An Easter Quo Vadis: St. Hugh of Grenoble

5 Apr

“He closed his penitential course on the 1st of April, in 1132…. Miracles attested the sanctity of his happy death.”
~ Rev. Alban Butler

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Of Mr. Milewski, Pizza, and a Laden Cross

30 Mar

There are two memories I associate with Steven Milewski, my childhood chum. One is his dad, a taciturn man who worked the night shift and was rarely around when I was over at Steven’s house. Sometimes on the weekend, I’d be present when the man arrived home midmorning, bedraggled, weary, downcast. There’d be brief nods and greetings, and then a barely discernible shift in household atmosphere as the blue-collar warrior trudged upstairs for his daytime repose. Steven and I would keep playing army men or whatever, but we’d do it quieter, much quieter. No more grenades and explosions. No more total war on the hardwood floor.

Then, one night, and I’m not sure the occasion, Mr. Milewski took me and Steven out for pizza. It was the first time I remember indulging in that glorious riot of cheese and grease and meat – an epicurean epiphany. The setting was ideal: A local Jersey joint down by the Raritan, complete with red-checkered tablecloths, poor lighting, and boppy music on the jukebox. We ordered root beer – a treat! – but I had to be instructed in how to pick up the slices with my hands.

That first bite, that first bite! It burned the roof of my mouth, but the mingling of flavors and the Zenlike texture of yielding toppings on crunchy crust were well worth it. Maybe Mr. Milewski smiled when he saw my reaction, but probably not. Regardless, I now think back with great appreciation that this hardworking family man gave up a precious night off to treat his son, and I’m so grateful that I got to tag along. Offering hospitality as a shift worker is always challenging; receiving such is always an honor.

My second Milewski memory is the big wooden crucifix that hung in the main entry way of Steven’s house. Although I usually came in through the rear door since our backyards abutted, I’d still pass by the crucifix as I followed Steven up to his room. It was scary, to tell the truth, something utterly foreign in my staid, unadorned Presbyterian experience – much more foreign than pizza. At some point, I got up the courage to look at it more closely: The wooden Jesus, I could see, was actually nailed to the wooden cross. It wasn’t a one-piece molded affair – like the crucifixes on our plastic rosaries. No, this was an actual man affixed to an actual gibbet. I could see the three little tacks. “Why do you have Jesus on your cross?” I remember asking Steven later in his room. He shrugged – he didn’t know. He was Polish and Catholic and that’s just what they did.

Steven might not have been equipped to properly catechize his Protestant neighbor, but the image and implications of his family’s entry-way crucifix have stayed with me ever since. Now that I’m a Catholic myself, I’m particularly cognizant of those nails – the fact that the suffering Savior could’ve been pried free of his torture; that the corpus could’ve been removed to reveal a less disturbing empty cross. But empty crosses are not enough for us. “We preach Christ crucified,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. It’s a baseline that all Christians must embrace, as Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon insisted: “So Paul…put his foot down, and said, in effect, ‘Whatever others may do, we preach Christ crucified; we dare not, we cannot, and we will not alter the great subject matter of our preaching, Jesus Christ, and him crucified.’”

It’s what the Milewskis silently preached with their family crucifix. It’s what my family now preaches with ours. It’s what you preach with yours. And we pray for the grace to practice what we preach.
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A Criminal Companion for Holy Week

25 Mar

This is Passion Sunday, so you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what to expect: Red vestments, a “pre-Gospel” during the processional, the blessing of palm branches, and a dramatic reading of the entire Passion story. This year, it’ll be Mark’s version, which includes an account of the insults our crucified Lord endured and this telling detail: “Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.”

Mark is referring here to the two rebel convicts that were executed on Good Friday, but this is in contrast with St. Luke’s description of a “good thief” who did the exact opposite. “We have been condemned justly,” he tells his unrepentant counterpart, “but this man has done nothing criminal.” Apparently, the good thief had a change of heart as he hung there so close to our dying Savoir, and he gasps an implicit plea for mercy: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23.42).

“Amen, I say to you,” Jesus replies, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The Church has interpreted the Savior’s words as an affirmation of the good thief’s ultimate heavenly destination, and he has long been regarded as a saint. Although St. Luke doesn’t name him, tradition settled on the moniker “Dismas,” which derives from the Greek word for “sunset” and “death.” Eastern Christians commemorate him on Good Friday every year, but Catholics remember Dismas on March 25 – the day we normally celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation.

It’s a curious liturgical overlap, you might think – a penitent criminal and the Mother of God – but tradition helps sort it out for us. In the Middle Ages, many conjectured that the actual crucifixion took place on the very same date as the Annunciation – that is, the day we annually mark the Incarnation, the beginning of our salvation that God hinged to Mary’s fiat, and its ultimate accomplishment on the Cross providentially align on our calendar. Consequently, although our celebrations of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum shift every year, the commemoration of the dying Dismas’s sanctifying confession became associated with March 25 and Mary’s pivotal acquiescence.

This year, that date – today – coincides with Passion Sunday, which results in an especially rich confluence of images. It’s the day we embark on a solemn liturgical journey with Jesus, from hosannas and acclamation to ignominy, torture, and execution – and, ultimately, Resurrection. Today is also the day that, at least in terms of human gestation, marks the hidden embodiment of the Savior in Mary’s womb. Death and new life; horrific end and new beginnings; calamity and tremendous hope – it all comes together today.

And it’s the day that we traditionally call to mind Dismas, a figure whose Gospel appearance is itself a summary – this rotten sinner who deserves to die and yet who surrenders himself to the One who is Life himself. Doesn’t that describe you and me? Dismas is us, in a sense, and we could ask for no better friend to accompany us this week as we trudge through tragedy to triumph.

If you have time today, you might want to visit Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame. In the reliquary chapel off the main sanctuary, you can venerate the relics of St. Dismas, including with a small splinter from his cross. While there, you can also venerate a piece of the True Cross of Christ in a church so closely identified with Our Lady and her monumental “yes.”

St. Dismas, pray for us. Our Lady of the Assumption, pray for us. Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
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This meditation originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Parish, Mishawaka, Indiana. 

Of Mick Jagger, a Weeping Icon, and Getting What We Need

24 Mar

“Every moment we live through is like an ambassador who declares the will of God.”
~ Jean-Pierre de Caussade

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VSED: A New Form of Assisted Suicide

14 Mar

“You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words.”
~ George Orwell

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Hopefully Not Coming to a Theater Near You

12 Mar

“The secret can’t be told. Telling it ruins it.”
~ Walker Percy

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Snow White, Seven Monks, and a Fanciful Lesson in Humility

4 Mar

“It is these trivialities, as we consider them, which would do marvels for us if only we did not despise them.”
~ Jean-Pierre de Caussade

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