Monthly Archives: November 2010

St. Andrew in Amalfi


Today, has been the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. In the West, he is an Apostle often forgotten in the shadow of his brother St. Peter. 

My thoughts on St. Andrew revolve around two points, both a bit pedestrian perhaps, but both personally touching. 

The first is my visit to the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Amalfi. I visited that city on the coast of Italy many years ago, and was taken by its proximity to the sea, its fine grappa, and the beautiful Cathedral with piazza. The relics of St. Andrew are said to have been brought to the Cathedral from Constantinople in 1206 by a Pietro Capuano after that city was sacked. The marble statue of St. Andrew in the piazza is the iconic image of St. Andrew in my mind, the one that shall stand out perhaps forever. I believe I took a photo of it with my late father’s camera, but I haven’t the slightest clue where those photos are now. At any rate, I should thank Fr. Eric Berns for introducing me to Amalfi. 

Beautiful Amalfi


The second remembrance of St. Andrew that I have is the little and wonderfully strange tidbit about the apostle from an early third century document called the Muratorian Fragment. In it is related the dilemma of St. John the Evangelist, who was not quite yet the Evangelist, but was considering whether or not he ought to be an Evangelist. Peer pressure, the fragment tells us, was being brought upon the Beloved Disciple that he might sit down and write the fourth Gospel. St. John wavered, but invited his fellow apostles to fast with him for three days. At the end of those days, they would share with each other what they received in prayer and St. John would make his decision. By the end of the first day St. Andrew came forward, told St. John that God wanted him to write the Gospel, and it was left at that. 

I can just imagine the scene: holy apostles sitting about, deep in prayer, perhaps working on the grounds where John and Mary lived. At once, all of a sudden, the pragmatic fisherman from Galilee steps up and announces to young John to quit wavering and get to writing. I think for this, St. Andrew ought to get some patronage for writers instead of or on top of his patronage of fishermen, single lay women, and singers. Those with writer’s block or struggling with the prospect of starting a book perhaps ought to pray to St. Andrew. No doubt, the good saint will give it to them straight. 

Happy Feast of St. Andrew. 

St. Andrew Cathedral Amalfi


It’s Advent now, and there is a heightened sense of the absolute for me. There is just something so concrete about Advent. It is a preparation for a definite thing, the birth of the Savior. The Crucifixion and Easter happened just as assuredly I know, but there are always thoughts of personal salvation caught up in my contemplation of Easter. Runes and mysteries that I cannot fathom surround the resurrection of a God-man who suffered and died for sin-ridden me. I am at once joy-filled at His sacrifice, but knowledgeable that I am but a mortal struggling to live up to that Resurrection. It’s complicated.

There is none of that in my psyche throughout Advent. It is all joy and hope and the concrete surety that the Christ child will be born of the virgin again, that He will signal to bedazzled shepherds and inquisitive kings that things have changed. Christmas is a glorious celebration not of what’s to come but of what already is. God is with us. God has come. We are blessed.

None of this is high theology, just the sorts of things that rattle about my head.

My wife, blessing to my life that she is, and I are reading for Advent The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander. I’ve mentioned it and her before, but I must insist that if you have not read it, this is an ideal time to pick up a copy and start.

One of the things I do so love about Caryll – I feel I can call her Caryll for I do not doubt that we would have gotten along famously over mixed drinks and dry humor – is that she’s ever so practical about the importance of our this-worldliness. She is not a spiritual writer for the cloistered mystic in the wood, sitting atop the pillar for ages on end in deepest contemplation of the divine. Rather, she is the spiritual writer for the woman at the sink, washing the dishes. She is the writer for the fellow in the car, once again off to work in the dark hours of the morning only to return home in darkness again.

Here is a bit of what she writes to show you what I mean:

There are many people in the world who cultivate a curious state which they call ‘the spiritual life.’ They often complain that they have very little time to devote to the ‘spiritual life.’ The only time that they do not regard as wasted is the time they can devote to pious exercises: praying, reading, meditations, and visiting the church.

All the time spent in earning a living, cleaning the home, caring for the children, making and mending clothes, cooking and all the other manifold duties and responsibilities, is regarded as wasted.

Yet it is really through ordinary human life and the things of every hour of every day that union with God comes about.

Caryll goes on to point out that we often busy ourselves with explanations for how we cannot possibly be made of the “right stuff” for the deep and abiding spiritual life that we must pursue. Holiness is all well and good for St. Thomas More or St. Catherine Sienna, but I am a bit busier with life than they all were. I’ve got bills. I’ve got children who, in a different culture and a different time, cannot be expected to behave as More’s children did. Neither do I have the right attitude or spiritual tendencies. I’m too easily distracted in prayer. I haven’t the interest in spiritual things to cultivate this “spiritual life” about which the saints and the church talk. It’s just not for me.

To this, good Caryll notes the following:

Christ is not restricted to any type: the glory of God is not more manifest in a strapping young man or woman marching behind the banner of Christianity than in one of the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem or in the repentant thief dying on the cross.

The most striking example of the material God can and does use to manifest His glory is Lazarus.

Lazarus was not even alive; he was dead, and according to his chief mourners, stinking; but Christ used him as the material for showing forth the glory of God in a way surpassed only by His own Resurrection. The moment of His own Resurrection was a secret, a secret between His Heavenly Father and Himself. But the raising of Lazarus dazzled the world.

So consider that, next time you’re tempted to think you are not quite up to snuff. Christ managed to shine through the material of a man three-days-dead. Who are you to think that He can’t use you too for the greater glory of God?

Do take this time during Advent to prepare yourself for the coming of the Christ child. Pick up some spiritual reading, even if it isn’t Caryll Houselander, and prepare. I shall do the same with you, and we can reconnoiter at the end of the journey, with the Christ child at our side, and consider how best to give God glory. Bless you.


St. Andrew Dung Lac and Companions

Today marks the Memorial of the Martyrs of Vietnam often referred to as the Memorial of Andrew Dung Lac and Companions. This is an interesting memorial in that the number of martyrs commemorated include about 117 names of known martyrs but also the untold thousands whom we do not know. Furthermore, the memorial is for martyrs from various times in Vietnam’s history, from the 17th through the 20th centuries.

The memorial was set by Pope John Paul the Great on June 19th, 1988. He canonized 117 Vietnamese but noted that there were somewhere between 130,000 to 300,000 martyrs for the Catholic faith in that nation. The suffering of these people has been astounding. In the 19th century, when persecution of Catholics was at its worst, entire villages of Vietnamese were slaughtered by the regime. The reason given was that the Catholics were involved in political revolutions, attempting to put a Catholic-friendly ruler into power. Being Catholic, then, became a crime, and, echoing the years of Christian persecution in Ancient Rome, Vietnamese were called upon to stomp on a crucifix to prove that they were not Christian. Those who refused were tortured horribly and then killed. The lucky ones were only branded on their faces with the Vietnamese words for “perverse religion.”

During the fall of Vietnam to Communist rule in the 20th century and of course due to the war, many Vietnamese fled their homeland and came to the United States. Interestingly, since about 1977, the American Vietnamese community has had a four-day celebration in little Carthage, Missouri dedicated to Our Lady and in celebration of their heritage and faith. The Marian Days Festival happens every year in the summer and the small Missouri town is inundated with upwards of 50,000 Vietnamese who celebrate Mass together, sing to Our Lady of Fatima, and eat really good Vietnamese food.

Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002)

This memorial to the Vietnamese Martyrs ought to remind us of one of the greatest of Vietnamese Catholics, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. Cardinal Francis Xavier, as he liked to introduce himself, had a meteoric rise in Vietnam as a young man. The son of very devout Catholic parents, he was extremely bright. He earned advanced degrees in theology, philosophy, and canon law all by the time he was in his early twenties.

He eventually became the coadjutor bishop of Saigon in 1975. Six days later, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, and the Cardinal was thrown into prison. He spent thirteen years there, nine of them in solitary confinement. While in confinement a village boy would bring him paper, and Cardinal Van Thuan would write down some encouraging word or phrase. These messages from the Cardinal in prison helped bouey the people for which he was still a shepherd. They have since then been compiled into the books The Road to Hope and Prayers of Hope.

He was released from prison in 1988, the same year as the canonization of the Vietnamese Martyrs. He was allowed to leave for Rome in 1991, but was then never allowed back by the government…that is until 2001.

While in Rome, he made many impressions on people, not the least of these being Pope John Paul the Great. It was that Holy Father who in 1994 elevated the little bishop from Vietnam to be President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and made him a Cardinal.

In 1999, in the document to us Ecclesia in America (The Church in America), John Paul wrote:

54. Faced with the grave social problems which, with different characteristics, are present throughout America, Catholics know that they can find in the Church’s social doctrine an answer which serves as a starting-point in the search for practical solutions. Spreading this doctrine is an authentic pastoral priority. … In this regard, special care must be taken to train lay persons capable of working, on the basis of their faith in Christ, to transform earthly realities. In addition, it will help to promote and support the study of this doctrine in every area of the life of the particular Churches in America, especially in the universities, so that it may be more deeply known and applied to American society. The complex social reality of the continent is a fruitful field for the analysis and application of the universal principles contained in this doctrine.

To this end, it would be very useful to have a compendium or approved synthesis of Catholic social doctrine, including a “Catechism”, which would show the connection between it and the new evangelization.

It was then up to Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan to try to make heads or tails out of the vast array of social documents and social commentary, to try to bring together people from vastly different political and social backgrounds, to try to – in Herculean manner – build an edifice for the Social Doctrine of the Church that would at once stand the test of time but also be relevant to our lives here and now. This was no small task, but it was his.

Two Saints Embrace

The Compendium we have now is a splendid work which accomplishes everything that the good Cardinal desired. Unfortunately, he died before its completion in 2002. Still the preliminary work and guidance which he provided proved decisive for the construction of one of the most useful tools for the social doctrine that exists. Cardinal Van Thuan’s process for canonization was opened in 2007, having met the minimum 5 years. Pope Benedict XVI actually mentions Cardinal Van Thuan in his second encyclical Spe Salvi as a “witness to hope.”

So on this day of remembrance for the Vietnamese Martyrs, remember them, remember Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, and remember to be thankful for the great peace and tranquility that our culture affords us in being able to pray freely.

I’ll leave you with the ten rules of life by which the Cardinal lived. Go here to learn more.

1. I will live the present moment to the fullest.
2. I will discern between God and God’s works.
3. I will hold firmly to one secret: prayer.
4. I will see in the Holy Eucharist my only power.
5. I will have only one wisdom: the science of the Cross.
6. I will remain faithful to my mission in the Church and for the Church as a witness of Jesus Christ.
7. I will seek the peace the world cannot give.
8. I will carry out a revolution by renewal in the Holy Spirit.
9. I will speak one language and wear one uniform: Charity.
10. I will have one very special love: The Blessed Virgin Mary.

Oh and this:

I am happy here, in this cell, where white mushrooms are growing on my sleeping mat, because You are here with me, because You want me to live here with You. I have spoken much in my lifetime: now I speak no more. It’s Your turn to speak to me, Jesus; I am listening to You.

Recorded on the Feast of the Holy Rosary, October 7, 1976, in Phu-Khanh prison during his solitary confinement.


I’ll end this week’s string of Dorothy Day quotes with this one.

In the last generation, Chesterton, Belloc, Eric Gill and Father Vincent McNabb were the great distributists who opposed the servile state, the ‘providential state’ as Pius XII recently called it. Of the four only Eric Gill was a pacifist and anarchist. The others would have feared the word, ‘anarchist,’ and understood it only in its popular connotation. I myself would prefer the word ‘libertarian,’ as less apt to offend. pg. 267 The Long Loneliness

Fr. Vincent McNabb, OP

I find it fascinating for perhaps all the wrong reasons. I’m no libertarian myself, but I think it interesting that Dorothy might have leaned that way…though of course who knows what the label meant back then. What comes up as a regular theme in Dorothy’s work is a distrust of the ever-providential State. One ought to beware the idea that the State can provide for all of us or ought to.

Blessed Franz Jaegerstaetter is a little-known Austrian fellow who was the only man in his town who voted against the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany. His reason? One of them that his biographer gives is that Jaegerstaetter did not believe that the German National Socialist promise of care for the poor and the ill was appropriate. The care of the littlest one is our responsibility, at the local level. It is not for the State to come in and usurp our authority by usurping our responsibility.

This is the point that many today miss within the Social Teaching of the Church. If you wish the State to come in and take over, then you have given up your responsibility. Of course the flipside is this: If you wish the State to get off our backs and stay in Washington, then what are you doing to meet the needs of the littlest ones in your community?

Blessed Franz Jaegerstaetter


Dorothy Day Unintimidated

One of the things that irritates me so about those who use Dorothy Day is their seeming total ignorance of her spiritual insight and depth. Here, Dorothy relates the teaching of a Fr. Roy whom she brought to the Catholic Worker farm in order to give her and the residents a retreat. This is not some banal twittering about the soft love of a soft God. This Fr. Roy gives Dorothy and her companions the entirety of the scandal of Christ. And she eats it up:

He [Fr. Pacifique Roy] not only pointed out to us the obligation we were under by the vows we had taken at our baptism to put off the world, the flesh and the devil, but he pointed out the means to do this, by what he called acting always for the ‘supernatural motive’ – ‘moteef’ he pronounced it – in this way supernaturalizing all our actions of every day. If we did our works of mercy to be praised by men, or from pride and vanity and sense of power, then we had had our reward. If we did them for the love of God, in whose image man had been made, then God would reward us; then we were doing them for a supernatural motive. There was little freedom in this life, except in the realm of motive or intention. We could do things either because we were compelled to, or because we loved God and wanted to. And never mind, if we did not by our own sacrifice put off the old man and put on the new; God would see to it that we did so in the natural course of events, just as we grew in age, losing little by little our sense of life, our eyesight, our teeth, our hearing. ‘Oh yes, we would be stripped,’ he laughed gaily. ‘God so love the world,’ he cried out with a thrill in his voice. God was that Hound of Heaven who would pursue us, who would not let us go. (pg. 247 The Long Loneliness)

“Supernaturalizing all our actions of every day.” This is glorious stuff, and it is what the Social Doctrine of the Church is trying to get us to comprehend. Every little act of kind attention to God’s creation can be a salvific and sanctifying act of grace…if only we could turn our hearts over to Him.

I am not there. Do not get me wrong. I am along the path. But the end of the path is clear and is shared through the testimony of many like Dorothy Day and Fr. Roy. I also know that “we would be stripped” of ourselves , placed on the cross and removed from our attachments and desires so that we can be totally dependent on Him. Dorothy had no illusions about this, and neither should we.


Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day

Here is another grand statement from Dorothy Day that ought to give us a good deal of pause. It is also from The Long Loneliness (pg. 222).

When we began our work there were thirteen million unemployed. The greatest problem of the day was the problem of work and the machine.

The state entered in to solve these problems by dole and work relief, by setting up so many bureaus that we were swamped with initials. NIRA gave plan to NRA, and as NRA was declared unconstitutional another organization, another administration was set up. The problem of the modern state loomed up as never before in American life. The Communists, stealing our American thunder, clamored on the one hand for relief and on the other set up Jeffersonian schools of democracy.

Peter [Maurin] also quoted Jefferson – ‘He governs best who governs least.’ One of his criticisms of labor was that it was aiding in the creation of the Welfare State, the Servile State, instead of aiming for the ownership of the means of production and acceptance of the responsibility that it entailed.

The Servile State

You should know that Peter Maurin helped “create” the Dorothy Day we know today. Maurin provided Dorothy with the intellectual understanding of the Church’s Social Teaching which at that time was even less known that it is now.

Note that she does not exactly say that she adheres to Maurin’s position, but just relates what his is. But how can we doubt that he had a great influence on Dorothy’s thought. Elsewhere, though I could not find the quote, Dorothy decries those Catholics who want us to give up Holy Mother Church for Holy Mother State. Peter and Dorothy did not believe social responsibility required socialism.

Therefore, position of the contemporary social justice apparatchik that the “New Deal Democrat” is the authentic Catholic position would, it seems, have a lot to explain to Peter Maurin and to Dorothy. Beware those who wish to make the State the mother of all invention.


Dorothy Day

There has been a regular spate of sharing favorite Dorothy Day thoughts and quotes. Here is a good long list of some as well as a great reflection on her that one does not normally hear. Anyway, I just have to share some of my favorite Dorothy moments. There is so much packed in these, that I just have to spread them out over the week. We’ll start with this from The Long Lonliness pg. 199-200:

Ritual, how could we do without it! Though it may seem to be gibberish and irreverence, though the Mass is offered up in such haste that the sacred sentence, ‘hoc est corpus meum’ was abbreviated into ‘hocus-pocus’ by the bitter protestor and has come down into our language meaning trickery, nevertheless there is a sureness and a conviction there. And just as the husband may embrace his wife casually as he leaves for work in the morning, and kiss her absent-mindedly in his comings and goings, still that kiss on occasion turns to rapture, a burning fire of tenderness and love. And with this to stay her she demands the ‘ritual’ of affection shown. The little altar boy kissing the cruet of water as he hands it to the priest is performing a rite. We have too little ritual in our lives.

We fear ritual in our lives. I’m not quite sure why. It is not like we can avoid it. We take the same path in the morning to the bathroom, or wear the same combinations from our limited wardrobe, have the same conversation with our co-worker. These are like rituals, or how we’re trained to think of them. The moment we are aware of them, somehow they have to change. They change in order to prove that we are alive and in control. But ritual is more than that daily rhythm that soothes the mind and heart, soothes its pain from knowing deep down inside that we are not in control. Rituals are a sign that only He is in charge.

Pius XII Low Mass

The rituals at Mass are our worst enemy so we are told. I distinctly remember speaking to a woman of about fifty-five years or more who had seen an advertisement for the Catholic Church, the Catholics Come Home Campaign in fact. She saw the image of a little girl receiving first communion at the altar rail, and her comment was, “We’re not going back to that are we? It’s so old fashioned.” It would have been funny if it were not so sad.

I also remember witnessing Mass said by a young priest whose movements in the preparation of the altar were always the same, each morning, exact and exacting. That young priest is still young, and still a priest, and still a man who is guided by ritual so that those attending Mass know that this is more than just about him or them or today. This is about eternity.

The ritual demonstrates a willingness to lose ourselves in the largeness of the thing before us. Ritual is a sign of physical solidarity with the world. Ritual is humanizing and oh so human. Ritual places us at the feet of history, where we can sing thanks to God. “We have too little ritual in our lives.”


Pope St. Leo I

Today is the Feast of Pope St. Leo the Great. For many, the life of this great pontiff is relegated to the dark and misty past of ecclesial history. Wasn’t he from the Middle Ages when monikers like “the Great” were probably bantered about willy-nilly? Did he institute some grand inquisition or crusade? In fact Pope St. Leo the Great died on this day in 461 after being pope for 21 years. He was and is considered great for the pastoral care of his flock, which took the various forms of political diplomacy, doctrinal exposition, and social transformation.

Regarding political diplomacy, it may not be well known that Attila the Hun, another semi-mysterious figure of ancient history, drove his empire of nomadic horsemen across the Danube from Central Asia and through Hungary, deep into Roman territory, sacking parts of Gaul then Pavia and Milan, and driving all the way to Rome.

Terrified, for Attila’s army was known to slaughter vast numbers of people in the cities it sacked, the Roman political leaders begged Leo to go and meet the “barbarian” from the East. Pope Leo did so. Accompanied with a Roman consul Avienus, he approached in a simple but regal manner the whole army of the Hunnic Empire.

One account from around 455 has it that Attila was impressed by the grandeur of the high priest and so, appeased, decided not to invade. Another later account includes a lovely little bit of oratory from Pope Leo as well as the visions of Saints Peter and Paul flanking Pope Leo and threatening Attila. At this Attila turned and left. In truth, Pope Leo negotiated a tribute to the Huns that spared the people of Rome and the Church. It is written that Pope Leo did this without hesitation, showing no fear that all would be well in his meeting with a man so brutal.

Pope Leo the Great Meeting Attila the Hun

As far as doctrinal matters go, Pope Leo was forced to settle a number of minor heresies in Spain and elsewhere, all of them variations on the Manichean heresy. But it was during the Council of Chalcedon, addressing the question of Christ’s natures, that Pope Leo provided his “Tome,” an explanation of the relationship between Jesus’ two natures.

At a council called the Robber Council of Ephesus (449) supporters of the excommunicated priest Eutyches denied that Jesus had two natures by asserting only one, divine. The Robber Council never included an opportunity for the Bishop of Constantinople, St. Felix, to defend the orthodox position. Neither, did Eutyches or his supporters allow a letter written by Pope Leo to be read. As a result of these events, Pope Leo called the Council of Chalcedon (451). Though he could not attend himself, he sent legates. This time, his letter was read to the attending Fathers explaining the two-fold nature of Jesus, and upon its completion a cry was made in the chamber, “Peter has spoken by Leo!”

The Reading of Pope Leo's Tome

It is, though, Pope Leo’s attention to matters of social concern that most interest me about this Great Pope. We have existing close to 96 sermons given by Pope Leo. He was a man who took the task of “teaching” as a bishop very seriously. And in his teaching he very often brought up what Fr. Butler calls “the social aspects of Christian life.” Witness these words from this great Pope:

We exhort you, therefore, holy brethren throughout the churches of your several regions on Wednesday next to contribute of your goods, according to your means and willingness, to purposes of charity, that you may be able to win that blessedness in which he shall rejoice without end, who considers the needy and poor.And if we are to consider him, dearly beloved, we must use loving care and watchfulness, in order that we may find him whom modesty conceals and shamefastness keeps back. For there are those who blush openly to ask for what they want and prefer to suffer privation without speaking rather than to be put to shame by a public appeal. These are they whom we ought to consider and relieve from their hidden straits in order that they may the more rejoice from the very fact that their modesty as well as poverty has been consulted. And rightly in the needy and poor do we recognize the person of Jesus Christ our Lord Himself, Who though He was rich, as says the blessed Apostle, became poor, that He might enrich us by His poverty 2 Corinthians 8:9 . And that His presence might never seem to be wanting to us, He so effected the mystic union of His humility and His glory that while we adore Him as King and Lord in the Majesty of the Father, we might also feed Him in His poor, for which we shall be set free in an evil day from perpetual damnation, and for our considerate care of the poor shall be joined with the whole company of heaven.

Notice Pope Leo’s suggestion, made twice in the above from Sermon 9, that feeding of the poor saves us from eternal damnation. He will develop this theme:

But, perhaps there are some rich people, who, although they are not wont to help the Church’s poor by bounteous gifts, yet keep other commands of God, and among their many meritorious acts of faith and uprightness think they will be pardoned for the lack of this one virtue. But this is so important that, though the rest exist without it, they can be of no avail.

This, from Sermon 10, ought to jar us out of our apathy when it comes to almsgiving and charitable work. Regardless of all the other things we have done in our lives, the rosaries, the prayers, the pilgrimages, they will all be meaningless if we are wealthy and do not help the poor.

For although a man be full of faith, and chaste, and sober, and adorned with other still greater decorations, yet if he is not merciful, he cannot deserve mercy: for the Lord says, blessed are the merciful, for God shall have mercy upon them Matthew 5:7 . … But at the great and final day of judgment large-hearted liberality and ungodly meanness will be counted of such importance as to outweigh all other virtues and all other shortcomings, so that for the one men shall gain entrance into the Kingdom, for the other they shall be sent into eternal fire.

I’ll leave you with this from Sermon 12

But there are three things which most belong to religious actions, namely prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in the exercising of which while every time is accepted, yet that ought to be more zealously observed, which we have received as hallowed by tradition from the apostles: even as this tenth month brings round again to us the opportunity when according to the ancient practice we may give more diligent heed to those three things of which I have spoken. For by prayer we seek to propitiate God, by fasting we extinguish the lusts of the flesh, by alms we redeem our sins: and at the same time God’s image is throughout renewed in us, if we are always ready to praise Him, unfailingly intent on our purification and unceasingly active in cherishing our neighbour. This threefold round of duty, dearly beloved, brings all other virtues into action: it attains to God’s image and likeness and unites us inseparably with the Holy Spirit. Because in prayer faith remains steadfast, in fastings life remains innocent, in almsgiving the mind remains kind. On Wednesday and Friday therefore let us fast: and on Saturday let us keep vigil with the most blessed Apostle Peter, who will deign to aid our supplications and fast and alms with his own prayers through our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Pope St. Leo the Great makes it clear that almsgiving is not an option but a necessity for the spiritual life. By it we redeem our sins. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a lot of sin to redeem, and there are many poor among us, and I could be doing more to aid them. Where do you stand?


Today is the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran, the mother church for the whole of the world. It is St. John Lateran’s and not St. Peter’s basilica, that is the cathedral of Rome and thus the site of the cathedra, the sign of the bishop’s authority. Above the entrance to the Lateran is written OMNIUM URBIS ET ORBIS ECCLESIARUM MATER ET CAPUT which means “The Mother and Head of all churches of the City and of the World.”

There are many interesting facts about St. John Lateran. The “Lateran” name is a remnant of the Roman family who used to own the palace from which the basilica was originally made. In answer to the question, “After which St. John is St. John Lateran named?” the answer is St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The basilica was dedicated to our Most Holy Savior but later changed to St. John by virtue of a Benedictine monastery attached to it and charged with its care. The monastery was dedicated to both St. Johns. The heads of St. Peter and St. Paul are said to reside in the baldacchino above the high altar. As odd as this sounds, it is true that the skulls of St. Peter and St. Paul were not discovered underneath their respective basilicas amongst their bones.

Pope St. Leo the Great, who’s feast is tomorrow, renovated the Lateran in 460. And its current condition was thanks to Pope Innocent X and Borromini. This is how the old Catholic Encyclopedia describes the “renovation”:

The palace, however, was never again used by them as a residence, the Vatican, which stands in a much drier and healthier position, being chosen in its place. It was not until the latter part of the seventeenth century that the church took its present appearance, in the tasteless restoration carried out by Innocent X, with Borromini for his architect. The ancient columns were now enclosed in huge pilasters, with gigantic statues in front. In consequence of this the church has entirely lost the appearance of an ancient basilica, and is completely altered in character.

I have to admit that the first time I walked into the Lateran I was underwhelmed. I think I understand the objection above. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say “tasteless,” but it certainly is not my favorite basilica.

Fr. Alban Butler makes a point about today and the commemoration of a basilica that I think is important. He quotes St. Augustine who encourages us to take care of ourselves who are temples of God. “Let us work,” Augustine wrote,

As hard as we are able with His help, that our Lord find not in His temple, that is, in us, anything whereby the eyes of His majesty may be offended…. If no one in dirty garments would dare to approach the table of an earthly ruler, how much the more ought one who is infected with the poison of envy or hate, or full of unrighteous anger, reverently and humbly to draw back from the table of the eternal King, that is, from the altar of God? For it is written, ‘Go first and be reconciled with thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift’; and again, ‘Friend, how camest thou in hither not having on a wedding-garment?’

This passage at once ennobles and challenges us. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and have within us a dignity which is magnified by the grace of baptism. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are beloved and gifted. Still we must prepare our temples well by eliminating sins of “envy or hate.”

For those of us who are more laid back, this might not be that difficult of a task. Calmness bordering on apathy helps one avoid envy and hate most of the time. But the standard is not just the avoidance of these sins, we also must decorate the temple as a bride or groom would. This involves effort, thus thwarting the apathetic.

What I love about feasts like this dedication of St. John Lateran’s is that it shows us just how incarnational our faith is. What a wonderful image it is to try to dress up our soul as groom. How does one do that? Well by decorating it with the flowers and gems of merciful charity of course. This is the ultimate test of the Christian soul. It is the love of neighbor that brightens the chambers of the interior temple. It is the joyful spirit of genuine charity that erects the bright adornment of the spiritual house.

This feast helps us to remember that the great basilicas of the world are physical reminders of the glory that awaits us in heaven, and of the glory which exists within us if only we would clear out the stain of sin and allow Christ’s healing hand to work its craft. Basilicas like St. John Lateran’s, are images of our own vocation, our calling to be more like Christ Himself.


One Example of the Christ Pantokrator

I do love my parish ever so much. It is, I suppose, a testimony to the sad state of American Catholic parishes that this is perhaps the first time I have ever belonged to a parish in which I feel truly so much a part of it. People actually stick around after Mass to visit and catch up on the week. We see each other outside of Mass at gatherings of various sorts: cultural, religious, athletic. It is a true joy.

The parish Church itself is a thing of beauty outside and inside. Though it shows signs of the years of neglect that it suffered when so many left the part of town in which it sits, it is nonetheless stunning. There is a soft grandeur about the place, a disarming austerity that I cannot help but fall in love with.

The altar is decorated with three impressive mosaics. Saints Peter and Paul flank a central mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, which stands ominously above a dome that covers a crucifix that stand above the tabernacle that sits above the altar. The symmetry is gorgeous.

If you’re familiar with the tradition of the icon of Christ Pantokrator you will know that they all share a kind of menacing air. This is not a depiction of Jesus sweet and mild. This is the Christ, the ruler of the universe, the all-powerful, which is one of the various translations of the Greek word “pantokrator.” A non-Catholic friend of mine from graduate school referred to it as the “switch blade Jesus.” You weren’t sure what he was going to do, but he looked mean.

Another alternative translation of Christ Pantokrator is Christ the all sustainer. This I find wonderful and an understanding of God that I think is largely lost on us today.

We’ve a tendency to view God in a kind of pseudo-deistic manner. The deists saw God as a divine watchmaker who created the world in all its intricacy and with an internal mechanism of propulsion. The Lord needed only to wind the world up, let go, and watch from a safe distance as the universe followed its inevitable motions. We allow ourselves the thought, perhaps, that He intervenes at His convenience. But these instances are nothing more than brief intrusions by God into “our” realm. Nothing could be further from the truly Christian understanding of God, of the God who sent His only son.

No, in fact, God is Pantokrator, the all sustaining God who did not just create us but also sustains us at every moment. Should God forget us for a millisecond we would cease to exist. The fact that we are is a direct result of the will of God at this moment…and this…and this…and now too. God sustains all that is everywhere and at all times, and it was this God that came down from heaven to become one of us. This is what is so amazing, and this is what struck me yesterday as I sat before the mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, for I noticed something quite lovely.

Prominent to the mosaic is Christ’s face and shoulders, his right hand raised in it iconographic manner. However, the gorgeous Italian Marble dome that sits above the tabernacle, wonderfully framing the golden, upright crucifix, obstructs the image of Christ Pantokrator from his knees down. And when one sits, at just the right angle, one discovers that the all-powerful, all-sustaining Christ God is…barefoot. He wears no sandals, but, discalced, stands as omnipotence personified yet simultaneously humble.

Oh, the mercy of God is a beautiful thing.


I was with some ministers yesterday speaking about the nature of the mission of the laity within the context of adult faith formation. At the average parish you have the pastor and their leader of catechesis. In certain parts of the country they still call this CCD, which stands for the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine. Here in the Omaha, we just call it “religious education.” The education of children takes up most of the time and resources for a parish. Adults are often left to fend for themselves to rummage through the resource library or the brochure display at the back of the Church. In the case of RCIA, when adults convert to the faith, there is more formation, but statistics have shown that though we have huge numbers of adults becoming Catholic every year, over 75% of them are gone after three years. Things seem rather grim.

In my presentation, I led everyone back to the 1979 Apostolic Exhortation by Pope John Paul II Catechesi tradendae “On Catechesis in our Time.” In paragraph 29 the Holy Father speaks of those things which we ought not forget in the work of catechesis. I thought it important since the next synod of the Church will be on the New Evangelization and since the opening lines of this paragraph read:

29. In the third chapter of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, the same Pope recalled “the essential content, the living substance” of evangelization. Catechesis, too, must keep in mind each of these factors and also the living synthesis of which they are part.

Catechesis is about evangelization and the transformation of the soul. But what are these things which we cannot neglect in catechizing? The first reads something like this:

The synod fathers were indeed inspired when they asked that care should be taken not to reduce Christ to His humanity alone or His message to a no more than earthly dimension, but that He should be recognized as the Son of God, the Mediator giving us in the Spirit free access to the Father.

Let’s make sure that we maintain the fact that Jesus is God. This would seem a rather basic or modest goal, but you would be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn’t be) at how many wish to either deny His divinity or leave it on the back burner. Is there more we ought not neglect?

It is important to display before the eyes of the intelligence and of the heart, in the light of faith, the sacrament of Christ’s presence constituted by the mystery of the Church, which is an assembly of human beings who are sinners and yet have at the same time been sanctified….

The Church is that body through which we encounter Christ in His fullness. The Catholic thing has never been a “me and Jesus” proposition. We are called to relationship with Him, but relationship in the context of community. Without that community, we have place an obstacle to complete knowledge of Him.

Then there is the last thing we ought not forget in catechesis. The Holy Father writes:

Finally, it is important to reveal frankly the demands – demands that involve self-denial but also joy – made by what the Apostle Paul liked to call “newness of life,” (Rom. 6:4) “a new creation,” (2 Cor. 5:17) being in Christ, (Cf. ibid.) and “eternal life in Christ Jesus,” (Rom. 6:23) which is the same thing as life in the world but lived in accordance with the beatitudes and called to an extension and transfiguration hereafter.

Hence the importance in catechesis of personal moral commitments in keeping with the Gospel and of Christian attitudes, whether heroic or very simple, to life and the world – what we call the Christian or evangelical virtues. Hence also, in its endeavor to educate faith, the concern of catechesis not to omit but to clarify properly realities such as man’s activity for his integral liberation, the search for a society with greater solidarity and fraternity, the fight for justice and the building of peace.

Besides, it is not to be thought that this dimension of catechesis is altogether new. As early as the patristic age, St. Ambrose and St. John Chrysostom – to quote only them – gave prominence to the social consequences of the demands made by the Gospel. Close to our own time, the catechism of St. Pius X explicitly listed oppressing the poor and depriving workers of their just wages among the sins that cry to God for vengeance.(74) Since Rerum novarum especially, social concern has been actively present in the catechetical teaching of the Popes and the Bishops. Many synod fathers rightly insisted that the rich heritage of the Church’s social teaching should, in appropriate forms, find a place in the general catechetical education of the faithful.

The Social Teaching of the Catholic Church is not some optional addendum to the work of catechetics. It is necessary, and it is something which in the patristic age was given “prominence.”

Giving Thanks

When I presented these facts to the good people around the table yesterday, I asked how many of them felt comfortable relating or speaking about the Social Doctrine to the adults they served. None of them did. The failure, I would then posit, to know it ourselves – for those of us who are in ministry – bars us from passing it on to the adults we work with and as a result fails to make charity in truth a reality, fails to connect the spiritual depths of relationship with Christ to our everyday life.

I did not plan this, but apparently this was exactly the same message of the Holy Father Pope Benedict yesterday. Wherein he says,

A profound understanding of the social doctrine of the Church is of fundamental importance, in harmony with all her theological heritage and strongly rooted in affirming the transcendent dignity of man, in defending human life from conception to natural death and in religious freedom. … It is necessary to prepare lay people capable of dedicating themselves to the common good, especially in complex environments such as the world of politics.

This effort is no joke. It is not peripheral to the work of the Church and the mission of the laity. We must know the Social Doctrine well.

But where to turn? The JustFaith program has been around for some time now and is considered one of the more popular programs. It is long and involved, but the commitment it requires does draw forth some transformation from its participants. The problem is that it includes materials that openly and frequently deny the divinity of Christ. Not only are the participants not provided the gorgeous language of the popes in the explanation of the Social Teaching, they are lied to about who Christ is. When I spoke to the people at JustFaith about this, they simply shrugged and said it was just a matter of emphasis. They want to emphasize Jesus’ humanity is all, lest focusing on his divinity distract us from this world and its needs. JustFaith would not reject these portions of its program.

There is little help out there for encountering and understanding the Social Doctrine of the Church. But the teaching needs to happen, and it needs to happen yesterday.

Kris McGregor and I are working on an audio series to help spread the teaching. Pray that we can finish it in a timely manner and that we can get out of our own way and let the Holy Spirit do the talking. Pray that we can meet the Holy Father’s call for this teaching “to prepare lay people capable of dedicating themselves to the common good,” and service to the Church.