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Her feast is on a Sunday this year, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t learn more about St. Mary Magdalene. So, as I’ve done for the past couple of years, I’m going to offer a daily excerpt from my book Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies, now available as an e-book for .99.

Remember, that the book was written in the context of the Da Vinci Code fever, so I pay particular attention to the gnostic writings that Brown and others whose work he used depended on for their claims.

So. Chapter 1:

Before the legends, myths, and speculation, and even before the best-selling novels, there was something else: the Gospels.

The figure of Mary Magdalene has inspired a wealth of art, devotion, and charitable works throughout Christian history, but if we want to really understand her, we have to open the Gospels, because all we really know for sure is right there.

The evidence seems, at first glance, frustratingly slim: an introduction in Luke, and then Mary’s presence at the cross and at the empty tomb mentioned in all four amy-welborn-book2Gospels. Not much to go on, it seems.

But in the context, the situation isn’t as bad as it appears. After all, no one besides Jesus is described in any detail in the Gospels, and even the portrait of Jesus, as evocative as it is, omits details that we moderns are programmed to think are important. Perhaps, given the context, the Gospels tell us more about Mary Magdalene than we think.

Trustworthy?

Before we actually meet the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of exactly what the Gospels are and how to read them.

The word “Gospel” means, of course, “good news,” or evangel in Greek, which is why we call the writers of the Gospels evangelists. The four Gospels in the New Testament have been accepted as the most authoritative and accurate writings on Jesus’ life since the early second century. Even today, scholars who study early  Christianity, whether they are believers or not, know that when studying Jesus and the early Christian movement, the Gospels and other New Testament writings are the place to begin.

Sometimes in my speaking on this issue, I have fielded questions about the reliability of the Gospels. A questioner will say something like, “Well, they were written so long after the events, how can we trust them to tell the truth?”

In addition, even those of us who have received some sort of religious education might have been taught, implicitly, to be skeptical of the Gospels. We’re reminded, right off, that the Gospels are not history or biography, and that they tell us far more about the community that produced them than about Jesus himself.

In short, all of this gets distilled into the conviction that when it comes to early Christianity, all documents and texts are of equal value in telling us about Jesus. You can’t pick the best according to historical reliability, so you pick the one with the “story” that means the most to you. So, if the Gospel of Mark displeases you, you can go ahead and create your Jesus from what you read in the Gospelof Philip or the Pistis Sophia.

Sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way. As we will see in more detail when we get to the Gnostic writings, there is simply no comparison between the four canonical Gospels and other writ-ings. The canonical Gospels were not written that distant from the events described — forty or fifty years — and were written in an oral culture that took great care to preserve what it heard with care; the community’s history depended on it. When you actually read the Gospels, you see comments here and there from the evangel-ists themselves about what they were trying to do, and part of that involved, according to their own admission, being as accurate as possible (see Luke 1:1-4, for example).

No, the Gospels are not straight history or biography in the contemporary sense. They are testaments of faith. But they are testaments of faith rooted in what really happened. The evangelists, and by extension, the early Christians, were not about making up stories for which they would later, oddly, give their lives. They were not cleverly presenting their inner psychological transformations in the form of concrete stories. They were witnesses to the amazing action of God in history, through Jesus. amy-welborn-book3They are testimonies of faith, yes, but faith rooted in the realities of God’s movement in the world.

It’s also good to listen to modern Gospel critics carefully. More often than not, those who disdain the Gospels are quick to claim some other text as “gospel,” as the source of truth. Their choice of what to believe usually has far less to do with historical reliability than it does with other factors.

So, no, not all historical texts are equally reliable. When it comes to Jesus and the events of the mid-first century, the canonical Gospels are really the only place to begin.

Now, on to Mary Magdalene.

Magdala

Luke introduces us to Mary Magdalene in chapter 8 of his Gospel:

 

“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preach-ing and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,and Joanna,the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:1-3)

So here she is: a woman from whom Jesus had driven seven demons, joined with other women, also healed by Jesus, who had left their lives behind to follow him.

Mary is mentioned first in this list, as she is in every list of female disciples, in every Gospel, similar to the way that in lists of the twelve apostles Peter’s name always comes first. The precise reason for Mary’s consistent preeminence is impossible to determine, but we can guess that it might have much to do with her important role related to the Resurrection, as well as to recognition of her faithfulness to Jesus.

These women “provided for them out of their means.” This might mean one of two things, or both: that the women assisted Jesus and his disciples by preparing meals and so on, or that they supported them financially. The second explanation is supported by the presence of Joanna, the wife of a member of Herod’s court, on the list. Perhaps some of these women were, indeed, wealthy enough to give Jesus’ ministry a financial base. (Some legends about Mary have played off of this, as we will see later, suggesting that she was quite wealthy and actually owned the town of Magdala.)

What stands out about Mary is that she’s identified, not by her relationship to a man, as most women would be at that time, but to a town. This indicates that Mary wasn’t married, and perhaps even that she had outlived her father and other male relatives: she was a single woman, able to give support to Jesus out of gratitude for what he had done for her.

Magdala was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about four miles north of the major city of Tiberias. Today, it is a village with a few hundred inhabitants, some abandoned archaeological digs, and only the most inconspicuous memorials to its most well-known inhabitant.

“Magdala” is derived from the Hebrew Migdal, which means “fortress” or “tower.” It was also called “Tarichea,” which means “salted fish,” a name which reveals the town’s primary industry during the first century, the salting and pickling of fish. Excavations led by Franciscans in the 1970s revealed a structure that some think was a synagogue (others a springhouse), as well as a couple of large villas and, from later centuries, what might be a Byzan-tine monastery. Magdala is described by Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, as having forty thousand inhabitants, six thou-sand of whom were killed in one of the battles during the Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), but most modern historians believe those numbers are far too high.

Jewish tradition suggests that Magdala was ultimately destroyed as a punishment for prostitution, and another strain holds that in ancient times Job’s daughters died there. Pilgrim accounts from the ninth through the thirteenth centuries report the existence of a church in Magdala, supposedly built in the fourth century by St. Helena, who discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem.

By the seventeenth century, pilgrims reported nothing but ruins at Magdala.

Possessed

Mary — like Peter, Andrew, and the other apostles — walked away from life as she knew it, abandoned everything to follow Jesus. Why?

“. . . from whom seven demons had gone out.”

Exorcism is an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that many of us either forget about or ignore, but the Gospels make clear how important it is: Mark, in fact, describes an exorcism as Jesus’ first mighty deed, in the midst of his preaching (1:25). Some modern com-mentators might declare that what the ancients referred to as pos-session was nothing more than mental illness, but there is really no reason to assume that is true. The “demons,” or unclean or evil spirits, we see mentioned sixty-three times in the Gospels were understood as forces that indeed possessed people, inhabiting them, bringing on what we would describe as mental problems, emotional disturbances, and even physical illness. The symptoms, however, were, to the ancient mind, only that: symptoms. The deeper problem was the alienation from the rest of the human family and from God produced by this mysterious force of evil.

In the world in which Jesus lived, seven was a number that symbolized completion, from the seven days of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3) to the seven seals on God’s book in Revelation (5:1) and the seven horns and eyes of the Lamb in the same vision (5:6). Mary’s possession by seven demons (also explicitly mentioned in Mark 16:9) indicates to us that her possession was serious and overwhelming — total, in fact. She was wholly in the grip of these evil spirits, and Jesus freed her — totally.

So of course, she left everything and followed him.

It’s worth noting now, even though we’ll discuss it more later, that nowhere in the New Testament is the condition of possession synonymous with sinfulness. The “sinners” in the Gospels — the tax collectors, those who cannot or will not observe the Law, the prostitutes — are clearly distinguished from those possessed. Some Christian thinkers have linked Mary Magdalene to various sinful, unnamed women in the Gospels because of her identification as formerly possessed. There may be reasons, indeed, to link Mary to these women, but possession is not one of them, because the conditions — possession and sinfulness — are not the same thing in the minds of the evangelists.

Disciple

The evangelists used the texts, memories, and oral traditions they had at hand to communicate the Good News about Jesus. Because they were human beings, their writing and editing bears the stamp of their unique concerns and interests. Just as you and a spouse might tell the same story, emphasizing different aspects of it to make different points — perhaps you want to tell the story of your missed flight as a warning about being organized and prepared, and he wants to tell it as a way to highlight the need to go with the flow — the evangelists shaped the fundamental story of Jesus in accord with what struck them as the most significant points of his life and ministry, what their audiences most needed to hear.

In the eighth chapter of his Gospel, Luke has finished introducing Jesus, and is ready to really help his audience understand what being a disciple means. He begins by describing who is following Jesus — the Twelve and the women — and then offers a general description of what Jesus’ ministry is about. Jesus then tells his first parable (the parable of the sower and the seeds, which is the first parable Jesus relates in all of the Gospels), then quickly calms a storm, performs another dramatic exorcism, raises a little girl back to life, and in the midst of it tells his followers, firmly, that his blood relations are not his family, but rather those who “hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

So that’s the context of the introduction of Mary Magdalene and the other women — not just to set the stage, to complete the cast of characters, because Luke, like all of the other evangelists, didn’t have vellum to spare to do such a thing. Every word he wrote had a purpose, and it was very focused — here, to set before us, in quick, strong strokes, what this kingdom of God was all about. What do we learn from the presence of the women?

First, we learn that women are present, period. Women were not chattel slaves in first-century Judaism, by any means, but neither were they often, if ever, seen leaving their ordinary lives to follow a rabbi. In fact, scholar Ben Witherington describes this conduct as “scandalous” in the cultural context (Women in the Ministry of Jesus [Cambridge University Press, 1984]):

“We know women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or master was a rabbi willing to teach them.Though a woman might be taught certain negative precepts of the Law out of necessity,this did not mean they would be taught rabbinic explanations of Torah. For a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous. Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ traveling companions.” (Witherington, p. 117)

And not just any women, either. As we noted earlier, Mary Magdalene was once possessed by seven demons. In this culture, those possessed were ostracized — one man Jesus exorcised is described as living in a cemetery (Luke 8:27). Mary Magdalene, formerly at the margins of society, has been transformed by Jesus and is now welcomed as a disciple. The barriers of class, too, are broken, Luke hints, with the presence of Joanna, the wife of a per-son of stature. In God’s kingdom, Luke makes clear, the world we know is being turned upside down.

Just as every phrase and scene in the Gospels is carefully chosen under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so are the parts of the Gospel related. We meet Mary Magdalene here, but we will not see her again for many chapters — until the Passion narrative begins. But when we do encounter her — again, with the other women — here’s what she will be doing: she will be standing near the cross, she will then be preparing Jesus’ body for burial, and later she will see and witness to the empty tomb, and encounter the risen Jesus.

Mary will be serving, still. She serves, watches, and waits, the only remaining link between Jesus’ Galilean ministry, his Passion, and the Resurrection. She is introduced as a grateful, faithful dis-ciple, and that she will remain, a witness to the life Jesus brings.

 

Already, there’s a sort of mystery: what were these demons? What exactly happened to Mary? The evangelists don’t tell us, perhaps because they and Mary herself knew that life with Jesus is not about looking back into the past, but rather rejoicing in God’s power to transform our lives in the present.

 

Questions for Reflection

 

  1. What do we know about Mary Magdalene’s life from the Gospels?
  1. What does her presence in Jesus’ ministry tell you about the kingdom of God that Jesus preached?
  2.   How has God acted in your life with power? How do you respond to that? How would you like to respond?

 

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— 1 —

I’m still working on a couple of Japan wrap-up posts. I’d thought I would use one of them here, but nah. I’ll just toss up some recent news and links, instead.

First, saints:

Lots of interesting saints coming up this week (well…there are always interesting saints coming up in our calendar, aren’t there?), among them Camillus de Lellis – former gambler, soldier of fortune –  on July 14.

I wrote about him in The Loyola Kids’ Book of SaintsLoyola didn’t choose to excerpt from my book for the entry for their “Saints Stories for Kids” webpage, but you can read most of it at Google Books, here:

camillus de lellis

(Kateri Tekakwitha, whom we also remember on July 14, is also in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints, but the available excerpt on Google Books is pretty minimal, so…..)

— 2 —

Summer time for us usually means a lot more movie-watching in the evenings – a time for Mom to say…you get to play your video games and watch your stupid YouTube videos about video games, so now it’s my turn to pick. 

It’s not always easy. They get it. They understand that what we watch might be a little challenging for them to access at first, but that I try my best to share movies that are substantive and still engaging for them. By this point, they mostly trust me. I think what turned it was (speaking of Japan) The Seven Samurai. At first, they were deeply skeptical – a 60+ year-old dubbed, black-and-white movie? Even if it is about samurai?

Well, of course, it was fantastic. We split the viewing over two nights (this was last summer) and they were totally absorbed and engaged.

So, yeah, they trust me. Mostly.

— 3 —

This summer has been different. My older son works, and most of his shifts are in the evening, and much of the time he’s not working, he’s off doing other things. That’s how it goes! And it’s good – because you want them to be shaping their own lives.

So we’ve not watched a lot of movies this summer so far. Two recent viewings, though, one before Japan and one after:

On the Waterfront.  This was a film I used to show my morality classes in Catholic high schools. It is, of course, a great discussion-starter about the cost of doing the right thing, but it also offers a great opening to talk about evangelization and what it means to take the Gospel into the world – embodied, of course, in Karl Malden’s character, Father Barry:

Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that’s a crucifixion. And every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead… Boys, this is my church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess coming!

Verdict: They though it was “a little slow” in parts, but liked it, especially as it built towards the end.

— 4 —

Earlier this week, we took on The Great Escape another long one, and another success. It’s based, of course, on a real escape from a German POW camp, and I’d say is about 60.2% faithful to history – with characters and time conflated of course, and well, you know there was no Steve McQueen racing a motorcycle to the Swiss border, right? That didn’t happen. Sorry.

Verdict: Very positive.

This, from the Telegraph, is a great graphic and verbal summary of the history behind the escape.  

On the night of March 24, 1944 a total of 220 British and Commonwealth officers were poised to escape by tunnelfrom North Compound, Stalag Luft III, the main camp for allied aircrew prisoners of war at Sagan in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The subsequent events, thanks to numerous books and the 1963 Hollywood epic The Great Escape, have become the stuff of legend. However the real story had nothing to do with Steve McQueen on a motorbike and over the top derring-do by a few men – in reality some 600 were involved.

Despite being meticulously planned by the committee known as the X Organisation, the escape was a far messier affair than we have previously been led to believe. Events unfolded in chaos with numerous hold-ups and tunnel collapses. Some pushed their way in line; others fled their post altogether.

Now, after corresponding with and interviewing survivors, and seven painstaking years of trawling through historical records in archives across Europe, prisoner-of-war historian Charles Rollings throws new light on the night of the ‘Great Escape’.

SPOILER ALERT: (Seriously, don’t read if you haven’t seen it, know nothing about it, and want to see it) – Be warned that if you’re thinking about showing this to younger or sensitive children: one of the things the movie is accurate about is the fact that most of the escapees were caught and killed. The jaunty theme and occasionally comedic aspects might lead you to think this is  a hijinks-and-fun-caper flick, but don’t think that. It’s very fast moving, enjoyable, has quirky characters and a couple of amusing set-pieces and has good lessons about resilience and standing up to injustice, but just know…most of them don’t make it.

— 5 –

Ah, okay, I said “links.” Here’s a link – a wonderful one:

How this classical Catholic school welcomes children with Down Syndrome:

Students with Down syndrome study Latin and logic alongside their classmates at Immaculata Classical Academy, a Catholic school in Louisville, Ky., that integrates students with special needs into each of their pre-K through 12 classrooms.

The school emphasizes “education of the heart,” along with an educational philosophy tailored to the abilities of each student. About 15 percent of students at Immaculata have special needs.

“When you look at these students with Down syndrome in a classical setting, it is truly what a classical education is all about — what it truly means to be human,” the school’s founder, Michael Michalak, told CNA.

— 6 —

Last week under this very take (#6), I shared a link about a former Catholic church in Boston being, er, transformed into a Dollar Tree store. 

Well, here’s some good news – another perspective from Baltimore:

Baltimore City is hurting. It is bleeding. It is in need of hope and healing. It needs Jesus Christ in the Eucharist—the source of all hope.

And yet, because of the danger in the City I have to close the Basilica at 4 PM every day. It can’t be open without a security guard. And we only have enough money to have a guard until 4PM.

THIS MUST CHANGE!

In my prayer, I know God is calling me to open the Basilica. He is calling me to make Him available to the people of Baltimore every single day in Eucharistic Adoration. He is asking me to offer his forgiveness in confession at all hours of the day. He is asking me to walk the streets and invite the people who live in my neighborhood to get to know Him. He is asking me to provide a sanctuary for those who are ill, lost, homeless, and hopeless. He wants young adults in our neighborhood to have a refuge to flee to after work and school.

I must provide that refuge here in the City. I honestly KNOW that God is demanding this of me.

I agree. I’m ready to help!

But in order to provide this refuge, I need your help. I will explain exactly what kind of help I need in a moment. But first I want to lay out what God is asking me to do at the Basilica.

— 7 —

While you’re waiting for those last Japan posts (should be over the weekend), in case you haven’t seen them – here’s what I have so far:

Also check out Instagram for photos. 

Some previous trip entries:

Mexico – spring 2018

London – spring 2017

Belize and Guatemala  – summer 2017

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Are you interested in the dynamic between the French Third Republic and Catholicism as played out in colonized lands?

No??

Well, too bad.

This week’s meaty read was An Empire Divided by Stanford historian J.P. Daughton. I’ll just borrow a summary:

Between 1880 and 1914, tens of thousands of men and women left France for distant religious missions, driven by the desire to spread the word of Jesus Christ, combat Satan, and convert the world’s pagans to Catholicism. But they were not the only ones with eyes fixed on foreign shores. Just as the Catholic missionary movement reached its apex, the young, staunchly secular Third Republic launched the most aggressive campaign of colonial expansion in French history. Missionaries and republicans abroad knew they had much to gain from working together, but their starkly different motivations regularly led them to view one another with resentment, distrust, and even fear. 

In An Empire Divided, J.P. Daughton tells the story of how troubled relations between Catholic missionaries and a host of republican critics shaped colonial policies, Catholic amy-welborn5perspectives, and domestic French politics in the tumultuous decades before the First World War. With case studies on Indochina, Polynesia, and Madagascar, An Empire Divided–the first book to examine the role of religious missionaries in shaping French colonialism–challenges the long-held view that French colonizing and “civilizing” goals were shaped by a distinctly secular republican ideology built on Enlightenment ideals. By exploring the experiences of Catholic missionaries, one of the largest groups of French men and women working abroad, Daughton argues that colonial policies were regularly wrought in the fires of religious discord–discord that indigenous communities exploited in responding to colonial rule. 

After decades of conflict, Catholics and republicans in the empire ultimately buried many of their disagreements by embracing a notion of French civilization that awkwardly melded both Catholic and republican ideals. But their entente came at a price, with both sides compromising long-held and much-cherished traditions for the benefit of establishing and maintaining authority. Focusing on the much-neglected intersection of politics, religion, and imperialism, Daughton offers a new understanding of both the nature of French culture and politics at the fin de siecle, as well as the power of the colonial experience to reshape European’s most profound beliefs.

Does it seem obscure? Perhaps – but then consider this. It’s a story of men and women in various lands living their lives of administration, mission, and whatever daily pursuits are theirs. They’re doing what they’re doing in a certain context that they both create and by which they are created.

Which is exactly what you and I are doing, and someday, someone will write a history of, say, the interplay between Christianity and the United States of Trump or Obama or in the context of early 21st century globalism, and while it might seem an academic question, you see now that it’s not – for it’s where you’re living and all of what’s swirling around in the air is shaping how you and I think about everything, including faith.

That’s why history interests me so much. I’m just taken up with curiosity about human motivation and choices and the dynamics that move us in one direction or another – as individuals and en masse. I’m the person standing at the edge of the crowd studying everyone and (probably) eavesdropping. Reading history is just staring and eavesdropping from a distance, therefore much more politely.

And as regular readers know, I’m particularly interested in histories that promise to bust up a narrative and question received wisdom. Those are my favorites.

An Empire Divided does some of that. What Daughton takes on is the tendency of historians of colonialism and imperialism to at best misunderstand and at worst ignore the role of missions. He hones in on three areas in order to make his case: Indochina, French Polynesia and Madagascar.

Some of the interesting and important points:

  • The Third Republic was, of course, anti-Catholic and the conflict between the Church and the Republic tends to define late 19th century French history. This conflict culminated in early 20th century laws that severely limited the Church’s role in French society. The fascinating irony, as Daughton points out, is that even as Republicans were fulminating against the Church at home, abroad, they were finding that their imperial aspirations were deeply dependent on….Catholic missionaries. C’est un problème!
  • For, of course, French Catholic missionaries had been present in these areas before French administrators. Their presence was vital in helping the French colonizers establish their foothold and often in keeping peace. And of course, it was mostly Catholic male and female missionaries who ran the schools, hospitals and orphanages. So the rabidly anti-Catholic French Republicans found themselves in a bit of a quandary out in the field.
  • How they dealt with this was largely dependent on the political winds back in France. At times there was an understanding relationship, but at times, things went south – as they did in Polynesia, when eventually, the government took over all the Catholic establishments and kicked the missionaries – mostly religious women – out of their roles. Another point: the stronger the role Freemasons had in local government, the greater the hostility to the Catholics was – not surprisingly.
  • In Madagascar, the situation was made even more complex by the presence of Protestants. This was fairly convoluted, and related to the earlier presence of the English on the island before the French took it. English Protestants and Quakers had great success in evangelizing Madagascar before the French decided they wanted it. Their continuing presence contributed to tensions which French Protestants thought they might help alleviate – but as it turns out, no one on any side wanted them. Of course the French Catholic missionaries (mostly Jesuits) didn’t want them around. Most of the time, the French administration didn’t want them because they suspected them of being allied with the English (which the French Protestants vigorously attempted to dispute, consciously aligning themselves with French Revolutionary and Republican ideals) and even the English Protestants didn’t want them because their ministry was mostly with indigenous peoples hostile to French rule…so more French speakers, no matter how Protestant, wouldn’t help. Quite interesting.
  • The other major thread running through the narrative focuses on the impact of French Republican ideals and practices on Catholic missions. For the first part of the period, Catholic missionaries saw their role as purely religious, with no connection at all to French aims, not even culturally. The French were constantly irritated with the Catholic missionaries in Indochina and Polynesia, for example, because they balked at teaching the indigenous peoples French. The narratives that the missionaries provide for this period are focused on matters of salvation and moral life and are at the very least, indifferent to colonizers and at most extremely hostile to them and the destruction and harm they brought to the people whom they were serving. (This is a common theme in mission work, and a tension worth remembering.)

So:

Sisters, however did not see officials or the effects of colonialism in such benign terms. Envisioning their schools as sanctuaries from corrupting colonial influences, teaching sisters were critical of official policies contemptuous of the administration, and disdainful of the colonial expansion that brought white men in close proximity to their girls. More than a love or a hatred of all things French, Catholic sisters instilled in their students of French men

amy_welborn8

 of all kinds: merchants marines colonists and officials. In missionary sisters’ eyes, the very administrators who came to inspect their schools were symbols of moral debauchery that quite literally threatened the lives of their students….Though teaching sisters were practical and inexpensive, officials’ particular esteem for them became increasingly fraught with paradox…

…Nonetheless, just as republicans in France were calling for the “separation of Church and schoo,” administrators in Polynesia (and elsewhere across the French empire) were asking missionaries to play an important role in civilizing colonial subjects. (143-44, 150)

  • But over time, in almost all cases, the French Catholic missionaries shifted their tone and began to present themselves as part of the French colonial enterprise to the world. Mostly, one can assume, for reasons of self-preservation.
  • Daughton’s evidence for this is in the voluminous and popular magazines and almanacs published by French missionary societies, which over time began to present missionary efforts as an important and necessary element of the light that France was bringing to a darkened world.
  • But then, of course, irony of ironies – how it all worked out:

Across the former colonial world, the most imposing structures — be it in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, or in the port of Papeete — are often the spires of the century-old French churches. Today, in many regions of the world once under the French flag, Catholicism has often endured and even flourished where liberal, republican ideals have faded and where French has become an archaic tongue. Considering how deeply religion shapes people’s lives and defines their communities, the most profound legacy of French republican imperialism may well be, ironically, Christianity. (266)

Finally, Daughton points to an apostolic letter of Benedict XV, Maximum Illud, published in 1919 to help Catholics refocus on mission aims in the wake of the devastation of the Great War. There’s a section he takes to be a reference to the direction French missions had been taking over the previous two decades:

  1. It would be tragic indeed if any of our missionaries forgot the dignity of their office so completely as to busy themselves with the interests of their terrestrial homeland instead of with those of their homeland in heaven. It would be a tragedy indeed if an apostolic man were to spend himself in attempts to increase and exalt the prestige of the native land he once left behind him. Such behavior would infect his apostolate like a plague. It would destroy in him, the representative of the Gospel, the sinews of his love for souls and it would destroy his reputation with the populace. For no matter how wild and barbarous a people may be, they are well aware of what the missionary is doing in their country and of what he wants for them. They will subject him in their own way to a very searching investigation, and if he has any object in view other than their spiritual good, they will find out about it. Suppose it becomes clear that he is involved in worldly schemes of some kind, and that, instead of devoting himself exclusively to the work of the apostolate, he is serving the interests of his homeland as well. The people immediately suspect everything he does. And in addition, such a situation could easily give rise to the conviction that the Christian religion is the national religion of some foreign people and that anyone converted to it is abandoning his loyalty to his own people and submitting to the pretensions and domination of a foreign power.
  2. We have been deeply saddened by some recent accounts of missionary life, accounts that displayed more zeal for the profit of some particular nation than for the growth of the kingdom of God. We have been astonished at the indifference of their authors to the amount of hostility these works stir up in the minds of unbelievers. This is not the way of the Catholic missionary, not if he is worthy of the name. No, the true missionary is always aware that he is not working as an agent of his country, but as an ambassador of Christ. And his conduct is such that it is perfectly obvious to anyone watching him that he represents a Faith that is alien to no nation on earth, since it embraces all men who worship God in spirit and in truth, a Faith in which “there is no Gentile, no Jew, no circumcised, no uncircumcised, no barbarian, no Scythian, no slave, no free man, but Christ is everything in each of us” (Colossians 3:12).

 

It’s clear, not just from this slice, but from the rest of Catholic history as well, that even those most dedicated to the Gospel face the tension of how to do that, as Pope Benedict XV says, within the context of their terrestrial homeland. The pressure to conform to this world and to allow the priorities and values of the principalities and powers to define us is always – always present and powerful, and we are fools to ignore it and worse than fools to be complacent, let down our guard and assume that we are beyond all that in this present moment.

Now, missionary histories were rewritten to show the triumphs of republican colonialism. The readiness and speed with which missionaries reconfigured their venerated spiritual traditions are evidence of the power of the modern nation-state – especially through the experience of colonialism – to demand patriotic conformity from all quarters of the population, even traditionally nonnational organizations like Catholic missionary orders. Within a few fleeting years Catholic missionaries found it impossible to see their work in purely spiritual terms. The politics of religion in fin-de-siècle France required missionaries to work for their patrie on earth or else risk giving up their service to their God in heaven. (256) 

 

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Earlier this evening, Bishop David Foley, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Birmingham (Third bishop of the diocese, as well as former auxiliary of Richmond), passed away after final bout of cancer. He was 88, tiny (under five feet tall) but astonishingly energetic up until the end. Last weekend, parishes in the diocese published this handwritten letter from him in their bulletins.

Bishop Foley

Bishop Foley remained very active in the diocese after his retirement. He said Mass everywhere, whenever needed, including in the Extraordinary Form. I last heard him preach perhaps a year ago or so, and his preaching was focused, on point and deeply well-prepared. One of the most striking elements of the way he celebrated Mass was perhaps related to his celebration of the Extraordinary Form – he prayed the Consecration almost sotto voce.  This might surprise some of you whose knowledge of Bishop Foley derives primarily from his interactions with EWTN leadership – including Mother Angelica – back in the day. But there it was.

One more note: My 17-year old works at a local grocery store, and just last fall, Bishop Foley came in. He recognized my son – we are assuming because my son has served at Casa Maria Convent and Retreat Center, where the Bishop would sometimes celebrate Mass – but their paths did not cross that often – perhaps two or three times over the course of three years – but Bishop Foley recognized him – if not by name, but definitely by sight – and chatted with him.

Requiescat in Pace. 

Bishop Foley’s obituary.

 

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Good Friday – not exactly what I expected – again – and some disappointment that I probably could have avoided. But all in all, a good day – a good Friday.

This will be briefer than Thursday’s novella. I want to use my early morning time on Saturday to walk around a bit, not write, and then I’ll get the boys up earlier than normal for we are heading out of town just for the morning I hope – and if it is to be just for the morning, it will need to get going early.

Note: there are video clips of the procession, the concert and the Good Friday service at Instagram. 

My understanding was the that big Good Friday procession would begin at 11:30. I wasn’t worried about catching it “on time” – it’s a big procession through town and I knew that we’d be able to see it during a few-hour window. So after everyone woke up and gained some alertness and energy, we decided to try to get breakfast. The crowds were already gathering for the procession – and in case you were wondering, there was absolutely no change in the social tone from Thursday. It could have been any market/celebration day. We picked a random restaurant around the zocalo and ate – detail on that later. We then began our efforts to try to see the procession. The first clear shot we had was very good, but it was preparatory – it was of a (large) group making its way to the Cathedral for the beginning of the event. After that point once things got formally underway, it got more challenging. The crowds were very large and even though (honestly) most of us skew taller than the rest of the population, we had a difficult time finding a good viewpoint. We’d find something that seemed okay, but then it turned out not to be, or the sun came out and everyone pulled out their umbrellas and well, there goes that view. We finally walked towards what I thought might be the last third of the route, and scored.

The procession was certainly something to see – various groups in their uniforms, some beating drums, others winding noisemakers in the shape of crosses, others singing. The floats were, as you probably know, carried by men who, every once in a while would be relieved by others. There was singing and chanting Viva Jesus! One group of children walked carrying representations of the instruments of the Passion. At one point we came upon a large stretch of road that was evidently going to provide the end of the procession, and at several points along the way, classical musicians were playing sacred music, either from balconies or from ground-floor building alcoves.

But…it wasn’t as long as I thought it would be, and for some reason, I had expected a via crucis to be a part of it – I have no idea why. But what I discovered over the course of the day as I studied the listings of Semana Santa on church doors, was that everyone had their via crucis in the morning. Dang it!

Ah well. We’ll just have to see what else comes our way today…

But first, a glitch. One of our party started experiencing some stomach upset – well he’d woken up not feeling right, and it just wasn’t getting better. He needed to go back to the hotel, so I went with him, and it was good I did because once we arrived, we discovered a leak in the bathroom sink – so that needed to be reported and taken care of. Once I saw that it was underway, the other party and I set out to do some exploring to see what we could discern about activities for the rest of the afternoon. (it was about 2:30).

We first went into the Cathedral where I discovered that what I’d seen yesterday was Screenshot_2018-03-30-23-42-16.pngindeed a rehearsal  –  for a 3pm performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion by the Orquesta Sinfónica Esperanza Azteca. There were no seats available, and it was quite crowded, so we didn’t stay for all of it, but what we heard was excellent, the power and beauty of the Cathedral matched by the sound filling it.

(It was also being either recorded or broadcast live – there was a small setup in the rear, which was interesting to watch, as one person followed the score and several others coordinated editing – for the broadcast was not just of the performance, but overlaid with it were translations of the text as well as dramatizations of the events.)

When we returned to the hotel with some medicine recommended by a pharmacist in IMG_20180330_171849.jpghand, Party #1 reported he was recovering pretty well and could probably eat. Given that it was still Friday, and Good Friday at that, we were committed to going meatless, and cheese pizza seemed  – as it does all Lent – the easiest route, and the one most amenable to an unstable constitution. There’s a pizza place a couple of doors down – we went and got a simple 4-cheese pizza, which, I’m telling you, was superior to anything you could buy in Birmingham.

It was then late enough to wander with the full expectation of hitting a Good Friday service, which we did – at 6:30 at the church of St. Dominic, site of the famed Rosary Chapel – the service was not there, but in the main church, which is ornate enough. The service was simple. It was rendered a little shorter by the fact that the Solemn General Intercessions were all spoken, not chanted, and there was no kneeling or moments of silent prayer. Also, no congregation “participation” in the reading of the Passion. The Dominican preached enthusiastically. I wish I’d known what he said…..

(Weird  side note – possible. I am almost positive that the conductor of the orchestra playing St. John’s Passion was in attendance at this service. He’s pretty distinctive looking – a long mane of dark hair – and after the service I saw him greeting people who were approaching him in a congratulatory way – and he was carting a cello.)

There was to be more happening afterwards, including a procession with statues of the Blessed Virgin and a corpus of Jesus in a glass case, but there was a long prayer service preceding it, and the Party with the unstable constitution was…unstable, so we headed back to the hotel.

Tomorrow: everyone is looking forward to the end of Lenten and Good Friday disciplines, because there’s a lot of meat and candy around here waiting to be eaten….

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Perhaps"amy welborn" you remember at the beginning of Lent, I posted a section from a late 19th-century book called The Correct Thing for Catholics.  Somewhat dated, of course, but still, if you think about it, useful.

Well, here’s the author’s advice for these days in particular. Other sites are offering you deep thoughts. I simply offer the correct thing. 

The focus is on Holy Thursday, and in particular the tradition of visiting the altars of repose in various churches – “throngs” of people did this….

 

"amy welborn"

 

"amy welborn"

 

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Reprint from 2017

 

On the Second Sunday of Lent, every year, no matter what the liturgical cycle, we hear the narrative of the Transfiguration.

(There is also a Feast of the Transfiguration, on August 6)

We only hear of the actual moment on the mountain, but what precedes it is important, too, and perhaps your homilist alluded to it today.

Before Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain, he had been conversing with them and the other apostles. It was the moment when he asked them Who do people say that I am?  And Who do you say that I am?  Peter had, of course, responded in faith and truth: You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. 

The conversation doesn’t end there, for Jesus continues, telling them about the way of this Messiah, his way – a way of suffering. Peter can’t believe it, Jesus rebukes him, and lets his friends and disciples know that anyone who wishes to follow him will be taking up a cross.

And then they climb the mountain.

******

"amy welborn"

I went to Mass today at the convent where my sons often serve. It was a small congregation, as usual. Sisters, friends, family members. There were two older men in wheelchairs, several children, a developmentally disabled young man, and concelebrating with the friar, a hundred-year old priest with his walker, his pillow, his handkerchief and his glass of water.

Hearts, minds and spirits bore crosses, too, not visible, but no less real, I’m sure.

Life is serious, challenging and hard. It’s rugged and scars you.

Jesus doesn’t promise a bountiful best awesome fulfilling amazing life on earth to his disciples. He promises – promises  – a cross.

Why is liturgy formal and serious?

Because life is serious.

God didn’t make it so – we did – but God enters this life as it is, as our sin has made it,  and God redeems it and takes up that Cross we have fashioned on himself.

Up the mountain.

We follow him, all of us carrying crosses and burdens, and there atop the moment we are blessed with a gift: light, love and glory.

It awaits, we are promised, but there on the mountain, we see something else. That gift isn’t just waiting ahead – it’s here now. It’s here in this Body of Christ, in the gift of Word and Sacrament, a glimpse of what awaits, an anchor and a hope.

It’s a gift that’s not dependent on us. It’s not dependent on how much we understand or know, or how well we speak or see, how quickly we can move, how accomplished we are, how fulfilled we feel, or how rich or poor we are.

Formality and ritual makes this clear. Redemption awaits, and it is offered to you and each of the wildly different people around you, each trudging up the mountain under their own cross, but it is one thing – the love of God – and it is sure, definite, solid and glorious.  No matter who you are or what you can do, God offers it, and offers you a chance to respond the best way you can, in whatever way your soul can move, love and say yes, it is good for me to be here.

"amy welborn"

 

"amy welborn"EPSON MFP image

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