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We are now in the heart of summer, at least in the northern hemisphere. This is the period in which schools are closed and the greater part of the holidays are concentrated. Even the pastoral activities in parishes are reduced and I myself have suspended the Audiences for a while. It is therefore a favourable time to give priority to what is effectively most important in life, that is to say, listening to the word of the Lord. We are also reminded of this by this Sunday’s Gospel passage with the well known episode of Jesus’ visit to the house of Martha and Mary, recounted by St Luke (10: 38-42).

Martha and Mary are two sisters; they also have a brother, Lazarus, but he does not appear on this occasion. Jesus is passing through their village and, the text says, Martha received him at her home (cf. 10: 38). This detail enables us to understand that Martha is the elder of the two, the one in charge of the house. Indeed, when Jesus has been made comfortable, Mary sits at his feet and listens to him while Martha is totally absorbed by her many tasks, certainly due to the special Guest. 
We seem to see the scene: one sister bustling about busily and the other, as it were, enraptured by the presence of the Teacher and by his words. A little later Martha, who is evidently resentful, can no longer resist and complains, even feeling that she has a right to criticize Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me”. Martha would even like to teach the Teacher! Jesus on the other hand answers her very calmly: “Martha, Martha”, and the repetition of her name expresses his affection, “you are anxious and troubled about many things; only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (10: 41-42). Christ’s words are quite clear: there is no contempt for active life, nor even less for generous hospitality; rather, a distinct reminder of the fact that the only really necessary thing is something else: listening to the word of the Lord; and the Lord is there at that moment, present in the Person of Jesus! All the rest will pass away and will be taken from us but the word of God is eternal and gives meaning to our daily actions.

Dear friends, as I said, this Gospel passage is more than ever in tune with the vacation period, because it recalls the fact that the human person must indeed work and be involved in domestic and professional occupations, but first and foremost needs God, who is the inner light of Love and Truth. Without love, even the most important activities lose their value and give no joy. Without a profound meaning, all our activities are reduced to sterile and unorganised activism. And who, if not Jesus Christ, gives us Love and Truth? Therefore, brothers and sisters, let us learn to help each other, to collaborate, but first of all to choose together the better part which is and always will be our greatest good.

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Let’s talk about that painting. I do love it. But then, I just love Velázquez, period. I probably stood in front of Las Meninas for fifteen minutes when I saw it in the Prado a few years ago. I didn’t want to leave. I’ve seen many well-known paintings in person after getting to know them in reproduction form, but the difference between the real and the reproduction was never as vivid as it was to me with that work.

Anyway, what do you see in that painting?

There are varied interpretations. My initial gut reaction – immediate – was that the resentful-looking young woman in the foreground is Martha herself. But most experts don’t see it that way.

One view:

It is one Velázquez’s early genre paintings, referred to as bodegones, which seems simple at first sight, but may be harder to decipher. We are to interpret the kitchen scene in light of the image of Christ speaking to Mary and Martha in the upper right corner. Christ rebukes Martha for criticizing her sister Mary for sitting at Christ’s feet while she works to prepare the meal. Jesus explains that Mary has chosen the better part and that it will not be taken away from her. Is the older woman, in turn, rebuking the younger one? If so she seems to be calling her to harder work, not less of it. Or, is she pointing her directly to the scene, reminding her of her more important duties?

The young woman has a look that attracts sympathy. She’s been working hard: just look at her red hands! You can see her youth in her pale and smooth skin, which contrast strongly with the older woman. Is she new to the work and being taught how to do it (or chastised for not doing it well enough)? She’s looking away from it and must be longing for something else. Is she feeling like Martha, wanting to get away from it, either fed up with it and/or wishing for something better. Her red hands (unused to work?) contrast with her earrings and lace head-cover.

The older woman clearly has more experience and perhaps more wisdom. Is she more like Martha, encouraging harder work, or is she actually encouraging the opposite by pointing to Christ in the image? Her hand that points to the image also contains a rosary wrapped around it, showing her devotion to prayer. She’s clearly admonishing or encouraging the younger woman, which may place her in the role of Christ pointing to the “one thing necessary” that Christ named in Mary’s devotion.

The image from the Gospels could be a painting on the wall, though some have suggested it could also be a mirror or even a window into the scene. Any of those options, however, still indicate that the painting of the two women should be interpreted in light of Christ’s encounter with Mary and Martha in Luke 10. The relation of work, prayer, and hospitality are the key themes that connect them. 

Another:

“Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” depicts a scene of a maid preparing garlic mayonnaise to go with the fish that will be served for dinner. The maid’s expression indicates she is upset and the woman behind her is calling attention to a scene in the upper right corner of the painting. We can not be sure if the smaller scene (like an inset) is intended to be a reflection in a mirror, a hatch (an opening) through which we are looking into an adjacent room, or a painting on the kitchen wall. Velázquez used devices such as reflections and paintings within paintings throughout his career.

In the usual interpretation of this painting, the two figures in the kitchen and the figures in the upper right hand scene are many centuries apart in time. The smaller scene shows Jesus seated in the home of Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42). Mary is seated at his feet and Martha is standing behind her. In the biblical story, Martha became busy serving food and drink while Mary seemed oblivious to the fact that her sister was doing all of the work alone. Instead of helping her sister, Mary sat down and listened to Jesus. Martha was frustrated at this and wondered if Jesus cared that her sister was leaving all of the serving chores up to her; she hoped Jesus would ask Mary to help her. Jesus told Martha that her concern was misplaced and that in sitting and listening to him, Mary had made a good choice.

The frustration of the maid pictured by Velázquez is similar to that of Martha. She is trying to make preparations for a meal but is working by herself and is distraught about all that needs to be done. The woman behind her is calling the maid’s attention to the scene of Jesus, Martha, and Mary; pointing out that spiritual nourishment is an important part of life as well.

It has been suggested this kitchen scene is not set in seventeenth century Spain but rather is in the home of Martha and Mary when Christ was there. If this interpretation of the painting is accepted, the person believed to be an upset maid in the kitchen is actually Martha herself and the second woman with Jesus in the smaller scene is another guest.

 

 

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Today is the feastday of St. Bonaventure.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had a lot to say about this saint, beginning with his academic formation:

Benedict XVI himself gave us an idea of this intellectual background in a speech he gave to a group of scholars several years ago, before he was Pope.

He said this: “My doctoral dissertation was about the notion of the people of God in St. Augustine. … Augustine was in dialogue with Roman ideology, especially after the occupation of Rome by the Goths in 410, and so it was very fascinating for me to see how in these different dialogues and cultures he defines the essence of the Christian religion. He saw Christian faith, not in continuity with earlier religions, but rather in continuity with philosophy as a victory of reason over superstition. …”

So, we might argue that one major step in Ratzinger’s own theological formation was to understand Christianity as “in continuity with philosophy” and as “a victory of reason over superstition.”

Then Ratzinger took a second step. He studied Bonaventure.

“My postdoctoral work was about St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian of the 13th century,” Ratzinger continued. “I discovered an aspect of Bonaventure’s theology not found in the previous literature, namely, his relation with the new idea of history conceived by Joachim of Fiore in the 12th century. Joachim saw history as progression from the period of the Father (a difficult time for human beings under the law), to a second period of history, that of the Son (with more freedom, more openness, more brotherhood), to a third period of history, the definitive period of history, the time of the Holy Spirit.

“According to Joachim, this was to be a time of universal reconciliation, reconciliation between east and west, between Christians and Jews, a time without the law (in the Pauline sense), a time of real brotherhood in the world.

“The interesting idea which I discovered was that a significant current among the Franciscans was convinced that St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order marked the beginning of this third period of history, and it was their ambition to actualize it; Bonaventure was in critical dialogue with this current.”

So, we might argue, Ratzinger drew from Bonaventure a conception of human history as unfolding in a purposeful way, toward a specific goal, a time of deepened spiritual insight, an “age of the Holy Spirit.”

Where classical philosophy spoke of the eternity of the world, and therefore of the cyclical “eternal return” of all reality, Bonaventure, following Joachim, condemned the concept of the eternity of the world, and defended the idea that history was a unique and purposeful unfolding of events which would never return, but which would come to a conclusion.

History had meaning.

History was related to, and oriented toward, meaning — toward the Logos … toward Christ.

This is not to say that Ratzinger — or Bonaventure — made any of the specific interpretations of Joachim his own. It is to say that Ratzinger, like Bonaventure, entered into “critical dialogue” with his overall conception — that history had a shape and a meaning — that he, like Bonaventure, took it quite seriously

(You can, of course, purchase the published version of the dissertation.)

On July 15, 2012, he spoke about Bonaventure at the Sunday Angelus:

Jesus Christ is the inspiring centre of St Bonaventure’s entire life and likewise of his theology. We rediscover this centrality of Christ in the Second Reading of today’s Mass (Eph 1:3-14), the famous hymn of St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that begins: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”. The Apostle thus shows in the four passages, that all begin with the same words: “in him”, with reference to Jesus, how this plan of blessing was brought about. “In him”, the Father chose us before the creation of the world; “in him” we have redemption through his blood; “in him” we became his heirs, predestined to live “for the praise of his glory”; “in him” all those who believe in the Gospel receive the seal of the Holy Spirit. This Pauline hymn contains the vision of history which St Bonaventure St. Bonaventure helped to spread in the Church: the whole of history is centred on Christ, who also guarantees in every era new things and renewal. In Jesus, God said and gave all things, but since he is an inexhaustible treasure, the Holy Spirit never ceases to reveal and to actualize his mystery. So it is that the work of Christ and of the Church never regresses but always progresses.

And then, as part of his lengthy series of General Audience talks on great figures of Christian history and thought (beginning with the Apostles), he had three sessions on Bonaventure:

Part 1 (3/3/2010) offers an outline of his life

In those years in Paris, Bonaventure’s adopted city, a violent dispute was raging against the Friars Minor of St Francis Assisi and the Friars Preachers of St Dominic de Guzmán. Their right to teach at the university was contested and doubt was even being cast upon the authenticity of their consecrated life. Of course, the changes introduced by the Mendicant Orders in the way of understanding religious life, of which I have spoken in previous Catecheses, were so entirely new that not everyone managed to understand them. Then it should be added, just as sometimes happens even among sincerely religious people, that human weakness, such as envy and jealousy, came into play. Although Bonaventure was confronted by the opposition of the other university masters, he had already begun to teach at the Franciscans’ Chair of theology and, to respond to those who were challenging the Mendicant Orders, he composed a text entitled Evangelical Perfection. In this work he shows how the Mendicant Orders, especially the Friars Minor, in practising the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, were following the recommendations of the Gospel itself. Over and above these historical circumstances the teaching that Bonaventure provides in this work of his and in his life remains every timely: the Church is made more luminous and beautiful by the fidelity to their vocation of those sons and daughters of hers who not only put the evangelical precepts into practice but, by the grace of God, are called to observe their counsels and thereby, with their poor, chaste and obedient way of life, to witness to the Gospel as a source of joy and perfection.

Part 2 focuses on Bonaventure’s theology, and is important to read – it’s still applicable:

In a special way, in St Bonaventure’s day a trend among the Friars Minor known as the “Spirituals” held that St Francis had ushered in a totally new phase in history and that the “eternal Gospel”, of which Revelation speaks, had come to replace the New Testament. This group declared that the Church had now fulfilled her role in history. They said that she had been replaced by a charismatic community of free men guided from within by the Spirit, namely the “Spiritual Franciscans”. This group’s ideas were based on the writings of a Cistercian Abbot, Joachim of Fiore, who died in 1202. In his works he affirmed a Trinitarian rhythm in history. He considered the Old Testament as the age of the Fathers, followed by the time of the Son, the time of the Church. The third age was to be awaited, that of the Holy Spirit. The whole of history was thus interpreted as a history of progress:  from the severity of the Old Testament to the relative freedom of the time of the Son, in the Church, to the full freedom of the Sons of God in the period of the Holy Spirit. This, finally, was also to be the period of peace among mankind, of the reconciliation of peoples and of religions. Joachim of Fiore had awakened the hope that the new age would stem from a new form of monasticism. Thus it is understandable that a group of Franciscans might have thought it recognized St Francis of Assisi as the initiator of the new epoch and his Order as the community of the new period the community of the Age of the Holy Spirit that left behind the hierarchical Church in order to begin the new Church of the Spirit, no longer linked to the old structures.

Hence they ran the risk of very seriously misunderstanding St Francis’ message, of his humble fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church. This error entailed an erroneous vision of Christianity as a whole….

…..

The Franciscan Order of course as he emphasized belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the apostolic Church, and cannot be built on utopian spiritualism. Yet, at the same time, the newness of this Order in comparison with classical monasticism was valid and St Bonaventure as I said in my previous Catechesis defended this newness against the attacks of the secular clergy of Paris:  the Franciscans have no fixed monastery, they may go everywhere to proclaim the Gospel. It was precisely the break with stability, the characteristic of monasticism, for the sake of a new flexibility that restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.

At this point it might be useful to say that today too there are views that see the entire history of the Church in the second millennium as a gradual decline. Some see this decline as having already begun immediately after the New Testament. In fact,”Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt”:  Christ’s works do not go backwards but forwards. What would the Church be without the new spirituality of the Cistercians, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the spirituality of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross and so forth? This affirmation applies today too: “Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt”, they move forward. St Bonaventure teaches us the need for overall, even strict discernment, sober realism and openness to the newness, which Christ gives his Church through the Holy Spirit. And while this idea of decline is repeated, another idea, this “spiritualistic utopianism” is also reiterated. Indeed, we know that after the Second Vatican Council some were convinced that everything was new, that there was a different Church, that the pre-Conciliar Church was finished and that we had another, totally “other” Church an anarchic utopianism! And thanks be to God the wise helmsmen of the Barque of St Peter, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, on the one hand defended the newness of the Council, and on the other, defended the oneness and continuity of the Church, which is always a Church of sinners and always a place of grace.

Part 3 on other aspects of Bonaventure’s theology, again, still applicable:

His defence of theology is along the same lines, namely, of the rational and methodical reflection on faith. St Bonaventure lists several arguments against engaging in theology perhaps also widespread among a section of the Franciscan friars and also present in our time: that reason would empty faith, that it would be an aggressive attitude to the word of God, that we should listen and not analyze the word of God (cf. Letter of St Francis of Assisi to St Anthony of Padua). The Saint responds to these arguments against theology that demonstrate the perils that exist in theology itself saying: it is true that there is an arrogant manner of engaging in theology, a pride of reason that sets itself above the word of God. Yet real theology, the rational work of the true and good theology has another origin, not the pride of reason. One who loves wants to know his beloved better and better; true theology does not involve reason and its research prompted by pride, “sed propter amorem eius cui assentit [but is] motivated by love of the One who gave his consent” (Proemium in I Sent., q. 2) and wants to be better acquainted with the beloved: this is the fundamental intention of theology. Thus in the end, for St Bonaventure, the primacy of love is crucial.

Consequently St Thomas and St Bonaventure define the human being’s final goal, his complete happiness in different ways. For St Thomas the supreme end, to which our desire is directed is: to see God. In this simple act of seeing God all problems are solved: we are happy, nothing else is necessary.

Instead, for St Bonaventure the ultimate destiny of the human being is to love God, to encounter him and to be united in his and our love. For him this is the most satisfactory definition of our happiness.

Along these lines we could also say that the loftiest category for St Thomas is the true, whereas for St Bonaventure it is the good. It would be mistaken to see a contradiction in these two answers. For both of them the true is also the good, and the good is also the true; to see God is to love and to love is to see. Hence it was a question of their different interpretation of a fundamentally shared vision. Both emphases have given shape to different traditions and different spiritualities and have thus shown the fruitfulness of the faith: one, in the diversity of its expressions.

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Pope Francis wrote a letter to the American bishops, on retreat at Mundelein Seminary this week.

Here’s the text.

It is, honestly, the usual strange/not-strange message from Pope Francis. Strange in that he goes all over the place except to the specific place where the problem resides, and not-strange in that, well, this is what he usually does, and there’s always a reason for that.

Your experience of reading the letter might be like mine (or it might not – who knows!) – I read it and nodded and thought, Well, not bad, that’s true, sure, it’s good for these things to be said, nice point there and then I finished, thought about it for a minute, and realized that none of the specific problematic issues had actually been addressed and further, the spiritual context which Pope Francis recommends for going forward, it could be argued, actually enables the original problematic actions. Many problematic actions.

To begin with:

“At times of great confusion and uncertainty, we need to be attentive and discerning, to free our hearts of compromises and false certainties, in order to hear what the Lord asks of us in the mission he has given us. Many actions can be helpful, good and necessary, and may even seem correct, but not all of them have the “flavour” of the Gospel. To put it colloquially, we have to be careful that “the cure does not become worse than the disease”. And this requires of us wisdom, prayer, much listening and fraternal communion.”

Quite true, of course.

The first consequence that Pope Francis raises, the first issue that seems to require addressing is that of credibility:

“The Church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them. This has led to a growing sense of uncertainty, distrust and vulnerability among the faithful. As we know, the mentality that would cover things up, far from helping to resolve conflicts, enabled them to fester and cause even greater harm to the network of relationships that today we are called to heal and restore.

We know that the sins and crimes that were committed, and their repercussions on the ecclesial, social and cultural levels, have deeply affected the faithful. They have caused great perplexity, upset and confusion…”

This is institutional thinking, isn’t it? It is, in fact, one of the core attitudes that led to the level of this scandal over the past decades (and probably always): This makes us look bad.

One could say that this is really nothing more than the traditional Catholic understanding of scandal  – a true and valid way of entering into this situation and its consequences. But it’s actually a little different. For traditionally, scandal is seen as a negative because it works to obfuscate the power and truth of the Gospel – people can’t see Jesus because you, the one supposedly representing it, have gotten completely in the way. There’s a hint of this here, but the entire passage is really more about the problem of people seeing the institution in a negative light being a problem simply because it’s better that they see it in a positive light.

“The loss of credibility also raises painful questions about the way we relate to one another. Clearly, a living fabric has come undone, and we, like weavers, are called to repair it. This involves our ability, or inability, as a community to forge bonds and create spaces that are healthy, mature and respectful of the integrity and privacy of each person. It involves our ability to bring people together and to get them enthused and confident about a broad, shared project that is at once unassuming, solid, sober and transparent.”

And so on. The rest of the letter expresses Francis’ usual themes – listen, dialogue, make space for the new, prioritize unity, don’t impose abstractions:

“This approach demands of us the decision to abandon a modus operandi of disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim or the scold in our relationships, and instead to make room for the gentle breeze that the Gospel alone can offer. Let us not forget that “the collegial lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth”. [6] Let us try to break the vicious circle of recrimination, undercutting and discrediting, by avoiding gossip and slander in the pursuit of a path of prayerful and contrite acceptance of our limitations and sins, and the promotion of dialogue, discussion and discernment. This will dispose us to finding evangelical paths that can awaken and encourage the reconciliation and credibility that our people and our mission require of us.”

 

And so I wonder:

Is this situation a problem because it diminished the institution’s credibility and threatens bonds of communion or…because people committed all sorts of sins of commission and omission, used other human beings, did great harm to God’s children and offended and disobeyed the Lord who created us for good, not evil?

The framework and assumption that what’s most at stake here is institutional credibility is exactly what led to cover-ups and protection of clerical perpetrators. Exactly. That, of course, is nothing the Holy Father would defend and is what his letter is presented in opposition to, but until you shake that framework that privileges the horizontal over the vertical, you’re stuck in the same rut. It’s subtle, but is at the core of so many problems in the contemporary Church, including this one:

Understanding human actions and choices as fundamentally, basically a response to God’s call and yes, law, keeps everything else in context, since, of course, God’s fundamental call is to love.

Understanding human actions as fundamentally, basically oriented towards keeping some sort of peace with others or creating a certain environment without our obligation to God at the center – absolute, unmoving center, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us – makes it really easy for us to create our own reality, including our own definitions for sin and forgiveness.

It’s the difference between living inside the Garden – or outside. That’s really the whole point of Genesis 1-3.

In short, it just seems to me that a week of reflection on this needs to not start with metaphors of jars and pebbles or concerns about credibility, but rather something more along the lines of Psalm 32.

Which it probably did, outside the official public communications.

Anyway, I haven’t even remarked on what struck me as the most problematic aspect of this letter: the deep, repeated call to work together, be unified, be in communion and so on.

Wait, what? Why is that a problem? I mean…isn’t dialogue and communion the point?

No. Truth is.

And the reason the harping on unity and scolding about “recrimination” is problematic in this context is that one of the crucial issues leading to this crisis was precisely that:  prioritizing of the external bonds between clerics above telling the truth and the privileging of protecting image over allowing consequences to be borne.

Who’s against dialogue and a mature search for answers and new ways forward? Hey, not me! But nothing at all will change if that dialogue is conducted in a context in which we are focused on how we think we should make each other feel and how the world sees us rather than on how all of this looks to God, –  or if we’re more invested in saying things that make us seem open-minded and unified rather than saying true things, no matter how harsh they may be.

Is the culture of church leadership in desperate need of encouragement to be more gently tolerant of all points of view and less critical of each other? Seems to me it’s pretty much the opposite.

We don’t create the bonds of Christian unity. God does this. Jesus Christ does, through Baptism. Our call is to recognize those bonds, strengthen them and then do the harder thing:  be willing to recognize when those bonds have been broken by sin  – and courageously say it out loud, no matter what the price.

Shorter, cynical version: When you’re told to get along and play nice, you’re probably being played. 

 

 

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— 1 —

Happy feast of St. John of the Cross! More about him here. 

 

— 2 —

If you haven’t read Catherine Lafferty’s First Things piece on the China-Vatican agreement – do. 

The details of the deal were not disclosed, but it seems that the officially atheist Chinese state has been given some say in choosing the country’s bishops, thereby determining the type of Catholicism shared with the people. All signs indicate that the state has very definite ideas about what kind of Catholicism that should be. This policy of controlling and exploiting the Church is called sinicization. The state even has a five-year plan, produced by the CPCA, for bringing the Chinese Catholic Church into greater harmony with Chinese culture and politics. The Chinese are being served a state-controlled ersatz Catholicism with Vatican approval.  

With this deal, the Vatican has brought the Chinese Patriotic Church back into the fold. But as for the faithful underground Church, which has guarded the faith with heroic courage for decades, nothing has been said. Like the inconvenient commissars of the Soviet past, it has been erased from the narrative. 

—3–

From Catholic World Report a very good piece: “A short defense of authentic synodality.”

 Let me be as clear as I can: everything going under the name of “synod” in Rome since 1965, and as recently as this October, is not a synod as the term is used (i) throughout most of Latin Church history in the first and most of the second millennium; (ii) in most of Eastern Orthodoxy historically or today; (iii) in much of the Anglican Communion; or (iv) in the Eastern Catholic Churches such as my own.

The reason for my claim is simple: synods are not thematic conferences discussing boutique interests of some group or other. Rather, synods are business-like affairs (rarely held in full glare of the world’s media) with powers of passing legislation and electing bishops (and in some cases disciplining them). The current statutes governing these so-called Roman synods of bishops permit them to do neither….

…Since Hermaniuk’s death in 1996, and even more since 2013, I would echo his (and Burke’s) frustration that these Roman gatherings are really languorous salons whose officials write loquacious documents that often read like drafts ripped out of Hegel’s rubbish bin and then tarted up with some sophomoric sociology. As a long-time academic editor, I have watched with horror at the undisciplined length of documents coming out of Rome for many years now. How I wish curial writers would master the lesson I often convey to my students: writing is an ascetical exercise of self-denial whose patron saint is John the Baptist. You must decrease your word count while increasing your economy and felicity of expression.

In the interests of economy, let me stipulate two things: first, for those who worry that the chaos of these pseudo-synods points to some flaw in synods as such, note well that the Eastern CatholicChurches are synodically governed without the shenanigans we have sometimes seen in Rome. Eastern synods—real synods—have mechanisms to prevent their being hijacked by a handful of bishops, or manipulated behind the scenes by a primate. They seek to maintain a tension between the primate and his brothers, so that if either fails—whether by domineering, or by declining to lead—the damage is contained and nobody can go rogue.

It’s an excellent, clarifying article.

–4–

From today’s Office of Readings, appropriately enough from St. John of the Cross:

Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.
  Saint Paul therefore urges the Ephesians not to grow weary in the midst of tribulations, but to be steadfast and rooted and grounded in love, so that they may know with all the saints the breadth, the length, the height and the depth – to know what is beyond knowledge, the love of Christ, so as to be filled with all the fullness of God.
  The gate that gives entry into these riches of his wisdom is the cross; because it is a narrow gate, while many seek the joys that can be gained through it, it is given to few to desire to pass through it.

–5 —

The question of the weekend is going to be….will we make it? 

 

Well, I think I will – with old age, I find myself rising earlier and earlier with little pain. The younger son has indicated his determination to come as well, so we’ll see. Luckily, we live no more than 10 minutes from the Cathedral – with good traffic lights and crack-of-dawn Saturday morning traffic, it could be as little as five. Hopefully!

–6–

An astonishing obituary: Helen Klaben Kahn:

Ms. Klaben and Mr. Flores crashed in terrain that was waist-deep in snow, with temperatures as numbing as 48 degrees below zero. Without wilderness survival training, Mr. Flores adapted nonetheless. He wrapped Ms. Klaben’s injured foot in her sweaters, covered the openings of the cabin with tarpaulins and tried, without success, to fix their radio to send out a distress signal and build rabbit traps.

What little food Ms. Klaben and Mr. Flores had brought on board — a few cans of sardines, tuna fish, fruit salad and a box of Saltine crackers — was rationed and gone within 10 days. They drank water, some of it filtered through shreds of one of her dresses and boiled in an empty oil can. They ate bits of toothpaste that they squeezed from a half-filled tube — and virtually nothing else, they said.

“We’d pretend the melted snow was soup,” she told The Associated Press shortly after their rescue. “Some days it would be tomato, then beef, then all the other varieties.”

To pass the time, they read books, including a book of poems by Robert Service and a Bible. At times, Mr. Flores tried to convert Ms. Klaben from Judaism to his Mormon faith.

In early March, Mr. Flores left her for eight days — walking the treacherous ridge in snowshoes he had made of tree branches and wire — to find a clearing in the dense woods where they might be better seen from the air by bush pilots. He returned after finding a knoll about three-quarters of a mile away, and on Day 42 they set off for the spot, dragging a makeshift sled with their belongings.

–7–

Reminder: my short story. 

Also: Advent may be well under way, and so you’re probably not looking for Advent resources – but Bambinelli Sunday is coming soon, so check that out!

 

 

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And for children. He’s in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints – here are a couple of the pages that I can reproduce for you. He’s in the section, “Saints are people who create.”

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John of the Cross was born in 1542 in the small village of Fontiveros, near Avila in Old Castille, to Gonzalo de Yepes and Catalina Alvarez. The family was very poor because his father, Gonzalo, from a noble family of Toledo, had been thrown out of his home and disowned for marrying Catalina, a humble silk weaver.

Having lost his father at a tender age, when John was nine he moved with his mother and his brother Francisco to Medina del Campo, not far from Valladolid, a commercial and cultural centre. Here he attended the Colegio de los Doctrinos, carrying out in addition several humble tasks for the sisters of the Church-Convent of the Maddalena. Later, given his human qualities and his academic results, he was admitted first as a male nurse to the Hospital of the Conception, then to the recently founded Jesuit College at Medina del Campo.

He entered the College at the age of 18 and studied the humanities, rhetoric and classical languages for three years. At the end of his formation he had a clear perception of his vocation: the religious life, and, among the many orders present in Medina, he felt called to Carmel.

In the summer of 1563 he began his novitiate with the Carmelites in the town, taking the religious name of Juan de Santo Matía. The following year he went to the prestigious University of Salamanca, where he studied the humanities and philosophy for three years.

He was ordained a priest in 1567 and returned to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass surrounded by his family’s love. It was precisely here that John and Teresa of Jesus first met. The meeting was crucial for them both. Teresa explained to him her plan for reforming Carmel, including the male branch of the Order, and suggested to John that he support it “for the greater glory of God”. The young priest was so fascinated by Teresa’s ideas that he became a great champion of her project.

For several months they worked together, sharing ideals and proposals aiming to inaugurate the first house of Discalced Carmelites as soon as possible. It was opened on 28 December 1568 at Duruelo in a remote part of the Province of Avila.

This first reformed male community consisted of John and three companions. In renewing their religious profession in accordance with the primitive Rule, each of the four took a new name: it was from this time that John called himself “of the Cross”, as he came to be known subsequently throughout the world.

At the end of 1572, at St Teresa’s request, he became confessor and vicar of the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila where Teresa of Jesus was prioress. These were years of close collaboration and spiritual friendship which enriched both. The most important Teresian works and John’s first writings date back to this period.

Promoting adherence to the Carmelite reform was far from easy and cost John acute suffering. The most traumatic episode occurred in 1577, when he was seized and imprisoned in the Carmelite Convent of the Ancient Observance in Toledo, following an unjust accusation. The Saint, imprisoned for months, was subjected to physical and moral deprivations and constrictions. Here, together with other poems, he composed the well-known Spiritual Canticle. Finally, in the night between 16 and 17 August 1578, he made a daring escape and sought shelter at the Monastery of Discalced Carmelite Nuns in the town. St Teresa and her reformed companions celebrated his liberation with great joy and, after spending a brief period recovering, John was assigned to Andalusia where he spent 10 years in various convents, especially in Granada.

He was charged with ever more important offices in his Order, until he became vicar provincial and completed the draft of his spiritual treatises. He then returned to his native land as a member of the General Government of the Teresian religious family which already enjoyed full juridical autonomy.

He lived in the Carmel of Segovia, serving in the office of community superior. In 1591 he was relieved of all responsibility and assigned to the new religious Province of Mexico. While he was preparing for the long voyage with 10 companions he retired to a secluded convent near Jaén, where he fell seriously ill.

John faced great suffering with exemplary serenity and patience. He died in the night between 13 and 14 December 1591, while his confreres were reciting Matins. He took his leave of them saying: “Today I am going to sing the Office in Heaven”. His mortal remains were translated to Segovia. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675 and canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726.

John is considered one of the most important lyric poets of Spanish literature. His major works are four: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love.

In The Spiritual Canticle St John presents the process of the soul’s purification and that is the gradual, joyful possession of God, until the soul succeeds in feeling that it loves God with the same love with which it is loved by him. The Living Flame of Love continues in this perspective, describing in greater detail the state of the transforming union with God.

The example that John uses is always that of fire: just as the stronger the fire burns and consumes wood, the brighter it grows until it blazes into a flame, so the Holy Spirit, who purifies and “cleanses” the soul during the dark night, with time illuminates and warms it as though it were a flame. The life of the soul is a continuous celebration of the Holy Spirit which gives us a glimpse of the glory of union with God in eternity.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel presents the spiritual itinerary from the viewpoint of the gradual purification of the soul, necessary in order to scale the peaks of Christian perfection, symbolized by the summit of Mount Carmel. This purification is proposed as a journey the human being undertakes, collaborating with divine action, to free the soul from every attachment or affection contrary to God’s will.

Purification which, if it is to attain the union of love with God must be total, begins by purifying the life of the senses and continues with the life obtained through the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity, which purify the intention, the memory and the will.

The Dark Night describes the “passive” aspect, that is, God’s intervention in this process of the soul’s “purification”. In fact human endeavour on its own is unable to reach the profound roots of the person’s bad inclinations and habits: all it can do is to check them but cannot entirely uproot them. This requires the special action of God which radically purifies the spirit and prepares it for the union of love with him.

St John describes this purification as “passive”, precisely because, although it is accepted by the soul, it is brought about by the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit who, like a burning flame, consumes every impurity. In this state the soul is subjected to every kind of trial, as if it were in a dark night.

This information on the Saint’s most important works help us to approach the salient points of his vast and profound mystical doctrine, whose purpose is to describe a sure way to attain holiness, the state of perfection to which God calls us all.

According to John of the Cross, all that exists, created by God, is good. Through creatures we may arrive at the discovery of the One who has left within them a trace of himself. Faith, in any case, is the one source given to the human being to know God as he is in himself, as the Triune God. All that God wished to communicate to man, he said in Jesus Christ, his Word made flesh. Jesus Christ is the only and definitive way to the Father (cf. Jn 14:6). Any created thing is nothing in comparison to God and is worth nothing outside him, consequently, to attain to the perfect love of God, every other love must be conformed in Christ to the divine love.

From this derives the insistence of St John of the Cross on the need for purification and inner self-emptying in order to be transformed into God, which is the one goal of perfection. This “purification” does not consist in the mere physical absence of things or of their use; on the contrary what makes the soul pure and free is the elimination of every disorderly dependence on things. All things should be placed in God as the centre and goal of life.

Of course, the long and difficult process of purification demands a personal effort, but the real protagonist is God: all that the human being can do is to “prepare” himself, to be open to divine action and not to set up obstacles to it. By living the theological virtues, human beings raise themselves and give value to their commitment. The growth of faith, hope and charity keeps pace with the work of purification and with the gradual union with God until they are transformed in him.

When it reaches this goal, the soul is immersed in Trinitarian life itself, so that St John affirms that it has reached the point of loving God with the same love with which he loves it, because he loves it in the Holy Spirit.

For this reason the Mystical Doctor maintains that there is no true union of love with God that does not culminate in Trinitarian union. In this supreme state the holy soul knows everything in God and no longer has to pass through creatures in order to reach him. The soul now feels bathed in divine love and rejoices in it without reserve.

Dear brothers and sisters, in the end the question is: does this Saint with his lofty mysticism, with this demanding journey towards the peak of perfection have anything to say to us, to the ordinary Christian who lives in the circumstances of our life today, or is he an example, a model for only a few elect souls who are truly able to undertake this journey of purification, of mystical ascesis?

To find the answer we must first of all bear in mind that the life of St John of the Cross did not “float on mystical clouds”; rather he had a very hard life, practical and concrete, both as a reformer of the Order, in which he came up against much opposition and from the Provincial Superior as well as in his confreres’ prison where he was exposed to unbelievable insults and physical abuse.

His life was hard yet it was precisely during the months he spent in prison that he wrote one of his most beautiful works. And so we can understand that the journey with Christ, travelling with Christ, “the Way”, is not an additional burden in our life, it is not something that would make our burden even heavier but something quite different. It is a light, a power that helps us to bear it.

If a person bears great love in himself, this love gives him wings, as it were, and he can face all life’s troubles more easily because he carries in himself this great light; this is faith: being loved by God and letting oneself be loved by God in Jesus Christ. Letting oneself be loved in this way is the light that helps us to bear our daily burden.

And holiness is not a very difficult action of ours but means exactly this “openness”: opening the windows of our soul to let in God’s light, without forgetting God because it is precisely in opening oneself to his light that one finds strength, one finds the joy of the redeemed.

Let us pray the Lord to help us discover this holiness, to let ourselves be loved by God who is our common vocation and the true redemption. Many thanks.

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Yes, it’s a thing. I’m amazed and gratified to report this: it’s a thing.

No, we didn’t start the blessing of the Bambinelli – I still am not sure who did, but it’s currently sponsored in Rome by a group called the Centro Oratori Romani. Here’s their poster for this year’s event:

Bambinelli Sunday

And somewhere along the line, Ann Engelhart heard about it, connected the practice with her own childhood appreciation of the Neapolitan presipi, particularly as experienced through the Christmas displays at the Met -and suggested a book.

More about how the book came to be. 

So here we are!

 

 

 

Every year, I try to note some of the places doing Bambinelli Sunday – here’s this year’s partial list – which starts, right here, with the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham. The only order in this list is the order of search results. So here we go:

The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis 

Divine Mercy, Hamden CT

St. Joseph, Mechanicsburg, PA

Liverpool Cathedral

Holy Spirit, Lubbock TX

St. Jude, Sandy Springs, GA

St. Gabriel School, Ontario, CA

Quinn Clooney Maghera Parish, Ireland

St. Francis of Assisi, St. Louis

Sacred Heart, Coronado, CO

Middleton Parish, Ireland

St. Catherine of Siena, Clearwater, FL

All Saints, Diocese of Plymouth, England

St. Senan’s, Diocese of Killaloe, Ireland

St. Augustine, Spokane

St. Bernadette, Westlake, OH

Ennis Cathedral Parish, Ireland

Nativity, Cincinnati

Killbritain Parish, Ireland

St. Edith, Livonia, MI

St. Brendan, Avalon, NJ

St. Brigid, Westbury, NY

St. Ferdinand, PA

St. Ignatius Loyola, NYC

St. Anne’s, Peterborough ON

Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, somewhere in Scotland

…And that’s all I have time to link.

Do a search for “Benedizione dei bambinelli” as well – you’ll come up with a slew. 

The point is that Advent and Christmas are about welcoming the Word of God into our lives – which means our homes. The blessing of the Bambinelli – which we bring from our homes and return there – is an embodiment of this.  As Pope Emeritus Benedict said in his 2008 prayer for the event:

God, our Father 
you so loved humankind 
that you sent us your only Son Jesus, 
born of the Virgin Mary, 
to save us and lead us back to you.

We pray that with your Blessing 
these images of Jesus, 
who is about to come among us, 
may be a sign of your presence and 
love in our homes.

Good Father, 
give your Blessing to us too, 
to our parents, to our families and 
to our friends.

Open our hearts, 
so that we may be able to 
receive Jesus in joy, 
always do what he asks 
and see him in all those 
who are in need of our love.

We ask you this in the name of Jesus, 
your beloved Son 
who comes to give the world peace.

He lives and reigns forever and ever. 
Amen.

 

 

 

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I toss the same general post up every year. I don’t care. No need to search my brain for heartfelt spiritual metaphors from Daily Life™. When we have the Monkees!

Riu riu chiu, la guarda ribera;
Dios guardo el lobo de nuestra cordera,
Dios guardo el lobo de neustra cordera.

El lobo rabioso la quiso morder,
Mas Dios poderoso la supo defender;
Quisola hazer que no pudiese pecar,
Ni aun original esta Virgen no tuviera.

Riu, riu chiu…

Este qu’es nacido es el gran monarca,
Christo patriarca de carne vestido;
Hemos redemido con se hazer chiquito,
Aunqu’era infinito, finito se hiziera.

Translation:

River, roaring river, guard our homes in safety,
God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.
God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.

Raging mad to bite her, there the wolf did steal,
But our God Almighty defended her with zeal.
Pure He wished to keep Her so She could never sin,
That first sin of man never touched the Virgin sainted.

River, roaring river…

He who’s now begotten is our mighty Monarch,
Christ, our Holy Father, in human flesh embodied.
He has brough atonement by being born so humble,
Though He is immortal, as mortal was created.

River, roaring river…

 

Here’s a helpful video that someone put up with subtitles. 

And the Kingston Trio:

More from Fr. Steve Grunow on the song and the feast.

It’s a good day to download a free e-book on Mary – Mary and the Christian Life, which I wrote a few years ago, and is now out of print…you can have it!  Go here for the pdf download.

You can also get a Kindle version through Amazon – normally it’s .99 – but today it’s free. Go check it out!

Now for the good stuff, from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about…a few selections from “Father Benedict” – on this feast.

 

2012

The light that shines from the figure of Mary also helps us to understand the true meaning of original sin. Indeed that relationship with God which sin truncates is fully alive and active in Mary. In her there is no opposition between God and her being: there is full communion, full understanding. There is a reciprocal “yes”: God to her and her to God. Mary is free from sin because she belongs entirely to God, she empties herself totally for him. She is full of his Grace and of his Love.

To conclude, the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary expresses the certainty of faith that God’s promises have been fulfilled and that his Covenant does not fail but has produced a holy root from which came forth the blessed Fruit of the whole universe, Jesus the Saviour. The Immaculate Virgin shows that Grace can give rise to a response, that God’s fidelity can bring forth a true and good faith.

 And for even more substance from a homily he gave in 2005 on the feast – it was also the 40th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.  It’s lengthy but SO worth it, an excellent reflection of what he has written elsewhere on it (for example, in this book):

But now we must ask ourselves:  What does “Mary, the Immaculate” mean? Does this title have something to tell us? Today, the liturgy illuminates the content of these words for us in two great images.

First of all comes the marvellous narrative of the annunciation of the Messiah’s coming to Mary, the Virgin of Nazareth. The Angel’s greeting is interwoven with threads from the Old Testament, especially from the Prophet Zephaniah. He shows that Mary, the humble provincial woman who comes from a priestly race and bears within her the great priestly patrimony of Israel, is “the holy remnant” of Israel to which the prophets referred in all the periods of trial and darkness.

In her is present the true Zion, the pure, living dwelling-place of God. In her the Lord dwells, in her he finds the place of his repose. She is the living house of God, who does not dwell in buildings of stone but in the heart of living man. She is the shoot which sprouts from the stump of David in the dark winter night of history. In her, the words of the Psalm are fulfilled:  “The earth has yielded its fruits” (Ps 67: 7).

She is the offshoot from which grew the tree of redemption and of the redeemed. God has not failed, as it might have seemed formerly at the beginning of history with Adam and Eve or during the period of the Babylonian Exile, and as it seemed anew in Mary’s time when Israel had become a people with no importance in an occupied region and with very few recognizable signs of its holiness.

God did not fail. In the humility of the house in Nazareth lived holy Israel, the pure remnant. God saved and saves his people. From the felled tree trunk Israel’s history shone out anew, becoming a living force that guides and pervades the world.

Mary is holy Israel:  she says “yes” to the Lord, she puts herself totally at his disposal and thus becomes the living temple of God.

The second image is much more difficult and obscure. This metaphor from the Book of Genesis speaks to us from a great historical distance and can only be explained with difficulty; only in the course of history has it been possible to develop a deeper understanding of what it refers to.

It was foretold that the struggle between humanity and the serpent, that is, between man and the forces of evil and death, would continue throughout history.

It was also foretold, however, that the “offspring” of a woman would one day triumph and would crush the head of the serpent to death; it was foretold that the offspring of the woman – and in this offspring the woman and the mother herself – would be victorious and that thus, through man, God would triumph.

If we set ourselves with the believing and praying Church to listen to this text, then we can begin to understand what original sin, inherited sin, is and also what the protection against this inherited sin is, what redemption is.

What picture does this passage show us? The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbours the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.

The human being lives in the suspicion that God’s love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself. Man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God.

He himself wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God’s level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts. He does not want to rely on love that to him seems untrustworthy; he relies solely on his own knowledge since it confers power upon him. Rather than on love, he sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life autonomously in hand. And in doing so, he trusts in deceit rather than in truth and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death.

Love is not dependence but a gift that makes us live. The freedom of a human being is the freedom of a limited being, and therefore is itself limited. We can possess it only as a shared freedom, in the communion of freedom:  only if we live in the right way, with one another and for one another, can freedom develop.

We live in the right way if we live in accordance with the truth of our being, and that is, in accordance with God’s will. For God’s will is not a law for the human being imposed from the outside and that constrains him, but the intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure that is engraved within him and makes him the image of God, hence, a free creature.

If we live in opposition to love and against the truth – in opposition to God – then we destroy one another and destroy the world. Then we do not find life but act in the interests of death. All this is recounted with immortal images in the history of the original fall of man and the expulsion of man from the earthly Paradise.

Dear brothers and sisters, if we sincerely reflect about ourselves and our history, we have to say that with this narrative is described not only the history of the beginning but the history of all times, and that we all carry within us a drop of the poison of that way of thinking, illustrated by the images in the Book of Genesis.

We call this drop of poison “original sin”. Precisely on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life:  the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one’s own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.

In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that Mephistopheles – the tempter – is right when he says he is the power “that always wants evil and always does good” (J.W. von Goethe, Faust I, 3). We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary.

If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them.

This is something we should indeed learn on the day of the Immaculate Conception:  the person who abandons himself totally in God’s hands does not become God’s puppet, a boring “yes man”; he does not lose his freedom. Only the person who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great, creative immensity of the freedom of good.

The person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, for through God and with God he becomes great, he becomes divine, he becomes truly himself. The person who puts himself in God’s hands does not distance himself from others, withdrawing into his private salvation; on the contrary, it is only then that his heart truly awakens and he becomes a sensitive, hence, benevolent and open person.

The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people. We see this in Mary. The fact that she is totally with God is the reason why she is so close to human beings.

For this reason she can be the Mother of every consolation and every help, a Mother whom anyone can dare to address in any kind of need in weakness and in sin, for she has understanding for everything and is for everyone the open power of creative goodness.

In her, God has impressed his own image, the image of the One who follows the lost sheep even up into the mountains and among the briars and thornbushes of the sins of this world, letting himself be spiked by the crown of thorns of these sins in order to take the sheep on his shoulders and bring it home.

As a merciful Mother, Mary is the anticipated figure and everlasting portrait of the Son. Thus, we see that the image of the Sorrowful Virgin, of the Mother who shares her suffering and her love, is also a true image of the Immaculate Conception. Her heart was enlarged by being and feeling together with God. In her, God’s goodness came very close to us.

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