singer was a charmed feat.

It turns out that Bl. Notker was able to accomplish tremendous feats himself despite his own speaking problems – which earned him the nickname “Balbulus.” Born to a prominent family, Notker was educated by the monks of Saint Gall Abbey in Switzerland. Eventually Notker took the habit himself and ended up serving his monastic brethren as librarian, guest master, chronicler, and, yes, teacher.

But there’s more. It appears that the humble Notker had a knack for Latin meter and verse, and he not only edited a collection of liturgical Sequences in use at that time, he also added a number of his own – like maybe 40 of them or more. He wrote hymns, he wrote biographies, and he is believed to be the author of the Gesta Caroli Mani (“The Deeds of Charles the Great”), a landmark anecdotal and didactic profile of the Emperor Charlemagne in verse. The monastic biographer at St. Gall’s, Ekkehard IV, characterized Notker as “delicate of body but not of mind, stuttering of tongue but not of intellect, pushing boldly forward in things Divine, a vessel of the Holy Spirit without equal in his time.”

The monk’s stutter, in other words, didn’t prevent him from conveying the Word. That’s good news for those among us who do struggle with verbal communication – no laughing matter despite BTO’s musical jest.

It’s also good news for those who serve as lay readers at Mass. I don’t know about you, but it seems like I’m prone to falter whenever I stand at the lectern – despite being otherwise largely falter-free.

I’m reminded of the movie “The King’s Speech” (2010) about the rise of the stuttering Prince Albert to the British throne and his rhetorical challenges as King George VI. There’s a scene where the King (Colin Firth) confronts his impudent speech coach, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), in Westminster Abbey. “I have a right to heard!” the monarch shouts in fury. “I have a voice!”

“Yes, you do,” replies Logue – and so do we.

Those of us who approach the ambo to proclaim the Word of God should take heart; King George’s declaration should be our own. When we receive a mandate to serve as lectors at Mass, we’re given a voice – and there’s even, to paraphrase Randy Bachman, a bit a grace that’s out of our hands.

A quick Google check turns up St. Bede the Venerable as the most popular patron of lectors, with St. Pollio, a Roman martyr, a close second. For me, I’ll be invoking the name of Bl. Notker the next time I take up the lectionary. I’ll flounder; I’ll misspeak; I’ll hem and haw. But I’ll trust that, despite my faults, grace will attend my voice, and God’s Word will be heard.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Felicia’s Glimpse of Heaven

12 Sep

“That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD…” (Ps 27).

I sat in my usual place on Mary’s side of the church for the 5:30 evening Mass, which is why I didn’t spot Felicia until it was time for Holy Communion. She’d come to St. Matt’s with Anthony, and Anthony always sits on the Joseph side off the main aisle.

It must’ve been a Thursday, my day to serve as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Following the fraction rite and the centurion’s prayer, the celebrant entrusted me with the Precious Blood, and I made my way over to the Joseph side of the church to await communicants.

“The Blood of Christ,” I said as I presented the chalice.

“Amen,” the first recipient replied with a bow before receiving. Once the vessel was returned, I swiped it with a purificator, rotated it slightly, and held it ready for the next in line.

Only the next in line eventually was Felicia – and I admit I was taken aback. “The Blood of Christ,” I said holding the chalice aloft, and I know my eyebrows went up as well. St. Matt’s wasn’t Felicia’s parish, and I’d never seen her there for daily Mass before. Plus I knew she’d been sick, very sick – too sick, I would’ve surmised, to be out to a parish on the other side of town.

Felicia caught my expression and flashed her wide smile. “A-men,” she said with emphasis. After receiving her sacred sip and handing back the cup, she leaned in: “Come talk with me afterwards.”

Following the closing prayers, I tracked her down in Anthony’s pew. They were talking – rather Felicia was talking and Anthony was listening. She looked fatigued, but she spoke with her characteristic passion nonetheless, expostulating, pointing. When I walked up, she grabbed my hand, clutched it, clasped it tight – and kept on talking. “It’s in the way,” she was saying to both of us as she motioned toward the altar with her free hand. “Someone needs to tell the priest to get that cross out of the way – get a smaller cross.” She was referring to our altar crucifix, which, admittedly, is on the tall side. “It’s in the way,” Felicia repeated. “It blocks the gestures, the epiclesis. Nobody can see the epiclesis.” Still hanging on to my hand – as if to ensure I was listening, that I was catching the urgency of her entreaty – she emphasized the importance of an unimpeded line of sight during the consecration.

It was awkward – I felt like I was intruding on a moment of intimacy, for it was clear that there was more behind Felicia’s animated pleas than a liturgical preference. She kept staring at the altar, staring at the place where her visual participation in the epiclesis and Eucharistic offering had been disrupted – gestures that, in the words of Sofia Cavalletti and Patricia Coulter, “express the covenant in a visible way: God’s self-giving to us, our gift of self to God.” Through her eyes, Felicia seemed to be reaching out to the Good Shepherd whose self-giving appearance on the altar had been momentarily obscured.

In time, the three of us made our way to the exit where we briefly embraced and said our goodbyes. I took off, but Felicia remained behind on the steps to continue tutoring Anthony – to extend and expand the delight of that shared liturgical encounter.

The whole episode was somewhat dreamlike, even strange, yet I was so glad for it. It turned out to be a blessed and serendipitous opportunity to take leave of an old friend. A week and a half later, I heard that she’d passed away – at home, surrounded by her family, peaceably.

Fr. Tom Shoemaker, Felicia’s former pastor, came over from Fort Wayne to celebrate her funeral Mass. “That was her place, right down there,” he said during the homily, pointing out the first pew where Felicia’s family was seated. “She’d sit there in the front, leaning over, on the edge of her pew – as if to be as close as possible to the Word, listening with full attention, ready to respond.”

Listening – and watching, I’ll bet. Just like she did at St. Matt’s, yearning and stretching, thrusting aside distractions, zeroing in on the Good Shepherd, and inviting others to join her – through her words and teaching, yes, but particularly through her forward-looking example.

“Here below we know God…by the idea we have formed of him,” writes Frank Sheed, but “in heaven, our seeing will be direct…. That is why the very essence of the life of heaven is called the Beatific Vision – which means the seeing that causes bliss.”

Felicia’s life revolved around promoting and instilling blissful sight – in her family and friends, in her school, in the children given into her care, including my children. What a blessing to be remembered that way. God, I hope I live my life such that I can be similarly remembered. Toward that end, I’m banking on Felicia’s prayers, like an unseen clutch of the hand, like a nudge. Redirect my vision accordingly, Lord. Help me see what she saw.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Love the Ones You’re With First

8 Sep

“It is not enough to say to my God I love you,
but my God, I love you here.”
~ Mother Teresa

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Of Cell Phones, Sanctity, and Cervical Spines

30 Aug

“A bow signifies reverence and honor” (GIRM §275).

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