Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Book out of Character

The Seven Deadly Virtues: 
18 Conservative Writers on 
Why the Virtuous Life is Funny as Hell. 
Templeton Press. Kindle Edition.  (2014-10-14). 

"If you’re a parent, and you’re sending away to college kids who’ve never been asked to do a task that was too hard, or been given a responsibility they didn’t believe they could bear, or have never been asked to suffer a single moment for the sake of another—you haven’t succeeded. You’ve failed. Courage is the essential virtue." (p. 56)

As somber as my quote choice may come off, I wish to assure that this book is at once entertaining and profound. Almost by coincidence, because the virtues discussed follow a nearly classical hierarchy, the earlier chapters are without exception superior to the later. To say it another way, PART I: THE CARDINAL VIRTUES is uniformly witty and profound. I am not so convinced of the redeeming social value of the second part of the book, treating the so-called "everyday" virtues.

Apart from being recreational reading, the book offers a convincing counter to the relativism which would deprive us of real goodness, truth and beauty as they unfold in our lives today with an assuring constancy.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Godseekers and Liturgical Accessibility

The Gospel (Matthew 9:35-10:1,5,6-8) from Saturday of the 1st Week of Advent is a clear reminder of what is expected of those called to gather in the lost sheep, to pasture the flock, to tend the vineyard:

"Jesus made a tour through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing all kinds of diseases and sickness.
  And when he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them because they were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is rich but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest.’
  He summoned his twelve disciples, and gave them authority over unclean spirits with power to cast them out and to cure all kinds of diseases and sickness. These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them as follows: ‘Go rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. And as you go, proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils. You received without charge, give without charge.’"

Watching a TV News report on a media campaign for the Brooklyn Diocese which hopes to be more than your average "come home for Christmas" attempt to reach out to fallen away Catholics, something dawned upon me. There are people out there who have walked away or fallen away from Church, some still seeking God's place in their lives and some not seeking at all. Elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus expressed regret over the rich, young man who just walked away from the challenge of perfection. My guess is that if that one had been truly seeking entrance into God's Kingdom, well, he would have been up to the Lord's challenge to give up all and come follow. Don't get me wrong, I guess I am fine with the media campaign thing in so far as it could be just the nudge that a seeker needs. My point being that saying Brooklyn has 250,000 church goers amongst a million four hundred thousand Catholics out there and would like more to practice the faith simply for their sake does not cut the mustard. What if all 1.4 million came on Christmas? What if even half came just for Christmas and half of them stayed? Who is going to preach to them; who is going to look after them once they come home? The ad campaign cannot really further the Kingdom in the way we would hope to save souls.

When you get to my age, you have lots of friends and acquaintances who are practicing Catholics whose children or grandchildren walked away or fell away from going to church. The folks are sad and generally of a stubbornly hopeful mind that, at least in the case of their children, the phase will pass and they will come home to the Church of their Baptism. They are heartsick and guilt ridden over the lost grandchildren. They pray and I am convinced, also from experience, that the Lord in His mercy hears and answers their prayers. Sometimes that third generation child falls in love with a practicing Catholic and through wedding preparations and subsequent contact the ice is broken and the second generation is freed to return as well. Sometimes the loving Lord bestows other graces. Important is our own prayerful supplication.

Living here in Ukraine now for more than three years has broadened my perspective on what draws people to Church and what either leaves them cold or repels them. I take my first point as always given: the Church must tend the flock entrusted to its care. We lose so many because we don't care for those whom we have; as in the case of the hireling we let the devil carry them off. Beyond that it is a question of identifying those, generally faint of heart and perhaps burdened by sin, who are seeking and reach out to them, as the Gospel says, offering healing. Perhaps the biggest challenge is making God in Jesus Christ within His Church accessible. Many would say that what sets Ukrainians who are far from Church apart is the fact that they are genuine seekers. It could be that there are here per capita more seekers of God than you find in the blase` materialized West, but I think we need to look elsewhere if we would be constructive. Seeking out the lost or pressing people to come into the wedding feast become daunting challenges. What doesn't or shouldn't impede return to the bosom of Mother Church is making the Church more accessible to people by opening things up. Byzantine life here in Kyiv illustrates well what I mean.

The closest example here to my home is the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Volodymyr, open all day and frequented by people who come in to pray, to light a candle, to ask prayers for their intentions, to pick up at the religious goods shop some sacred object big or small for home or for a gift. At liturgy times the bells ring out, people come and insert themselves in an action focused on God. No demands are placed upon them but those of respect for the decorum proper to the Temple of the Lord. I think that Roman Catholic Churches in big cities all over the western world were once that way too. Apart from the locked doors we too often encounter, the focus on the Divine Presence (front and center) has too often been removed along with the sacred images which once helped us center our prayer. Liturgy in the West for decades has been an attempt to engage me, to draw me into a discursive action which seeks from me song, verbal responses and all too often eye-contact, while drawing me away from the Lamb upon the Throne.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound to some, Catholic worship would be more inviting if it were less confrontational, more linear, more of a contemplative space. Cozy or folksy is not adequate to the human condition, except maybe for a diner with super-sized portions, catering to middle-aged men in plaid flannel shirts wearing ball caps indoors. The Byzantine world teaches eloquently: we need a restoration of the Roman Rite. We need a sacred space where people can enter in without being challenged and can focus together with others on the Dawn from on High Who comes to visit us. It is not a panacea, but it is a sine qua non. If we fail to accompany our people, well, the devil will continue to carry them off, but if our churches once again become still points in this hectic world, spaces filled with truly oriented worship, humbly directed to our Redeemer and Savior, then we stand a chance.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Letting Somebody Write Your History for You

The Restoration of Rome: 
Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders.
Heather, Peter (2014-02-21).
Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

"The medieval Roman Empire of the popes was a different kind of beast altogether . The power of the papacy is in fact an almost perfect example – the ideal-type to use some jargon – of the sociological category of ideological authority. Bishops of Rome were able to exercise power exactly and only because a sufficient body of influential opinion across the broader European landscape bought into a set of ideas which said that Popes should exercise such power. The idea set started from Jesus’ words to St Peter in Matthew, but filled in all the gaps: that Peter had been the first Bishop of Rome; that his powers to bind and loose could be inherited by his successors; and that this pre-eminent religious authority could be turned into concrete rights to define doctrine, make law, and control top Church appointments. Because of these ideas, Bishops of Rome acquired wealth , legal rights, even soldiers, and could use them as additional means of projecting power. But in the papal case, these more usual constituents of imperial power were merely its secondary trappings. They extended but did not create papal power: that was the direct result of accepting the original set of ideological propositions." (Kindle Locations 6961-6969)

After reading a book like this, I have my doubts about whether it is even possible to write history. Peter Heather keeps your attention from beginning to end with his clever repartee, but in the end there's little to recommend the exercise if you don't buy into his basic premise that dominance based on some form of controlling power is what legitimizes authority and makes the world go round. Now that I have read the book, I am ready to lump it with all those war histories filled with diagrams of battle fields and time tables for cables which arrived too late to proffer the information which could have turned the tide and given Robert E. Lee the advantage, or whatever. The Civil War approach is minimalist and boring; Heather is just plain jaded.

In fairness to the author, he helped me with my late antiquity and medieval chronology. If I had ever heard of it before, I guess I had forgotten about the contribution which the Carolingian Renaissance made to saving the Latin literature of antiquity and prospering the cathedral and monastery schools. As a canonist, it was fun to run through his history of Roman and Canon Law. He has the wheels turning in my head about where we are at in terms of the papacy today, but he's no authority for me and says nothing of import about things dear to me, rooted in the Divine Will, rooted in the truth which comes to us from God in Jesus Christ.

What's the phrase? CAVEAT EMPTOR!


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Papal Primacy in the Mix.

I think my man is undermining Petrine primacy:

"Of course Charlemagne was head of the Church (and Louis the Pious after him), again both de facto and de jure like their imperial Roman predecessors. It would also never even have occurred to most of their churchmen that the head of the Papal Republic, apostolicus as they acknowledged him to be, could possibly have aspired to anything remotely resembling the overarching religious authority that it was the God-given duty of the king-emperor to wield." [Heather, Peter (2014-02-21). The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (Kindle Locations 5696-5699). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.] 

As I am discovering, Peter Heather's book is indeed thought provoking, especially for me as a "Roman". Basically, the author is saying that in the history of the Church he who has called the shots is the one who wears the tiara, and that has been the "God-given" Christian emperor... every time. Which thesis or contention, for all its realism and for all the author's historical arguments about how the early ecumenical councils worked, still doesn't convince me that Christ is not ultimately in charge and so through His vicar, the successor of St. Peter in Rome. The Petrine Ministry of binding the Church together in love and thereby strengthening the brethren as Christ willed does not necessarily fall to the one who has kept the troops in order by most effectively cracking the whip.

Heather is claiming that the Church has only known orthodoxy and unity under the firmly wielded scepter of Christian emperors or powerful kings. But how can you call them guarantors of the faith? Was Henry VIII the exception to the rule or are this man's arguments fundamentally nefarious and standing somehow outside of Christ's will?

What does the Vicar of Christ have to do in order to be the Rock, the guarantor? The indefectibility of the Church must be factored in, pope martyrs (usually at the hands of the emperor) and all. Charlemagne might have paid the light bills in Rome, but there is more to the story. Maybe we are too quick to define Petrine Ministry and what it means to bind the Church together in love.

From almost time immemorial now, despite the critique of certain vaticanisti, all we have known are strong, charismatic popes, and maybe that is why Heather can make the claims he does. He makes it too easy for some to deny the Roman Pontiff his due in the plan of salvation, as if it were all based on something as serendipity as charisma. 

Our Patrimony and Returning Home.

Meditations Before Mass.
Guardini, Romano (2013-12-08).
Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

"Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it. Attentiveness — that is the clue to the stillness in question, the stillness before God." (Kindle Locations 156-159)

 One of the experiences of life for me these days, one which oddly enough I guess I kind of savor, is noting the way that my age experience and memory separates me now from the movers and shakers of the adult community, that is, from most anybody under fifty-five years of age. Take the reviews online of this lovely little book by one of my favorite authors as a point in case. These younger ones all seem to marvel at the freshness and relevance of the book. The observation is absolutely correct, but it is not mine. Guardini says better that with which I was nourished as daily fare as a school child in the 1950's. Why are so many of my crotchety old contemporaries ungratefully dismissive of a liturgical spirituality, if you will, which younger folk today mark a fresh discovery?

I pray lots these days asking the Lord to grace us with a recovery of that wealth which is our patrimony. Maybe the discovery of Guardini's "Meditations Before Mass" is part of the answer to this old man's prayers? Take and read!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Reality vs. Propaganda, beaten at our own game

Take 11 minutes to think about the devastating consequences of the tyranny of relativism and the danger to which we are exposed by our tolerance for so much folly, especially when experts wield this same stupid penchant to deprive us of any remaining contact with reality we still might have. I pray for the day when so-called "western culture" can say "truth is..." without flinching. 

Timothy Snyder is at the top of his game in this video and offers food for thought. I wonder when people around the world will recognize a) Russian aggression in Ukraine is just that, as it was in Georgia, Armenia, Moldavia, ... b) Russian propaganda is not only critical of the decadence of the West, but is itself postmodern and cynical, and seeks only to destroy or level the playing field: misery loves company, if you will.

Remember Fatima! We really do need to take up with insistence our prayers for the conversion of Russia.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Wordcraft at Work?

"Thanks to this equalization of development, you might say, the scene was set for the thousand subsequent years of fruitless warfare which followed as Europe’s dynasts intermittently struggled to achieve a level of overarching dominance that was in fact impossible. In that sense, it took the nightmare of two world wars in the twentieth century before the European Dream was finally called into existence to try to put a stop to the process of endless armed competition between powers that were always too equal for there to be an outright winner." [Heather, Peter (2014-02-21). The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (Kindle Locations 5053-5056). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.] 

Don't let the Kindle publication date distract you! Peter Heather's book came out in 2013. It could very well be that if the author had this year since the beginning of Ukraine's Revolution of Dignity under his belt that he might have dropped this paragraph or at least choked slightly on the expression "European Dream". It doesn't seem now as though the "nightmare of two world wars in the twentieth century" was all that sufficient to teach the lesson about the path to peace. The Pax Romana looks to hold the record for some time to come.

The author's statement about there being no advantage to gain through fighting because the playing field is just too level does not cut the mustard. Genocide, massacres of lesser dimension, palace intrigue, assassinations and more seem to be yet the order of the day. Theoderic, Justinian, Charlemagne or Otto I, their surcharge of Christianity notwithstanding, do not distinguish themselves much from other ruthless "kings of the hill" over the centuries who did not know the grace of Baptism.

As time goes on and I go on to finish this terribly interesting book, I am sure that much more will come to mind. For now anyway, I cannot help but find myself faced with a puzzle. Insatiable, personal ambition and vain attempts to build a monument to oneself on the shifting sands of time: is there nothing else which drives men? Have we no option but to acquiesce to the pretense of who would sway over us and most often to our detriment?

 More than a century past, G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc were among those convinced that participatory democracy or anything short of servitude could only be organized on the most local of levels. Much of the spectacle on the world stage today, whether of big nations, communities of nations or trading groups offers little to respond to their defense of smaller, not only as beautiful or better, but seemingly as best by far. Smarter men than I scorn distributivism, but the present world crisis offers little to posit a better way.