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Okay, okay, maybe it’s partly the reverence. But hear me out.

In all of these endless conversations about the Mass in the current day, “reverence” would probably win the Word Cloud competition.

They just want a reverent Mass!

Celebrated properly, the Mass of Paul VI can be plenty reverent!

Give us reverence!

Well, I think “reverence” as an interpretive lens falls short. I don’t think it quite gets to the core of the problem.

It’s not the reverence.

It’s the ego.

Because the ego lies at the heart of the “irreverence” – no matter what form that “irreverence” takes – and we obliged to note that a full-on Latin Mass in whatever form can be “irreverent,” too – although the potential for irreverence there has built in boundaries: Latin, strict rubrics.

But let’s look at the Mass of Paul VI – the Ordinary Form, the Mass most of us attend.

I’m going to suggest that the core of what drives people crazy (in a bad way) about the celebration of this Mass is the always-present-fear that when you open the door and sit down in that pew, you are never quite sure if what’s about to happen might involve you being subject to surprise attacks and being held hostage by someone’s ego.

You go to Mass with your hopes, joys and fears. You’re there carrying sadness and grief, questions, doubts and gratitude and peace. You’re bringing it all to God in the context of worship, worship that you trust will link you, assuredly to Christ – to Jesus, the Bread of Life, to His redeeming sacrifice. That in this moment, you’ll be joined to the Communion of Saints, you’ll get a taste of the peace that’s promised to the faithful after this strange, frustrating life on earth is over.

And what do you get?

Who knows. From week to week, from place to place, who knows.

Who knows what the personality of the celebrant will impose on the ritual. Will it be jokes? Will it be a 40-minute homily? Will it be meaningful glances and dramatic pauses? Will it be the demand for the congregation to repeat the responses because they weren’t enthusiastic enough?

Who knows what the particular tastes and artistic stylings of the musicians will bring to the moment?

Who knows what the local community, via committee or fiat, will have determined we should focus on this week?

The idea was this:

God is in the here and now, and speaks to us in the here and now. To be responsive to the Spirit in this here and now means not being bound by imposed ritual or words, especially if those rituals come to us from distant times and cultures.

So what needs to happen with liturgy is that it should be seen as a framework – valuable, yes – but only a framework in which the ministers and the community can respond to the Lord freely, letting Him work through the uniqueness of this particular community, this moment in time, the unique gifts of these ministers and perceived needs of this community.

It was supposed to render the ritual far more accessible than any medieval, time-encrusted form ever could for Modern Man.

It seemed to make sense at the time.

And in the best of circumstances, saints at the helm, perhaps it does.

But as I have said time and time again, one of the reasons we say that tradition possesses a sort of wisdom is that tradition has seen the strengths and weaknesses of human nature and evolved to take that – especially the weaknesses and the sinfulness – into consideration, evolving into something that discourages and inhibits those sinful tendencies

So when you have a liturgy, you have ministers. You have people in charge. And it is not shocking at all that in a context of being told that The Spirit will work through your words and actions – trust it you immediately construct a huge, boundless playground for the Ego.

The Ego that at one point might have been constrained by strict rules about obeying rubrics, not to speak of the use of a foreign, non-vernacular language, is unleashed, not only by the fateful “in these or other words” – but by his new role, in constant dialogue with the congregation, who now spend an hour or more gazing on his face, and who has been taught that, in some crucial way, the congregation’s spiritual experience at this liturgy depends on his personality – that his personality and interaction holds a key to a fruitful spiritual moment.

But there’s more.

One of the stated purposes of the conciliar liturgical reforms (growing from the Liturgical Movement) was to help the faithful see the sacredness of the moment – by breaking down the wall between the altar and the pews, that would work to help the faithful bring the sacrality found in worship out into their individual lives and the present moment. Again, how much more impactful on this score is liturgy that reflects the current moment in that community’s life rather than something that reflects the experiences of 16th century hierarchs?

How does this work out in real life?

Well, in real life, this grand theory is put into practice by a small group of people – depending on place and time – celebrants, lay ministers, worship committee, musicians – who are operating out of a set of perceived needs and agendas – theirs. It can be little else. Oh, some people have a more expansive vision, but most don’t.

And of course, these people in charge of liturgies are human beings.

How many times have we seen this, in liturgies and in general church life, when leaders, both lay and clerical, have centered their efforts, words and plans on particular agendas and causes, while in front of them sits a congregation gathered with their broken hearts, fears about life and death and all of it, addictions, disappointments, temptations, frightening diagnoses and exhaustion – wondering why they can’t just pray?

To me, it’s an interesting extension of the post-Enlightenment centering of human experience in the cosmos. In a Catholic context, it took different forms, as theological and spiritual thinkers cycled through various angles and anthropologies over the past two centuries, all of which prioritized human experiences of the present moment as the portal to truth and authenticity.

The trouble is – well, one of the troubles – is that given the opportunity, human beings, especially human beings given positions of power and leadership, and encouraged to let the Spirit speak through the present moment and the uniqueness of their own experience, will do just that – imposing their own understanding of the needs of the present moment on the community as normative and fundamental, using the call to inculturate as an invitation to construct a narrative that serves their own purposes and concretize an agenda when all we really came for was the Creed.

Facing us, speaking our language, trusted by us as the arbiters of the moment in which the Spirit is surely moving – yes, the Egoist, given the chance, will certainly and dutifully embrace the moment and center personal experience as way to authenticity and truth – theirs.


Planning for school or parish faith formation? Check out the resources I’ve written over the years for all ages.

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It’s that time of year again – tomorrow’s Gospel reading.

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,
and distributed them to those who were reclining,
and also as much of the fish as they wanted. 

I wrote this column years ago – maybe twenty or more – and it’s on my actual website, but the formatting is wonky, and I don’t feel like reviving my html skills right now to fix it. So I’ll just toss it here. Remember – at least twenty years ago, and also it was a column for newspaper – so I was limited to 700-800 words. So not quite enough room to explore the subtleties of Scriptural interpretation. And I believe this interpretation precedes Barclay and may even go back to Enlightenment-era thinking. So it’s by no means comprehensive or in-depth. It’s just a column, so calm down. I added a bit from a 2008 post I wrote riffing off it, as well.

Also – this used to be a very common way of preaching on this Gospel narrative. I don’t think it’s heard so frequently any more, but in case you do….


An acquaintance of mine recently wrote to share an unpleasant Mass-going experience.

The priest in his small hometown parish was preaching on the Gospel, this week, the account of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes from Matthew. His interpretation of the event was not exactly comforting to this acquaintance, for the priest suggested that perhaps what really happened had nothing to do with miracles as we know them. Perhaps Jesus so moved his listeners that they took out the food they had hidden in their cloaks and shared it with those around them.

The miracle, therefore, is not any magical multiplication, but the miracle of the previously selfish being moved to generosity.

Who knows how the rest of the congregation received this interesting news, but one of them (my correspondent) couldn’t just walk away without questioning the priest. After Mass, he asked him to clarify. The priest explained that no, he wasn’t denying the miracle, but that the miracle was yes the generosity of the people. He said he didn’t have time to go into it further.

The teller of this tale was justifiably appalled by what he’d heard. But, as I wrote back, as disappointing as it was, I couldn’t be surprised.

For I’d heard it myself, a couple of times from different pulpits. I suspected it was a fairly common interpretation, so I checked around and found that I was right.

Numerous folks who contacted me about this said that they’d heard it too in both Catholic and Protestant churches in exactly the same words. I couldn’t help but wonder where all of these preachers were picking this up, and it didn’t take me long to find out.

It’s in one of the most venerable Scripture commentaries out there – those written by Scottish scholar William Barclay in the 1950’s. Most people who’ve studied religion at the college level have been exposed to Barclay, and many own sets of his commentaries. He’s generally very middle-of-the road and moderate in his views. But in his commentary on this story, he offers an interpretation, which he doesn’t says is his own, but is held ‘by “some.”

Picture the scene. There is the crowd; it is late; and they are hungry. But was it really likely that the vast majority of that crowd would set out around the lake without any food at all? Would they not take something with them, however little? Now it was evening and they were hungry. But they were also selfish. And no one would produce what he had, lest he have to share it and leave himself without enough. Then Jesus took the lead. Such as he and his disciples had, he began to share with a blessing and an invitation and a smile. And thereupon all began to share, and before they knew what was happening, there was enough and more than enough for all. If this is what happened, it was not the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; it was the miracle of the changing of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ.

So there you have it, neatly packaged for the lazy preacher who will use it to sound clever, no matter how many problems the explanation holds:

If everyone brought some food, who, exactly, was left to be hungry?

This interpretation also implies that these first-century Jews were naturally averse to sharing, which is not only offensive, but historically and culturally inaccurate. It may be a miracle for 21st century Americans to share, but sharing and hospitality were sacred obligations for Jesus’ listeners.

Yes, there are layers of meaning to this event. It is of little use as a bare fact as it is as a fabrication. Miracles are offered as complex signs of God’s presence and activity among us, working through and even with us at times, open to rich interpretation in infinite application. Generosity and plenty of course is at the core of the narrative, but it’s God’s generosity which will reach its summit in the Eucharist.

The Barclayian interpretation is illogical,  and frankly – not surprising given the era and the emphasis of Biblical studies of the late 19th and early 20th century, which, for example, saw the most “authentic” elements of the Jesus story as those that were the least Jewish  – tinged with more than a bit of anti-Semitism. Think about stereotypes. Once I did – I couldn’t not see that in Barclay’s interpretation, perhaps unfairly.

So to presume that the Gospel writers couldn’t have meant what they wrote implies that they were either stupid or dishonest. The Scripture is a collection of diverse works, meant to be understood within the specific literary forms God used to communicate truth. But as the Gospel writers themselves make clear, they are not about anything but historical truth about an historical figure named Jesus. Anything less wouldn’t have been worth their time.

Or their lives.

Or ours, come to think of it, don’t you think?

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Image result for lawrence brindisi art

Today is the feast day of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, a Capuchin who lived in the Counter-Reformation period.

His story offers the open-minded an opportunity to learn more about the course and form of the Church throughout the ages and the varied forms that sanctity takes….

The best brief-ish biography I found of this saint is, not surprisingly on a Capuchin site. Here. 

Language scholar, humanist, philosopher, theologian, biblicist, preacher, missionary, professor, international administrator, confidant of Popes, Emperors, Kings and Princes, diplomatic envoy, army chaplain, military strategist and morale builder, polemicist, prolific writer – these are but some of the key skills and professional assets you might find on the CV of Julius Caesar Russo.Few modern multinational corporations would not vie to have this practical academic, influential publicist and versatile polyglot as part of their dream team.

But career chosen by this gifted sixteenth century man involved becoming part of a different kind of dream team, an alternative dream team, namely the ‘troubadours of the King of Heaven’ founded by Saint Francis of Assisi and called ‘the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor’. As part of this band of Brothers and as their servant-leader, he travelled barefoot all over Europe and founded churches and religious houses throughout the Holy Roman Empire. He evangelized and encouraged people. When necessary, corrected them while always inspiring them.  He washed dishes and said Mass humbly. He prayed almost incessantly and he willingly lent a listening ear to his Brothers and to all who turned to him for help. In the end, he would die among strangers, while undertaking a mission of mercy far from his native land. This epitome of a Renaissance man, this multi-talented genius and learned Capuchin Brother was none other than Saint Lawrence of Brindisi, one-time Vicar General of the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor.

Beatified by Pope Pius VI in 1783, he was canonized by Pope Leo XIII on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 1881, and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1959 by Blessed Pope John XXIII. At the command of the King of Spain, his body is enshrined in the monastery church of the Discalced Franciscan Sisters at Villafranca del Bierzo in Galicia, Spain.

The basics:

  • Born in Brindisi, Italy and named “Julius Caesar” by his father!
  • Both parents died fairly early, he became associated with the Franciscans and then with their branch the Capuchins.
  • A brilliant student known for his mastery of languages, including Hebrew, a rare feat at that time.
  • An accomplished preacher, who, in the Franciscan model, traveled widely.

Brother Lawrence prepared his preaching through prolonged prayer and penance, meditating for hours on the Gospel before preaching a homily. The following quotation may help to give us an insight into how Brother Lawrence’s studied the scriptures, going beyond the literal meaning to the deeper spiritual meaning. The text also gives us a taste of his style of preaching. “When Christ decided to give sight to a man, blind from birth, he placed mud in the man’s eyes – an action that was much more suited to blinding those who see than giving sight to the blind who could not see! So too the Passion and Death of Christ was more likely to destroy the faith of those who believed that He was the Only-begotten Son of God than to commend faith to non-believers. Christ came into this world to do battle with Satan, to turn the world to faith and the true worship of God. He could have accomplished this by using the weapons of His Might and coming as He will come to judge – in glory and majesty just as he manifested himself in his Transfiguration. Who would not then have believed in Christ? But in order that His Victory might be the more glorious, He willed to fight Satan in our weak flesh. It is as if an unarmed man, right hand bound, were to fight with his left hand alone against a powerful army. If he emerged victorious, his victory would be regarded as all the more glorious. So Christ conquered Satan with the Right Hand of His Divinity bound and used against him only the Left Hand of his weak Humanity.”

Already in 1599, three years prior to his election as General Vicar, Brother Lawrence was sent to Austria and the present-day Czech Republic as a missionary to establish the Order in those lands and help buttress the Catholic faith against the constant onslaught of Protestantism. Taking with him with him twelve other Brothers, some of whom had German roots, he established local Fraternities at Vienna, Prague, and Graz a city of in south-east Austria. When the Brothers arrived in Prague they first lived in a hospital caring for the plague victims and preaching to the locals on Sundays and other Church festivals. Their sermons were effective in touching the hearts of many lukewarm Catholics who returned to the practice of the Faith. But at the same time they also were met with derision, which turned at times to life-threatening violence, from Protestants and hostile lapsed Catholics. The citizens scoffed at their poor dress-sense and the fact they went around in their bare feet. Their long beards too became the subject of mockery. Lutheran soldiers in the Imperial Army would call Brother Lawrence “the Wolf-monk’. On another occasion, a Protestant mob tried to push Brother Lawrence off a bridge in Prague and throw him into the river below. But he was rescued at the last minute by the Papal Nuncio’s nephew who happened to be passing by in the company of some of his friends.

Varied Evangelizing Approaches Adapted to Meet Local Needs
In the lands ruled by the Habsburg Emperors at the time there were Anti-Catholics, Non-Catholics, wavering Catholics and pious Catholics; some lived in thriving cities, others lived in isolated country farmhouses. Different audiences required different evangelizing methods. So Capuchins would use what they called “Apostolic Missions’ to visit the country people in their homes or work places and teach them the basic truths of the faith. In the cities they promoted devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and especially the devotion of ‘Forty Hours Adoration’ as well as setting up penitent confraternities dedicated to honouring the Passion and Death of Christ. Brother Lawrence relished every opportunity to engage Protestant Pastors in lively debate and used his writings to persuasively convince them and their adherents of their mistaken way of thinking. Seeing that this mission band was very successful, a new band of Capuchin missionaries was invited to help out. Blessed Benedict to Urbino was one of this second group of missionaries.As Provincial Vicar of Venice, Brother Lawrence began establishing a chain of Capuchin friaries connecting Venice, Trent, and the Tyrol. With an influx of native vocations, these houses of presence and mission would later mushroom, becoming in time six independent Provinces of the Capuchin Order.

  • He engaged with secular leaders at many levels for many purposes.
  • And then…there is that battle:

In 1601 the large Turkish army invaded the lands of the Holy Roman Emperor and were threatening to overrun the Habsburg-ruled lands before going to Rome to stable their horses in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Pope and Emperor were alarmed and patched together an army to block the Turkish threat. Brother Lawrence’s skills as a diplomat were used to cement together a Christian allied force which also included Protestants. At the Emperor’s request Capuchins served as army chaplains to the soldiers and Lawrence was among those appointed. However the small and badly equipped Imperial forces were no match for the invading Turkish army which with 80,000 men was more than four times larger than the 18,000 Christian soldiers who tried to block them.

At the The Battle of Székesfehérvár in Hungary the hopelessly outnumbered Christian army’s field commanders counselled retreat. but Brother Lawrence would not hear of this. Instead he urged the Imperial Forces on to victory, encouraging the flagging soldiers with his fiery words and personally leading the army into the thick of battle with his cross raised aloft for all to see. “Advance! Advance! Victory is ours!” he shouted over and over again and in the end a revitalized Christian army totally routed the Turks. Even the Lutheran soldiers were impressed by this and Brother Lawrence’s morale-boosting efforts were deemed pivotal in snatching a surprising last minute major victory over the invading Turkish forces.

In this noble and excellent two things are especially outstanding: his apostolic zeal, and his mastery of doctrine. He taught with his word, he instructed with his pen, he fought with both. Not deeming it enough to withdraw into himself, and dedicate himself to prayer and study in the refuge of his monastery, and occupy himself only with domestic matters, he leaped forth as if he could not contain the force of his spirit, wounded with the love of Christ and his brothers. Speaking from many pulpits about Christian dogma, about morals, the divine writings, and the virtues of the denizens of heaven, he spurred Catholics on to devotion, and moved those who had been swallowed up by the filth of their sins to wash away their crimes, and undertake the emendation of their lives. … outside the sacred precincts, when preaching to those who those who lacked the true religion, he defended it wisely and fearlessly; in meetings with Jews and heretics, he stood as the standard-bearer of the Roman church, and persuaded many to renounce and foreswear the opinions of false teaching. …

In the three volumes called “A Sketch of Lutheranism” (Lutheranismi hypotyposis), this defender of the Catholic law, mighty in his great learning, seeks to disabuse the people of the errors which the heretical teachers had spread. Therefore, those who treat of the sacred disciples, and especially those who seek to expound and defend the catholic faith, have in him the means to nourish their minds, to instruct themselves for the defense and persuasion of the truth, and to prepare themselves to work for the salvation of others. If they follow this author who eradicate errors, who made clear what was obscure or doubtful, they may know they walk upon a sure path.

With a fine theological sensitivity, Lawrence of Brindisi also pointed out the Holy Spirit’s action in the believer’s life. He reminds us that the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity illumines and assists us with his gifts in our commitment to live joyously the Gospel message.

“The Holy Spirit”, St Lawrence wrote, “sweetens the yoke of the divine law and lightens its weight, so that we may observe God’s commandments with the greatest of ease and even with pleasure”.

I would like to complete this brief presentation of the life and doctrine of St Lawrence of Brindisi by underlining that the whole of his activity was inspired by great love for Sacred Scripture, which he knew thoroughly and by heart, and by the conviction that listening to and the reception of the word of God produces an inner transformation that leads us to holiness.

“The word of the Lord”, he said, “is a light for the mind and a fire for the will, so that man may know and love God. For the inner man, who lives through the living grace of God’s Spirit, it is bread and water, but bread sweeter than honey and water better than wine or milk…. It is a weapon against a heart stubbornly entrenched in vice. It is a sword against the flesh, the world and the devil, to destroy every sin”.

St Lawrence of Brindisi teaches us to love Sacred Scripture, to increase in familiarity with it, to cultivate daily relations of friendship with the Lord in prayer, so that our every action, our every activity, may have its beginning and its fulfilment in him. This is the source from which to draw so that our Christian witness may be luminous and able to lead the people of our time to God.

The sketch offered here is just that…a sketch.  Go to the Capuchin site I linked above for more, or this one – is also good.

I think the life and proclaimed sanctity of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, even as sketched here, points out the inadequacy of some approaches to the Catholic questions and issues.

It is easy, it seems, to read the Gospels and proclaim:  Engaging with power is bad. War is bad. Simplicity is good. Tolerance is good. Embrace. Mercy. Welcome. 

But read this saint’s story carefully. A man who apparently found it not at contradictory to give himself to Christ, hold up St. Francis of Assisi as the emblematic disciple, devote himself to attempt to convert – not simply dialogue with – non-Christians and non-Catholics, move among the corridors of power, minister to the powerful, and inspire an army to go to battle.

Does that fit with what you’ve been hearing about what a “true Christian” does and doesn’t do?

This is why simplistic, The Gospels – n – Me – n- the Holy Spirit Today – doesn’t work.  It can’t coherently account for the complexity of Catholic history because there’s no systematic thinking brought to the table.  There is certainly plenty of space to talk about the shape of the Church and the vision of sanctity through the centuries, but without principles and systematic thinking, we really have nowhere to go.  Simplistic, idealistic thinking cuts us off from the breadth, depth, complexity and even ambiguity of human history and Christ’s church and saints within that history and offers us only the present moment in however those in authority choose to frame the present moment.

Oh…and slightly off topic, as I was reading, a concise expression of how saints deal with church office and authority came to me.

Saints don’t seek office; they seek mission. 

(And the hard part for most saints happens when the mission comes in the form of an office.)

(If you’d like a quick, interesting read – go to archive.org and check out this short book called The Saints of 1881 written by a British priest, about the saints canonized by Leo XIII that year.  Catholic publishing – always looking to build on current events, even then!)

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As I mentioned yesterday, this week, in anticipation of the July 22 feast,  I’ll be posting excerpts from my book Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies, published by OSV a few years ago under another title, but now available, published by moi, via Amazon Kindle for .99.

Chapter 1

Chapter 3

Chapter 2:

‘WHY ARE YOU WEEPING?’

Luke is the only evangelist to mention Mary Magdalene before the Passion narratives, but once those events are set in motion, Mary is a constant presence in all of the Gospels, without exception. For the first few centuries of Christian life, it is her role in these narratives that inspired the most interest and produced the earliest ways of describing Mary Magdalene: “Myrrh-bearer” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”

At the Cross

In both Matthew (27:55) and Mark (15:40-41), Mary Magdalene is named first in the list of women watching Jesus’ execution.

Luke doesn’t name the women at the cross, but he does identify them as those who had “followed him from Galilee.” John also mentions her presence (19:25), but his account highlights the presence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Jesus’ words commending her to John’s care.

After Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross, Mary and the other women are still there. Matthew (27:61) and Mark (15:47) both specifically mention her as seeing where Jesus’ body was laid, and Luke again refers to the “women . . . from Galilee” (23:55), whose identity we are expected to understand from Luke’s early mention of their names in chapter 8.

Finally, as the Sabbath passes and the first day of the week dawns, the women still remain, and the Twelve are still nowhere in sight. Matthew describes Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (not the mother of Jesus, but probably the Mary, mother of James and Joseph, whom he had mentioned in 27:56) coming to “see” the tomb. Mark and Luke get more specific, saying that the women have come to anoint Jesus’ body. John, interestingly enough, in chapter 20, ignores any other women, and focuses on Mary Magdalene. She comes to see the tomb, finds the stone moved and the tomb empty, and runs to tell Peter.

At least one early critic of Christianity seized on Mary Magdalene’s witness as discrediting. As quoted by the Christian writer Origen,the second-century philosopher Celsus called her a “half-frantic woman” (Contra Celsus, Book II: 59), thereby calling into doubt the truth of her testimony of the empty tomb.

What is striking about John’s account is that even though Peter and others do indeed run to the tomb at Mary’s news and see it empty, that is all they see. They return, and after they have gone away, Mary remains, alone at the tomb, weeping. It is at this point that, finally, the risen Jesus appears.

Of course, Jesus appears to Mary and other women in the Synoptic Gospels as well. In Matthew (chapter 28), an angel first gives them the news that Jesus has risen from the dead. The women then depart to tell the Twelve, and on the way they meet Jesus, they worship him, and he instructs them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee.

In Mark (chapter 16), they meet the angel first as well, and receive the same message as Matthew describes, and are, unlike the joy described by Matthew, “afraid.” (Fear and lack of understanding on the part of disciples is a strong theme in Mark’s Gospel, by the way.)

Mark presents us with a bit of a problem, because the oldest full manuscripts of Mark, dating from the fourth century, end at 16:8, with the women afraid, and with no appearance of the risen

Mark presents us with a bit of a problem, because the oldest full manuscripts of Mark, dating from the fourth century, end at 16:8, with the women afraid, and with no appearance of the risen Jesus described. Manuscripts of a century later do contain the rest of the Gospel as we know it, continuing the story, emphasizing Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, and identifying her as the one from whom he had exorcised seven demons. She sees him, she reports to the others, and they don’t believe it. Jesus then appears to “two of them” (perhaps an allusion to the encounter on the road to Emmaus we read about in Luke 24) who then, again, report the news to the Twelve who, again, do not believe it. Finally, Jesus appears to the disciples when they are at table, and as is normal in the Gospel of Mark, their faithlessness is remarked upon.

Some modern scholars suggest that Mark 16:8 is the “real” ending of this Gospel, which would mean that it contains no Resurrection account. Others, including the Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright, a preeminent scholar of the New Testament, argue that when one looks at Mark as a whole, it is obviously building up to the Resurrection,including prophecies from Jesus himself. Wright theorizes that the original ending was perhaps lost (the ends of scrolls were particularly susceptible to damage), and that what we have now is an attempt by a later editor to patch up that lost ending, but not in a way inconsistent with Mark’s intentions.

The theme of disbelief also runs through Luke. Interestingly enough, this Gospel doesn’t recount an encounter between the women (who are finally again specifically identified) and Jesus, but only the appearance of “two men” in “dazzling apparel,” who remind them of Jesus’ prophecies of his death and resurrection. The women, no longer afraid, go to the apostles, who, of course, dismiss their tale as idle chatter.

What’s clear in these Synoptic Gospels is, first, the strong sense of historical truth about the accounts. Rationalist skeptics would like to dismiss the Resurrection as a fabrication, but if it is, then the storytellers did a terrible job, didn’t they?

After all, if you were creating a myth that would be the origins of your new religion, would you write something in which the central characters — the first leaders of this same religion — were so filled with fear and doubt that they appeared weak?

If you were making up the story of the Resurrection from scratch, you would, as a person living in the first century, in the Roman Empire, and presumably as a Jew, only be able to think about this resurrection business in the terms and concepts available to you. And, as N. T. Wright has so ably demonstrated in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003), even the first-century Jewish world, which did believe in a resurrection of the body, saw it in completely different terms — that it would eventually happen to everyone, at once, at the end of time (Wright, pp. 200-206).

And in general, when you read over the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels, you are immersed in an account in which people are afraid, confused, in awe, and eventually profoundly overjoyed. There is a veil drawn over the core event — the Resurrection itself is never described because, of course, none of the witnesses saw it.

They saw the empty tomb, and they saw the risen Jesus. A clever fabricator and mythmaker would not have woven his account with such nuance, and would probably have offered a direct account of the event itself, perhaps even with a clear explanation of what it all meant. But that’s not what we read, and somehow, ironically, all of the confusion and human frailty is powerful evidence for the truth of the account.

Most importantly for us, a first-century mythmaker would not have featured women as the initial witnesses of these formative events. It is inaccurate to say that first-century Jews did not accept women as reliable witnesses at all. There was, of course, no unified system of law within Judaism, and what was practiced was dependent upon which rabbi’s interpretation of the Law was used. Some rabbis did, indeed, hold the opinion that women were not reliable witnesses, but others disagreed and counted a woman’s witness equal to a man’s.

However, the fact that a woman’s reliability as a witness was disputed, unclear, and not consistently accepted, would, it seems, discourage a fabricator from using women as his source of information that the tomb was indeed empty. It certainly wouldn’t be the first choice to come to mind if your aim was to present a story that was easily credible, would it?

“[And] so that the apostles [the women] did not doubt the angels,Christ himself appeared to them,so that the women are Christ’s apostles and compensate through their obedience for the sin of the first Eve. . . . Eve has become apostle. . . . So that the women did not appear liars but bringers of truth, Christ appeared to the [male] apostles and said to them: It is truly I who appeared to these women and who desired to send them to you as apostles.” (Hippolytus, third century, quoted in Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor, by Susan Haskins [Berkley, 1997], pp. 62-63)

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Noli Me Tangere

John’s account of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearance to Mary in chapter 20 adds more detail than the Synoptics. She comes to the tomb while it is still dark — recall how John’s Gospel begins, with the wonderful hymn describing the Word bringing light into the darkness — and she sees that it is empty, and then runs to get the disciples. Peter and another disciple come to the tomb, see it for themselves, but leave, since, as John says, they didn’t yet understand “the scripture” — perhaps the Hebrew Scriptures as they would be later understood by Christians.

Mary stays, though, weeping ( John 20:11). She peers into the tomb (the level of detail in this account is fascinating) and sees two “angels in white” who ask her why she is crying. She says, sadly, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” ( John 20:13). She then turns and sees another figure; we are told it’s Jesus, but she doesn’t know until he speaks her name ( John 20:16)

One of the more well-known moments in this account comes in John 20:17, when Jesus says to Mary, in the famous Latin rendering of the words, “Noli me tangere,” which has commonly been translated, “Do not touch me.”This, however, is not the most accurate translation — either in Latin or English — of the Greek, which really means something like, “Do not cling to me” or “Do not retain me.”

So, no, Jesus is not engaging in misogynistic behavior here. Nor is he (as some modern commentators suggest) alluding to a supposed former intimate relationship between him and Mary. This is not about touching; it is about understanding who Jesus is and what his mission is. After all, Thomas is invited to touch the wounds of Jesus in John 20:27. No, Jesus tells Mary to let go of him, to look beyond the moment, to the future. After all, his very next words direct her to go to the apostles and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” ( John 20:17). Knowing Jesus for who he is, we cannot stand still. We have to move, get out, and share the marvelous news that in Jesus the barriers between humanity and God are dissolved.

Which, of course, Mary Magdalene does. All of the evangelists agree that she was the first to announce this Good News to the apostles, who, more often than not, responded with skepticism.

But such is the way it has always been. God always chooses the least in the world’s eyes, the unexpected and the despised, to do his most important work. To see this event only through the prism of politics, and to be inspired by it to think only about gender roles and such, is to be willfully blinded to the greater reality: Jesus lives, Jesus saves, and as we are touched by this truth, we are, at the same time, called to go out and share it.

Mary of the Bible

Mary Magdalene’s future in Christian spirituality and iconography is rich, evocative, and even confusing, as we’ll see in subsequent chapters. But it all begins here, with powerful simplicity and themes that will resonate through the centuries.

Mary Magdalene, healed of possession, responds to Jesus with a life of faithful discipleship. As spiritual writers and theologians will point out, she’s like the Bride in the Song of Songs. She’s like the Church itself, called by Christ out of bondage to the evils that pervade our world, giving ourselves over to him in gratitude, waiting with hope by the tomb, even when all seems lost, and rewarded, in a small, grace-filled moment, when, in the midst of darkness, we hear him call our name.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What does Mary’s desire to hold on to Jesus symbolize to you? How do you experience this in your own life?
  2. Why is Mary referred to as “Apostle to the Apostles?”
  3. What can Mary’s fidelity teach you about your own relationship to Jesus?

Below: The pages on Mary Magdalene from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. As a new school year approaches, please consider purchasing copies of this and other Loyola Kids titles for your local Catholic parish and school!

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First…why?

Why highlight these saints so often when there is so much…news happening?

Simple: Because through the saints, we learn how to be disciples. We learn how rich, textured and diverse Catholic life is. Because saints lived in the past, when we make reflecting on the life, work, witness or writing of a saint part of our day, we situate our faith more properly than we do if we situate our faith only in the present moment.

In short: We grow more from a few moments of being quietly attentive to the real world around us, consciously situated in the greater cosmic context of traditionally-centered faith, than we do from one more session of racing through scads of information and opinion via a screen. I know I do, at least.

Moreover, with all the talk about “eucharist coherence,” maybe Irenaeus is a good person to drop in and check on – and check ourselves with: working from the assumption that Jesus says he’s the Way, the Truth and the Life, and those words don’t just jump from his mouth to our ears without a Spirit led process of transmission, teaching and shaping – that we just can’t ignore.

I mean, the man himself says it:

Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.

Mike Aquilina:

St. Irenaeus is an important link in tradition’s golden chain. He probably composed his works when he was very old, in the late 100s in the land we now know as France. When he was a young man, though, he lived in Asia Minor, where he studied under the holy bishop Polycarp, who had himself converted to Christianity under St. John the Apostle. Irenaeus treasured the stories of John that he had learned from his master. His few, small anecdotes are a precious witness to the life of the apostle.

And all of Irenaeus’s life gave witness to the teaching of the apostles. The man was steeped in Scripture, steeped in liturgy, in love with the Church and all of its glorious structures of authority. In Irenaeus’s voluminous writings we find it all: the Mass, the papacy, the office of bishop, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the condemnation of heresy. One of my favorite lines from his work is this, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.” This is the most primitive form of the axiom that later Fathers would state as “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” The law of prayer is the law of belief. The liturgy is the place where living tradition truly lives.

Then Bishop Barron:

Now this regula veritatis, Irenaeus insists, was not so much his work but that of the apostle John, the mentor to Polycarp who in turn taught Irenaeus himself. “For John, the disciple of the Lord … wishing to put an end to all such ideas (Gnosticism) … and to establish the Church in the rule of truth” handed on this formula. Time and again, Irenaeus characterizes his work as the handing on of the apostolic teaching; in fact, his short summary of the Adversus Haereses bears the straightforward title Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. In a word, the regula does not represent a philosophical consensus or an externally imposed matrix of interpretation, but rather the apostolically ratified distillation of the essential biblical worldview, the fundamental metaphysics that St. John and his companions insisted must undergird the biblical story. This is why, for Irenaeus, these “doctrinal” claims are not the least bit distorting but clarifying. Indeed, apart from them, the biblical witness would remain opaque and the essential story murky and open to misinterpretation. To suggest that the regula fidei should be set aside in order to allow the authentic intention of the biblical authors to emerge would have struck Irenaeus as so much nonsense.

Then, B16:

As can be seen, Irenaeus did not stop at defining the concept of Tradition. His tradition, uninterrupted Tradition, is not traditionalism, because this Tradition is always enlivened from within by the Holy Spirit, who makes it live anew, causes it to be interpreted and understood in the vitality of the Church. Adhering to her teaching, the Church should transmit the faith in such a way that it must be what it appears, that is, “public”, “one”, “pneumatic”, “spiritual”. Starting with each one of these characteristics, a fruitful discernment can be made of the authentic transmission of the faith in the today of the Church. More generally, in Irenaeus’ teaching, the dignity of man, body and soul, is firmly anchored in divine creation, in the image of Christ and in the Spirit’s permanent work of sanctification. This doctrine is like a “high road” in order to discern together with all people of good will the object and boundaries of the dialogue of values, and to give an ever new impetus to the Church’s missionary action, to the force of the truth which is the source of all true values in the world.

Repeating what I said yesterday about Cyril, if you have a mind to study the Church Fathers via these talks either as an individual or as a parish study group, feel free to use the free pdf of the study guide I wrote for OSV.  For example the reflection questions for the section on Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen are:

1. These thinkers of early Christianity did not shy from engaging with non-Christian thinking. How would you describe their relationships to it? What seems to you to be their standard for what elements of non-Christian thinking to accept or reject?

2. Apologetics is still an important part of Christian expression. What issues have you experienced as being areas in which you or others you know are called upon to offer an “apologia”? Are there any resources you have found particularly helpful?

3. All of these thinkers — and most in this book — emerged from the East, the birthplace of Christianity. What do you know about the Eastern Catholic churches today? Have you ever attended an Eastern Catholic liturgy?

4. Irenaeus battled Gnostic heresies in which only an elite had access to the ultimate saving spiritual knowledge. Can you see any currents of this element of Gnostic thinking in the world today? Do you ever catch yourself thinking along these lines?

5. These thinkers were engaged in very creative work, but work that was very faithful to the tradition they had been handed by the apostles. What kind of creative, faithful ways of teaching and expressing faith are you aware of today? If you were in charge of evangelization  for the Church in your area, what kinds of approaches would you encourage?

6. Justin Martyr felt that certain elements of his pagan life had actually worked to prepare him for his Christian life. Are their any elements of your life before your fuller coming to faith that you feel have prepared you for deepening your faith today?

7. Ignatius and Origen both longed for martyrdom. What do you think about that?

8. Several of these thinkers indicate the importance of the bishop of Rome. How do you see the importance of the papacy expressed in the Church and the world today?

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Today’s the feat of Our Lady of Fatima. Here’s a Fatima book illustrated by my friend and frequent collaborator Ann Kissane Engelhart:

Our Lady's Message cover

Written by Donna Marie Cooper O’Boyle and published by Sophia.

You an see about a fifth of the book, including illustrations, here. And here are a couple more, sent to me by Ann.

Blurbs for the book have specifically mentioned the illustrations as worthy of note. So if this appears on your radar, remember that the very talented artist has other books:

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And a fantastic Instagram page to follow!

And since we talk about the Rosary on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima – here are the relevant pages from the Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols:

Remember the format: Left-side page has an illustration and a simple explanation for younger children. Right-side page has a more in-depth explanation for older students. This entry is in the section entitled, “At Home.”

And yeah, you know, it is, Ascension Thursday as well. From the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.

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I’m going to share with you excerpts from my books related to the Mass readings from today.

The first reading, from Acts – a page from The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes from the section, “Heroes are known by their love.”

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The Gospel is the narrative of the Road to Emmaus. From The Loyola Kids Book of Bible StoriesRemember, the stories are organized according to when we generally hear them in the context of the liturgy:

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In him the Old Testament finds its fitting close. He brought the noble line of patriarchs and prophets to its promised fulfillment. What the divine goodness had offered as a promise to them, he held in his arms.  – from a homily of St. Bernardine of Siena. 

Some images for you, first from the Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols. Recall the structure: left side page has an image and a basic description. Right side page goes into more depth.

Secondly, the first and last page of the entry on Joseph’s dream from the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories. First page, to give you a sense of the narrative style and the image, the last page, to help you see how each entry concludes: circling around to some aspect of Catholic practice or teaching, along with a reflection question and a prayer prompt. Also remember that the stories in this book are organized according to when they would generally be heard in Mass during the liturgical year. So this story is in the “Advent” section. Also, links go the publisher’s site, not to Amazon.

Next, a vintage holy card from the Shrine of St. Joseph in Montreal that interests me because it predates the construction of the large basilica:

From the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal.  

I just love the blues on the card above and the not-quite Art-Noveauishness of it.

At the shrine featured in the vintage holy cards.  Summer 2011. 

The sign says “Reserved for pilgrims climbing on their knees.”

The wonderful Catholic artist Daniel Mitsui, whose depiction of St. Joseph dreaming is above, has  a blog. It is an absolute treasure trove of wisdom, whether you are an artist or not. Please go visit, bookmark, get on his mailing list, and support his work.  Easter’s coming. Surely there’s someone out there who’d appreciate the gift of one his prints?

From 2019, a St. Joseph celebration at a local Catholic school:

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Also, here’s “Saint Joseph” as he manifested in 2010 or so on my front porch.

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…for kids. 

(FYI – link does not go to Amazon, but to the Loyola website)

"amy welborn"
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From the Loyola Kids Book of Saints. 

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It’s her day today.

You can find any number of vintage treatments of St. Angela Merici at the Internet Archive, including this mod repackaging, if you like.


Gee, if only she’d used a vision board or a dream life journal, she could have actually accomplished something with her life!

My point? Saints are made not, at base through planning and endlessly thinking about what they want or what they want their life to look like, but by living deeply in the moment and in that same moment listening to God and being led by him. St. Francis of Assisi didn’t set out to found a religious order with a certain charism. He heard Rebuild my church and so he literally….started to rebuild a church. And his brothers came, and a mission slowly developed in tension, in response.

So with St. Angela. She didn’t set out, envisioning a teaching order. She simply listened to God, saw the great needs in the world around her – poverty, corruption, confusion – and set out to help in a way both completely ordinary but also quite new.

The age in which Angela lived and worked (the 16th Century), was a time which saw great suffering on the part of the poor in society. Injustices were carried on in the name of the government and the Church, which left many people both spiritually and materially powerless and hungry. The corruption of moral values left families split and hurting. Wars among nations and the Italian city-states left towns in ruins.

In 1516, Angela came to live in the town of Brescia, Italy. Here she became a friend of the wealthy nobles of the day and a servant of the poor and suffering. Angela spent her days in prayer and fasting and service. Her reputation spread and her advice was sought by both young and old, rich and poor, religious and secular, male and female. But still, Angela had not yet brought her vision to fruition.

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After visiting the Holy Land, where she reportedly lost her sight, Angela returned to Brescia, which had become a haven for refugees from the many wars then wracking Italy. There she gathered around her a group of women who looked toward Angela as an inspirational leader and as a model of apostolic charity. It was these women, many of them daughters of the wealthy, some orphans themselves, who formed the nucleus of Angela’s Company of St. Ursula. Angela named her company after St. Ursula because she regarded her as a model of consecrated virginity.

Angela and her original company worked out details of the rule of prayer, and promises, and practices by which they were to live. The Ursulines opened orphanages and schools. In 1535, the Institute of St. Ursula was formally recognized by the Pope and Angela was accorded the title of foundress.

During the five remaining years of her life, Angela devoted herself to composing a number of Counsels by which her daughters could happily live. She encouraged them to “live in harmony, united together in one heart and one will. Be bound to one another by the bond of charity, treating each other with respect, helping one another, bearing with one another in Christ Jesus; if you really try to live like this, there is no doubt that the Lord our God will be in your midst.”

In 1580, Charles Borromeo, Bishop of Milan, inspired by the work of the Ursulines in Brescia, encouraged the foundation of Ursuline houses in all the dioceses of Northern Italy. Charles also encouraged the Ursulines to live together in community rather than in their own homes. He also exhorted them to publicly profess vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These actions formalized Angela’s original “company” into a religious order of women.

You can find St. Angela Merici’s writings all over the place – there aren’t that many, only three: the Counsels, the Rule and the Testament.

Here’s an excerpt from the Counsels, good advice for all of us, whether we are Ursulines or not:

Love your dear daughters equally; and do not prefer one more than another, because they are all creatures of God. And you do not know what he wants to make of them.

For how do you know, you, that those who seem to you to be the least and lowest are not to become the most generous and most pleasing to his Majesty? And then, who can judge the heart and the innermost secret thoughts of any creature?

And so, hold them all in your love and bear with them all equally, for it is not up to you to judge the handmaids of God; he well knows what he wants to make of them, Who (as Scripture says) can turn stones into children of heaven.

As for you, do your duty, correcting them with love and charity if you see ~ them fall into some fault through human frailty, and thus you will not cease to prune this vine which has been entrusted to you.

And after that, leave it to God; he will do marvellous things in his own time, and when it pleases him.

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