Friday, October 09, 2015

What We Saw in Philadelphia—the Aftermath

One thing I know about myself is that I can rarely relate the impact of my experiences immediately. I often have to reflect on and mull over them for a period before I can get to the core of my experience. I don't think this is unusual for men, as we tend to put our heads down and drive through experiences, waiting until later to process. As far as evolution goes, that makes perfect sense. At many times in human history and prehistory, that adaptation made the difference between survival and annihilation.

But as a modern man, it's damned inconvenient.

After Mass was finished and the endless EWTN commentary actually ENDED, we removed our vestments and gathered in the main sanctuary for evening prayer. I think now that this one gift the parochial vicar gave us was priceless. It's rare that I get to chant evening prayer with a room full of men, and it's exactly what the Divine Office should be.

After we finished, I grabbed my backpack and suit bag (a short one, which is much easier to manage when traveling), and I started the trek back up to the museum and the shuttle stop. As you can imagine, the place was a mess. Stacks and stacks of water had been supplied for the event (which was a Godsend). However, because it wasn't managed as much on Sunday, people began to take cases and use them for seating. When everything was over, there were half-crushed cases of water all over the place, and loads of trash (as there weren't enough trash receptacles by any stretch). Thank goodness they prepared better for the draining of the port-o'-potties. (No, I'm not obsessed with portable toilets. They're just really an issue when you're dealing with a million people in an enclosed location.)

I stayed off of the walkways when I could, since the (un)grassed* areas were largely clear. I actually made it back to the shuttle pick-up location pretty quickly. Of course, everyone who had taken the shuttles in were now waiting. And they had the same sort of blinkered approach to getting on the shuttles. The goal was "shuttle," and no other group of awaiting passengers were given any noticed. I watched this happen with a couple of buses and decided that I'd go hunt down the elusive after-Mass dinner that the clergy were promised.

I walked toward the museum, and around the south side... and around...



And I saw some fellows in black suits and grey clerical shirts. My brother deacons! And I asked them where the promised meals were (as they were carrying boxes in their hands. and yes, I had to explain that I, too, was a deacon). They directed me back to the place where we met. And so I headed around to the back side...

and around...


You, know, that's one massive campus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I found the back entrance, and picked up my box, skipping the add on bag that appeared to be overloaded with gummy fish and other odd selections and toiletries, if my eyes did not deceive me. Then I made the long trek back to the shuttle pick-up zone, staying close to the entrance.

I waited for a few shuttles to go just to let the area clean out. I ate the contents of my meal box. If this was the "dinner" that was to be served, its character was overstated a bit. There was a bag of chips, and half sandwich, and one chewy Chips Ahoy cookie. Maybe I should have grabbed the bag of gummy... things.

As I was waiting, a group of deacons  from New Jersey came up. They were mostly newly ordained and had the camaraderie of a class ordained together. We were all standing next to a group of Dominican sisters and seminarians, as well as a group of teens from a local school. We were all sort of lining up where the previous buses lined up to signal to the drivers where they should stop. At a certain point, everyone just let the Dominicans go. They were patiently waiting and watching groups of people step on ahead of them, not complaining a bit. We teased them a bit about it building virtue, but eventually, I think everyone agreed that they should board next. When the next rank of shuttles arrived, everyone anticipated that the drivers would see the groups and stop in front of them. However, they stopped just short of us, and those dastardly school kids tried to jump our line!

We set them straight in short order!

Actually, it was very good natured, and the kids were also very flexible about the whole situation. The deacons from Jersey insisted that I got on next. They intended to travel together and saw no need to send one of theirs first.

So I made the shuttle. The trip back was uneventful. When we returned to the Mann Center, the real test began.

When we got back to Mann Center, I thought it would be a slam dunk. I entered from that side of the check point, so my car must be just over there.

Uh.... no.

The grassy area on the other side of the check point was still fairly full of cars. As I mentioned, there were no distinguishing landmarks, just some flags (all identical) located in a few areas. And no lights. And it was getting darker by the minute. I walked back a few rows and looked around, wandered up and down a few rows. I pulled out the key fob and clicked to see if I'd see some lights. I even hit the panic button. Nothing.

After 20 minutes, I actually called our host and talked to her as I looked. About that time, I noticed that the road next to the grass was just one of several. Apparently there were four roads coming in, and they all converged on the same location. So I started to walk across the roads, clicking the key fob. Finally, I saw the lights flicker on and off.

How the heck do you lose a Denali?

I contacted Gina to see where she was. She and my brother deacons were almost back to the rail station. She'd had nothing to eat since morning. I headed back to St. Cornelius, stopped off at Whole Foods just before I got there, and got a massive wrap and coconut water for her. I sat in the parking lot, checked out the eclipse, and read until the bus returned.

It was a long day, but a blessed day.

The Meeting of Families and Festival of Families are past now, and the Synod on the Family is now playing out. The joy of the last few weeks has given way to a degree to the fear and anxiety in the Catholic blogosphere over the matter of divorced and remarried Catholics. I personally don't harbor any fear, because I believe that Jesus meant what He said in Matthew 16:18: "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it."

I don't put trust in the bishops, even those whom I admire. But I have utter trust in the Holy Spirit and the words of Christ.

*The degrassing of the parkway clearly happened long before the Festival of Families. 

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

What We Saw in Philadelphia—Part IV

On Day 4, we got up a little later and prepared ourselves for the crush of humanity attending the papal mass. This day would be a bit different for us, as I would be traveling on my own to a shuttle area and check point. From there, I would be taken to the Museum of Art, where I would meet with the other clergy who would would be serving.

I dropped Gina off at St. Cornelius so that she could travel in with everyone else in our group. Had I known that she could have taken the shuttle, I would have taken her with me. Unfortunately, those details weren't very clearly conveyed to us. This would be a common theme for the day.

Anyway, I dropped Gina off, and then I drove to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. It was in a fairly sketchy part of town, and most approaches were blocked off. However, I found my way to South Concourse Street. The attendant at the entrance asked for my parking permit. I indicated that no one had informed me that I needed one. I think she must've noticed the alb hanging in back because she waved me through. A short way up the street, some other attendants signaled me onto the grass where other attendants were directing people to park. I didn't see a lot of distinguishing land marks but didn't really think much of it at the time.

I made my way to the checkpoint, which was remarkably free of lines, but also of nearby port-o'-potties. I climbed aboard one of the yellow school buses that would acting as our shuttles, and in a few minutes, we were on our way in.

We pulled alongside the hill on which the museum sits and filed off. Most occupants headed toward the parkway, but I crossed the street and headed up to the museum. Other volunteers were gathering in the pavilions behind the main stage. I think these were members of the city-wide choir that sang during Mass. More about that later.

The Knights of Columbus were gathering on the steps. I stopped a few people who looked like they should know something. Most of the volunteers had little idea where the clergy were supposed to go. Finally, I found someone who directed me to the back of the building.

We had been instructed to be at the museum no later than 11:30, but it didn't appear that anyone was really keeping track. We were told that there would be a brunch waiting for us. I dropped off my vestments and headed upstairs. And indeed, there was a brunch and a bunch of starving clergy. (Is that redundant? A Franciscan priest and mendicant assigned to our parish says that some Franciscans mendicate too much. I'm just reporting his opinion here.)

Pastry and coffee was available initially, but we were told a substantial buffet would be served soon. In the meantime, we could network with the other clergy. I chatted with a brother deacon from the diocese of Las Vegas, He and about many deacons were wearing black with a grey clerical shirt, or a white or light blue shirt. Some had black shirts with the deacon cross and stole embroidered on them. We have not been given permission to wear clericals in our diocese, but I have to say, it would have been handy simply for identification purposes.

While we waited for the buffet, we were free to check out the exhibits. While I can appreciate paintings, I gravitate toward other objects.

I had to get a shot of this vase depicting Prometheus getting his eternal reward.

Side-story: I worked on a pilot project named Prometheus for a client, and then later worked directly for the same client as a support analyst and trainer. One of my favorite lines was that I had worked on the original implementation named Prometheus, and that it truly was sort of like being chained to a rock and having your liver pecked out for eternity. Heh. I slay myself.

My wife's patron saint is St. Joan, so I couldn't not take a photo of this statue of Joan d'Arc.

Now, I did ask whether I could take photos, and I was told, "In this room, yes, without a flash. But no photos in the next room (the main special exhibit, where the Titian, Rubens, and Michelangelo pieces were)."

And then I ran into this (Klimmt),

And this (Van Gogh).

And on and on: Renoir, Degas, Rubens, Titian, Michelangelo, Monet, Manet, and Pissaro. There simply wasn't enough time to take it in.

I did go to the American exhibition, and it seemed to have even more craft smith work than the other exhibits (particularly silver and wood).

The buffet arrived, and I have to say it was quite good, even if the seating was limited.

I thought I should get back to the vesting area since it was getting close to the time we were supposed to depart (according to the rumor floating around at the moment). I caught the elevator down and managed to shake hands with Cardinal Muller, the prefect* of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the *role Pope Benedict XVI filled under Pope St. John Paul II).

He's tall.

Well, the rumors on how we would get to our destination swirled all morning. First, we were told that we would meet in the museum, then walk down to the cathedral and vest there. Then we were told we'd vest at the museum, then walk to the cathedral, leaving everything behind. Then we were told to take our vestments and belongs and head to the buses. Then we were sent back to the vesting room and told to vest, but leave our things behind. Finally, we were told to vest, grab our things, and get on the buses. Fortunately, no other orders came. So we threw on our albs and stoles and got on the buses.

As we started down the parkway, people along the parade route began to applaud and cheer for us. They surely had no idea who were on the buses, and some of the deacons laughed at that, given that were were all virtual nobodies. Having been on the other side and feeling the energy of the previous day, I don't think it matter a whit who we were. The attendees knew that we were part of this thing, and that was all they needed to know.

As we made our way into the cathedral basilica, I noticed the shrine to Our Lady Undoer of Knots, which was on the north side of the cathedral. I'd heard about it two days before.

I understand that the Holy Father had the popemobile stop as he drove by on the way up to the main stage/altar. A couple of the deacons went out about that time and got some great shots of him. Yeah, that wouldn't be me.

The interior of the cathedral basilica is stunning. I've been in some Gothic cathedrals in Europe and several cathedrals and basilicas here in the US (the most incredible of which was the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception), but this one also has its rare beauty. Here's what I saw as I entered.

I always check out the organs and choir lofts. Musician? Check.

I love the classic high altars in many of the churches and cathedrals I've visited. This one is no exception.

Here's a shot of the baldachin over the main altar from a bit further back.

If I had been thinking, I would have gotten a shot of the conopaeum (a baldachin resembling an umbrella) and tintinnabulum (bell), which are present by privilege in minor basilicas.

We had a bit of a wait before us. Of course, many of us wandered through the cathedral taking pictures. However, we also paused for afternoon prayer, which our MC (a parochial vicar at the cathedral) led in chant.

I pray the liturgy of the hours daily (the primary hours and night prayer), but hearing 170 deacons chant them in this fantastic location was beautiful. Chant simply beats out modern hymnody in beauty and facility. The rhythms and tones are simple enough that most people can pick them up with ease.

That was a great way to prepare for Mass, and it's how I usually prepare on Saturday or Sunday evenings (albeit with evening prayer). Anyway, after prayer, we made our way into the main cathedral.

When the time for Mass drew close, we were asked to group by assignment (deacon, escort, other). Our MC instructed us on how we would proceed and explained the protocol for the escorts. We were instructed to guard the Eucharist to ensure no one walked away with a host unconsumed. We were also told that we would get a signal when it was time to return.

At the Sanctus, we would start from the back of the basilica and come forward to the altar. The reason for starting from the back was that these people would walk the furthest. I tried to get toward the back row since I have nothing preventing me from walking and could quite frankly could have used a good trek. Anyway, we would approach the altar and receive our ciborium, then move to the right or left to be paired up with an escort (the ones carrying the umbrellas). By the time we were lining up, the faithful were intoning the Agnus Dei, and we began to go out to Logan Square (which is a circle).
We were told that people in this area did not know that they would be able to receive communion. I had been looking forward to this moment, and I didn't know what to expect. It was my primary reason for being there that day—to serve the people of God. With crowds like this, it should have been a slam dunk.

(Courtesy of Cherri Gregg)

I was told that this moment in the mass was very emotional for a lot of people, and I was filled with emotion as we stepped into the square (in circular fashion). Even our host family indicated that the yellow and white umbrellas made an impression. (I understand now that the priests at the main altar were also escorted with these umbrellas.)

I managed to find one of the least attended positions on the rail along the parade route. Three of the first four people I approached at the rail weren't Catholic, so I blessed them and moved on. And after a minute or two, the rail was empty. My escort and I moved to the opposite side of the street, and I distributed communion there, gave out some blessings, and moved along the rail. Finally, my escort said, I think we're supposed to head in." 

I had distributed only about 20% of what was in my ciborium. I was disappointed that my place hadn't been as densely populated as others. As we started back, some people started asking for me to bless sacramentals, so I blessed a few rosaries and a wedding ring, but what struck me was that most of the people didn't ask for anything—not the Eucharist, not a sacramental. But they looked at me with gratitude that I was simply there. The young people around the route offered their hands for a low five, and people looked at us with love that we were simply there.

I returned with my escort, since I'm a lawful good type and always follow the rules. We returned our ciboria and those of us who needed to (not me), cleansed them. A bunch of deacons showed up rather late. 

As it turned out, they had no escorts and so were not summoned back when the escorts were. So when they ran out of communicants, they ran down their communicants. They went from Logan Square down to City Hall, where there were no other people distributing communion. One brother deacon told me that it was chaotic and beautiful. These people didn't think they would be able to received by any stretch. And here these brothers of mine were coming to them. And they were weeping for joy to receive the Eucharist. And in my head, I was saying, "That's where I wanted to be! That's where I wanted to be!"

That's why I went to Philadelphia. But I think now that that's not why I was sent.

We watched the remainder of the Mass via feed from EWTN. This was the period in which the priest returned their ciboria, and the all-city choir was singing. During this time (and during every moment of sacred silence or musical reflection), the commentators on EWTN did what they do and commentated. A deacon from the archdiocese of Philadelphia noted that they were talking over the choir that the archdiocese had pulled together for the Mass. I later learned that all of the major networks had broadcast the Mass with no commentary. I don't think the typical Mass requires commentary.

Mass came to an end, and we were dismissed as we are usually dismissed—go and announce (proclaim) the gospel to the world. I almost always use that form for the dismissal. 

But I'm not exactly sure how to take that particular moment to the world. I guess this is my take the gospel to the world—this momentary instance of the gospel reaching the world—and it did reach the world.

My experience wasn't the lightning bolt I had hoped it to be. And that completely fits my experience as a Catholic. I would really love to have the lightning bolt—the clear, intuitive confirmation of my faith. But that's not why I was sent, and that is not my vocation. I came to my faith through my intellect, and while I have had many intuitive and even ecstatic experiences, by and large, my faith life is lived in the intellectual and practical realm. I love those moments of intuition (rare) and ecstasy (rarer), but they are not part of my vocation. They are occasional consolations—and occasions I have not valued enough.

I went to Philadelphia to serve and not be served. It was an incredible experience and a tremendous lesson.

Monday, October 05, 2015

What We Saw in Philadelphia—Part III

Day 3 was a completely different experience, and it had its ups and downs. It was the first day that traffic in and our of Philadelphia completely locked down. Our bus was directed to the parking lot for Citizens Bank Park, and we too the Broad Street line in.

We were given orange hats with the Diocese of Boise logo on them so that we could see each other and stay together. That plan only works if people stick together, and it got blown out of the water almost immediately.

We arrived at the Walnut Station and were given quick instructions about where we were going (the check point on 20th). Unfortunately, they were not clear on routes from the station to the checkpoint. This turned out to be key for us, but oddly, it worked out for the best.

Gina and I trailed the group (along with our diocesan communications director and another deacon) to make sure no one got lost. One of our number, an older deacon and his wife, just couldn't keep up with the pace of the tour director and had to stop to rest as we climbed the stairs. We all got to the street, but while he needed to rest, the group was ready to go. Gina and I opted to stay behind with the couple to help them find their way.

Unfortunately, the entire group disappeared almost immediately, and I didn't see which direction they went. However, I did see a checkpoint ahead and assumed that was where they went. I found out too late that it was the wrong check point, but we were already in line.

We stood in line for about 90 minutes--dumped our fruit and water at the entrance, and made our way up to city hall.

The crowds were still fairly light at this point. We led our friends along the parade route, but at a certain point, John decided that he had gone far enough for the time. He said that they would catch up to us after he caught his breath. He actually meant to camp out right there instead, but he didn't want us to worry. As it turned out, this worked well. He and his wife were able to get a good spot for the papal parade, and they were close enough to the exit that we could pick them up on the way out.

At this point, Gina and I headed up the parkway to find the rest of our group. The route became more congested as we approached the basilica, where the Saturday liturgy with clergy and religious was taking place. We were watching the mass on the jumbotrons that were placed all over the parade route, and I was also following Tom McDonald's status updates.

As we were passing the cathedral, Mass was ending, and people were trying to get a good view of the doorway to see Pope Francis exit. For some reason, I found this very touching. These young men were scrambling up onto the statue to get a glimpse of the pope.

We had blocks to go still to get into the ticketed area, and we both needed to find a lavatory. There were few between Broad Street and this location, so we forged ahead. We didn't find any until we reached 20th, which was where we were supposed to meet our group on the way out.

We made our way up Ben Franklin Parkway and found scattered members of our groups. Via text, I was able to locate the leaders of the expedition, we made our way as close to the stage as we could without having seats.And then came the wait. We were able to hear a number of musicians do their sound checks—Matt Maher, Aretha Franklin (who apparently sounded a whole lot better in the afternoon than she did when she performed). But for the most part, we waited and watched.

I was able to find this magnificent homage to American planning—the Great Wall O'Port o' Potties,

Those who wanted good shots of the pope camped at the rail. Those of us who just enjoyed being in the presence of so many joy-filled Catholics and our leader sat back.

We were able to watch the other events from the many jumbotrons all  over the parkway.

Before the papal parade started, we decided to grab a cheesesteak. I saw these priests eating ice cream and watching the spectacle.

Finally, the music started. Frankly, Matt Maher didn't get nearly enough time. He only performed two songs.

We watched the performances on closed circuit. Here's our view of the stage from where we were.

We saw them move the popemobile up to the stage in the afternoon. Knowing that the exits would be clogged, we resolved to start leaving at 7:30 (long before the end of the festivities). We made our way down to 20th but were on the opposite side of where we needed to be. About that time, the pope began making his rounds. He had sneaked out of the basilica back to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, then around 7:00, he came back, mounted the popemobile, and started the parade. Since we didn't camp the rail, we were not likely to get good photos, but I managed to get a glimpse of the popemobile. You can see the front screen just to the right of the hands of the boy in blue.

And here just to the right of the girl.

I saw him float by with his cope flapping around his head. He was quickly moving from one side of the car to the other to make sure that he greeted everyone. I think he looks his most energetic at these moments. The addresses and the meetings with heads of state, quite frankly, seem to bore him. But when he gets a chance to engage with the people, he gets fired up.

UPDATE: I have to say that one of the remarkable things about both days was how good-natured people were. I heard not a single foul word, and I knew of no angry incidents. The only incident I know of was one that I sadly caused. As we were on our trek back to city hall, we took a path down around a public building and up a staircase. The stairs were marble and narrow, and just as we approached the top, a man and his wife stepped in front of us so that we were standing on these narrow steps. Several people walked in front of us, oblivious to us and our intentions. Finally, I reached across the path and said, "Excuse me, I need to get my wife off of these stairs." The young lady registered surprise, and then laughed it off. I tried to explain that the stairs were actually dangerous, but I think her thoughts were elsewhere, and she was by no means put out.

Gina and I headed back toward Broad Street to pick up our wayward deacon and his wife. We had been in contact with them and told them we'd come back and get them to the rail station. On the way, we saw this interesting light show on the dome of the basilica. It's difficult to make out, but basically, it was a loop of a single candle flame that separated into multiple flames.

We found our deacon and his wife, and we headed for the exit. John hadn't eaten since  the afternoon, so we stopped into a Wawa one block down from the Walnut station. There was an anti-Catholic group with a megaphone talking about how the pope couldn't save us, or the Immaculate Conception couldn't save us, or pedophile priests couldn't save us. I had to thoughts about this: first, they didn't know squat about Catholic theology, and second, their tone was so antithetical to everything else around them. While they were going off, and Catholic youth group trundled up the street and started dancing and singing in front of them. Score 1 for the Catholics.

And score 1 for this guy standing outside of the Wawa. He said he was 70 and he was dancing and praising God while all of this was going on around him. Gina insisted that I take his picture.

We got down to the rail station and made it back to AT&T Center. Surprisingly, we were the first back even though we didn't meet up with the main group. Everyone got back to the bus in one piece, and we were on our way home.

The last day would be the pinnacle of our experience.

What We Saw in Philadelphia—Part II

Hey, if you're starting midstream, you might want to read this first (part I).

I saw my role as clergy on a diocesan pilgrimage as one of service to our diocese and my own parishioners. So I gave out my cell number to some of the families and tried to give people points of contact. Nonetheless, it was a chaotic couple of days, and it grew more so during the Holy Father's visit.

We had a bit of a side adventure on Friday. Originally, we were supposed to have mass with our bishop. That didn't pan out because he had obligations with the USCCB. However, after we finished with the conference, we made our way to the Ukrainian Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Of course, it was beautiful. Here's the facade.

This is what we saw as we entered.

Here's Christ the Pantocrator under the dome.

This is their stunning iconostasis.

Aaaaa-nd I did not catch the names all the saints depicted. I assume this one is a priest given that his stole sits over both shoulders.

This one needs no explanation.

There was a side altar dedicated to the nativity, The Eastern rites tend to use mosaic a lot in their devotional art. This one was quite beautiful.

Our intention was to attend the Divine Liturgy. When we arrived, we were told that there wasn't a liturgy scheduled. However, we wound up celebrating both afternoon prayer and the Divine  Liturgy.

The liturgy was chanted (which I love), and it had some notable differences—mostly the inclusion of more intercessory prayer. However, the structure of the liturgy was very similar to the Latin rite.

A person who was active here in our diocese essentially crowd-sourced his STL through the International Theological Institute. While he was there, he fell in love with the Byzantine liturgy. He was a convert, and I can understand why he might make that decision. For myself, despite the beauty of the Byzantine rite, I have always lived in the Latin rite (well, always except for the years when I was away from the Church). If I changed rites, I might be able to be ordained as a priest, but it would be so foreign to the faith I've known all my life. I think I'm just Latin though and through. God, in His wisdom, put me where I am, I'll let him call the shots.

The priest gave a no-holds-barred homily on the theme of marriage and the family. I'd like to see more of our parish priests do this.

Oh, hey... I haven't even mentioned the environment at the WMF. There were kids running around in the aisles during the talks, babies and toddlers all over the place. I've never attended a conference where children raced up and down the aisles while the bigwigs did their bigwigging, Awesome.

Anyway, it was my first experience of the Byzantine rite. I love how the priests whip the censer around, and forget about staying dry when the aspergilium comes out. These guys are serious with their sacramentals.

We left the Ukrainian cathedral and went north of Temple University. The neighborhoods around Temple are pretty rough, and Temple is lit up as bright  as day at night. Our tour leader explained several times that there were place that are just too dangerous to go, and we were driving right into one of them for our evening meal and talk.

Our destination was the Mercy Family Home, run by the Mercy Neighborhood Ministries ( The mission was started by a group from the Religious Sisters of Mercy. It looks like they downplay the religious affiliation, but the images of religious in the home itself were evident.

The catering company seemed to like pasta, so this was evening 2 of really good pasta. Unfortunately, my waistband does not respond well to it.

Anyway, we also got to hear a rousing presentation by this guy

I caught this live interview at the WMF on day three. He's there with Johnnette Benkovic and someone else I don't know. Deacon Harold is close with some friends of ours and is the godfather for one of their daughters. We had dinner with them a while back, and I reminded him of that (hard to forget fish tacos with my guacamole).

We piled into the bus and headed back to Chadds Ford, dropping Deacon Harold off somewhere around King of Prussia. Day 2 was over, and the conference came to an end.

Day 3 was going to be a completely different experience.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

What We Saw in Philadelphia—Part I

Gina and I were privileged to go on pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia with a group from our diocese. Our bishop was slated to go with us, but as it turned out, he was required to be in Washington D.C. with the USCCB when Pope Francis arrived. We (meaning some people from our group, but not us personally) didn't see him until the last day of the conference.

We were blessed to be hosted by St. Cornelius Parish in Chadds Ford, PA. These families generously opened their homes for us and made sure that we all got to and from the parish every morning and evening while we were there. Our hosts actually gave us the use of one of their vehicles to get to and from the parish every day.

Our first day was actually day three of the conference. The first keynote was given a by a couple and translated from Spanish. We walked in in the middle of this session, so I didn't really have the whole picture of what they were presenting. However, they were followed by Scott Hahn, who as always, did a great job.

I was somewhat conflicted because Dr. Janet Smith was also presenting. Robert George also had the same time slot.

The keynote session after lunch was led by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines.

That smile pretty much sums this man up. He was very charismatic and funny. This man could be pope someday.

Following his talk, we went to listen to Rose Sweet, who spoke on ministering to divorced Catholics. She had a tough gig, and she did a good job of dealing with it. There was one man whose wife left him and divorced him when he was 19 and then blocked his attempts at annulment. When people talk about the need for reform, this man's case was a good example. I don't know what diocese he's from, but either they are extraordinarily rigid in their process, or he simply has a poor advocate. Or perhaps he wasn't telling the whole story.

We had a chance to look around the exhibition hall, met Dr. Greg Popcak, and ran into a couple that used to attend our parish but relocated to D.C. They were selling bible-themed toys.

We had to make our way back to the bus by then, and we herded the other members of our group to the loading zone. As we drove back to St. Cornelius, we learned that the secret service went into the exhibition hall at 5:00 and gave all exhibitors 10 minutes to pack up and leave, shutting them down a full day early. There were a number of instances suggesting that the conditions on the ground were changing daily.

The keynote on the next day was delivered by Cardinal Sean O'Malley and Pastor Rick Warren. They were great as well, and Pastor Warren is sounding more and more Catholic all the time. I would not be surprised if he crosses the Tiber soon.

We saw Archbishop Chaput briefly when he introduced Cdnl. O'Malley and Warren. Chaput is one of the hierarchy that I greatly admire and have since he was in Denver. It takes someone like him to pull off something as large as a papal visit.

The final session we attended was Simcha Fisher. I find it interesting how different people can be from the personas that come across in their writing. we struck me most about Simcha was how, nervous and raw she was, and she was evocative and poetic. Some her best writing for the Register captures that.

Her husband Damien roamed around the room carrying their youngest. I also managed to catch Tom McDonald doing his job.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Verbum Domini exhibit (which I loved, of course). After we left the conference, we had some more adventures, but those will have to wait for part II.

Male and Female He Created Them—Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16
            "This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh." This verse appears, more or less, in two of the three readings today: Genesis 2 and Mark 10, our Old Testament selection and our Gospel reading.
            I'm going to cut to the chase here. I have more to say, but I want to get this out of the way right off the bat, not because I want to hurt anyone but because I have more to say, and I don't want to dwell on this point. It's also not a condemnation of any person for who they are or whom they love. However, I want to address a common and mistaken point of view, to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and to move on.
            These two verses—one in Genesis and one in the Gospel of Mark, right from the mouth of Jesus—define quite explicitly what marriage is from the beginning. Anyone who claims that scripture has nothing to say about the definition of marriage as the exclusive union between a man and woman for the purpose of becoming one flesh—is plain and simply wrong. That is why the Church teaches what it does about marriage, and that is why the Church cannot change its teaching. It takes its teaching directly from scripture, as well as from natural law and the institution of marriage as practiced since the dawn of civilization.
            Now that that clarification of the perpetual teaching of the Church is out of the way, I want to talk about what this truth about marriage means for us, because we have to admit that we have not treated this sacrament as we should as members of the body of Christ, and that goes for us Catholics as well as our Protestant brethren. If we had treated this sacrament as God intended and lived out our vows with the full conviction implied in the consent we exchanged in front of minister and witness, marriage wouldn't be in the sorry shape it is today. And families would not be in the sorry shape they are in today. I say this, not as one who is celibate and has never grappled with the day-to-day reality of marriage as a vocation, but as one who has failed at that vocation—who has failed, but who has also come to a new and better understanding and conviction about marriage as vocation.
            I am going to share with you some of the common themes I address in homilies for weddings. I apologize to anyone I'm currently preparing for marriage now, because you'll probably hear these themes again at your wedding ceremony. Let's just say that I am following our Holy Father's recent teaching on ecology... and I'm recycling fervently.
            The first theme is about the counterfeit. The counterfeit is what we see held up as the ideal of love in romantic comedies and young-adult novels with sparkly vampires. But these counterfeits don't show a thing of what love or marriage are truly about. Love isn't about succumbing to your feelings of passion, or finding personal fulfillment, or satisfying your greatest desires. True marital love is about seeking what is best for the beloved. Love is about sacrifice. That crucifix there should be a reminder to us of what love is. The kind of love required is that—complete self giving to the beloved. And that's necessary because our obligation in marriage is to help our spouse get to heaven. I know some fantastic couples in our own parish who demonstrate this truth to us.
            In our reading from Genesis, Adam sees woman for the first time. In Hebrew, "man" is ish, and woman is isha. She is not yet named Eve but isha—"woman." You can see how Hebrew makes the relationships clear: Ish and isha. When Adam sees her, he says to her, "This one, at last, is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh."
            "At last!" he says. He has been waiting for her and longing for her all this time.
            Now, Hebrew has several different ways of expressing superlatives: that is, the way we might express great, greater, and greatest. We have the ending -er and -est. In Hebrew, one way to express these ideas is to chain duplicate nouns together as Adam does here—bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. Your bone is the best of my bone. Your flesh is the best of my flesh. Adam is telling Eve, "You are the very best of me."
            I don't think anyone can ask for a greater appraisal in the eyes of their beloved than that.
            His reaction here is precisely what love is about. I mentioned that the counterfeits we get are all about how we feel about ourselves—how so and so over there makes me feel all oogy inside, gives me butterflies, and causes me to swoon and bat my eyelashes. Again, that's counterfeit love. It's centered on me, on my feelings, on mine... mine... mine!
            But true love is not focused inward but outward. Jean Vanier, a philosopher and theologian who founded the L'Arche movement, once provided this definition of love that has stuck with me since the first time I heard it on Catholic radio. He said:
"To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance." (repeat)
There isn't a word in that description that says anything about feeling woozy or getting heart palpitations or batting eyelashes. When you love someone, you reveal their worth to them.
            Finally, the purpose of marriage is central to the definition of marriage. Our culture tells us that marriage is about self-fulfillment and finding our soul mate. Here it is again... all about us—about me, what I get, how this affects me, how I profit from this exchange. When Pope Francis decries our consumerist, materialist culture, this mentality is precisely what he's talking about and what is too common among us and our children—assessing the market value of marriage.
            The point of marriage is not the two individuals but what the two individuals will become and beget. When we marry, we are not just obligated to each other, but to our families, and to generations to follow.
            Marriage is not a fair trade, and you are not asked to invest 50% for a share in the gain. You are asked to give 100% and a share in both the gain and the loss. You are to pour yourselves out completely to each other. That is what our Lord did for us there on that cross and here on this altar, and that is why God’s love for us is so frequently symbolized by the image of marriage in scripture.
            And marriage is completely worth it. It may not always be fun, but it is always worth it.
            In the eyes of the Church, marriage is intended for two primary ends: the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring. Those are the two ends of marriage, and they are interrelated and interdependent. First, spouses need to bond and be one so that children have a stable household. Popular psychology has promoted the idea that children would rather see their parents leave their unhappy marriages and pursue their own bliss, but actual studies of the outcomes say something different. Children suffer most when marriages end.
            Second, marriage is intended for the procreation and education of our children. Let me put this plainly because it has not been said clearly enough in our preaching and in our marriage preparation. A primary purpose of marriage is to have children—not to adopt children... or to think children are cute... or to smile at someone else's children... but to actually bear children of your own and to be open to the opportunities that God offers you to this end. Now, not all couples can do this, but the Church expects all couples to be open and willing to do this—so much so that we can't prepare someone for marriage who refuses to be open to bringing new life into the world.
            Here's the funny thing. The Church considers this a good for you. Why? Because having children and becoming a parent is the best way to draw you out of yourself and help you to become more self giving, more loving, and more self sacrificing. In essence, the primary goods are mutually supporting. You bond so that you can support a family, and you have children so that you come out of yourselves and sacrifice for others. At some point in everyone's life, we must become a father or mother, either physically or spiritually—for example, as priests or religious sisters. The person who doesn't take up this cross will never fully mature. You need to become a physical parent or a spiritual parent to be fully actualized.
            Society needs family. It is its most basic building block. Without family, people act solely on personal interest, and that is rarely a good thing. The Catechism calls the family the ecclesia domestica—the domestic church. It is the place where faith is inculcated, and so it is critical, not only for society, but for the growth of the Church and for evangelization. If the family is not stable, the Church will not grow, and people will not hear about God's love for them.
            Finally, I want to say a word about this Sunday, which is Respect Life Sunday. We should be celebrating this concept every day, but because of some awful Supreme Court rulings, we are forced to make basic human dignity an annual campaign. We need to remember that all human beings have inherent dignity because of who they are and who made them. That goes equally for those walking around on their own power as for the unborn, the elderly, the mentally ill, the dying, and those sitting on death row. If we do not have life, we have nothing else. So we are obligated to fight for the preservation of human dignity and life irrespective of the particular circumstances of that life.

            Our culture is at a crossroad, and we have to choose whether we will stand on the side of families, children, and marriage, or if we will cede the ground to those who exalt the individual above all. For the sake of our families, be bold and stand firm. Don't let the doors close on your domestic church.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

In Gratitude for an Accident

Gina, my wife, and I are recovering after being involved in a car accident yesterday. We had attended the Idaho Catholic Congress that morning, and Gina asked if we could go home for lunch. She has food sensitivities and didn't think the lunch offering would sit well.

We were driving north on a regular route, when about eight blocks away from home, a car came through the intersection, through a stop sign, and hit us on the driver's side just between the driver and rear passenger door.

I saw the other vehicle about two seconds before it impacted—just enough time to move my body away from the door and brace. (BTW, it's apparently an urban legend that it's better to be completely relaxed in an accident as the tension supposedly causes more damage than if you were completely free from tension and unaware. My chiropractor and a nurse from my parish have indicated that this is not the case.)

I've been in several accidents involving two vehicles. (I think that makes me part of the problem.) I recalled this time an odd visual affect that I encountered in my last accident—sort of a stuttered, or staggered image of the accident taking place. What I mean is that I did not see the approaching vehicle in a smooth fluid motion but almost as if it were a stop-image video. And then *BANG*, and our van was pushed from the lane and into the corner curb.

The point of impact, of course, was crushed, but on the passenger side, the rear axle was broken, and the front tire was completely blown off of the rim. After I checked with Gina to see if she was okay, I said, "Out, out, out," and we both exited through her door. I was concerned that the leaking fluids from the other vehicle might catch fire. After we exited, a neighbor, who is also a paramedic, said, "Do not renter the vehicle, and do not put your head into the door." Our air bags did not deploy, and he wanted to prevent an injury if they went of late (which apparently happens).

I was right there, inches from the point of impact, and I was uninjured—probably a bit out of alignment, but no blood, no broken bones.

The young man who ran the stop sign was extremely apologetic. At a point, we just really didn't know what to say to him other than, "Let's be grateful that we're all okay," and "Make sure to learn from this." He was clearly a good kid who made a few bad choices. And he probably won't be getting a license for some time.

This event has given me a chance to think a bit about attachment. As I was driving home yesterday after picking up a rental, I thought about what part this van has played in our lives. I bought it in 2004, primarily to use for food-bank runs, but also because I had hoped that I might be able to haul around my children in it. Well, I was able to drive my daughter Kellina, but the other children that I hoped would arrive did not. We would have to wait for grandchildren, and we made numerous trips with them to and from Nevada and around the state, We made a number of long road trips, and I have to tell you, it was the most comfortable cross-country vehicle I've ever owned. After a recent trip up to McCall in our Toyota Highlander, I swore that we'd be using the van for any future trips.

As I was driving home in the rental car, I thought about the van as a blessing that was wholly undeserved. For ten years, we have had this vehicle for our trips to diaconal formation weekends, to retreats, to a very long trip for a martial arts test, for visits to grandchildren, and for a few getaways. The van was a gift. And while it is an attachment for me, it is one of those good attachments—one that reminds me of the fact that I am not in control and that I am utterly dependent on God for everything that comes my way.

I don't think it will drive again, but if it does, I will remember that it is a gift, and I'm grateful for God's lesson that even something as simple as a drive home can have repercussions.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Faith and Works—Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Isaiah 50:5–9a; James 2:14–18; Mark 8:27–35
            Our epistle reading comes from James and is one of the well known statements in scripture on faith and works. Sacred Tradition attributes this letter to the apostle James the Less, son of Alpheus (also known as Cleopas) and his wife, Mary, who was called the sister of the Blessed Mother Mary. It seems unlikely to me that a family would have two daughters named Mary. I think it's more likely Mary of Cleopas was the sister-in-law rather than a sister. Aramaic was not very specific in these distinctions.
            That relationship is why James the Less is called the brother of the Lord. Aramaic didn't have words for cousin or uncle either, and this lack of distinction very likely carried over into the Greek text when the early Christians transmitted these traditions. So this epistle is attributed to James the Less, the brother of the Lord. Sacred Tradition also identifies him as the first bishop of Jerusalem, and the Acts of the Apostles suggests the same.
            Martin Luther didn't care for this letter and called it the "epistle of straw" and "unworthy of an apostle." He particularly didn't care for this letter because it explicitly links faith and works to each other. Luther wanted to say that works were of no use, and that faith alone is what saves. But this entire letter talks about the necessity of joining our faith to our actions—that faith with no movement toward justice is not true faith. Faith, if it does not result in works, is dead. Our action is what demonstrates whether the faith we proclaim is the faith we truly hold.
            James is saying, "Walk the walk. Don't just talk the talk." We have to do both together. Catholics are not either/or people but both/and people. We must both have faith and demonstrate it with works. I have to admit that I fail at this on many occasions. Fortunately, I am in good company.
            In the gospel reading from Mark, Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" The Gospel of Mark is frequently understood to be the first-hand experience of St. Peter essentially dictated to John Mark, a disciple and follower of Peter. Mark is also mentioned in the book of Acts as the son of yet another Mary.
            That name Mary was number one in the Top 10 list of Jewish baby girl names in year 2 AD.
            Anyway, what is unique about Mark, and what differentiates his presentation from the same accounts in Matthew and Luke, is just how harsh Jesus is with the twelve apostles, and the unflattering light in which Mark portrays them. In this passage, Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am," and Peter responds correctly, "You are the Christ." But moments later, when Jesus explains what His anointing really means, Peter tries to correct Him, and Jesus comes down hard.
            "Get behind me, Satan!"
            That's not much of an endorsement, and it's nothing like how Matthew presents the same account. Peter says, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." And Jesus says, "Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah.... And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it."
            Well, that's St. Peter, God bless him. He sometimes reminds me a bit of Joe Biden, but more often he reminds me of myself.
            Why does Matthew have the whole "gates of the kingdom" business and why does Mark's account leave that statement out? Why would an account from the perspective of the first of the apostles, Peter, only portray that same apostle in such a negative light?
            I suggest that this difference subsides in St. Peter's desire to walk the walk first and foremostthat he had no interest in being the first of the Twelve. He wanted to live his faith visibly and be an example. If you recall, this Peter when first confronted by Christ in Luke 5:8, says, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man." In 1 Peter 5, he refers to himself as an elder among elders. Peter is clearly the leader of the Twelve, but anywhere in scripture that his story is told, he is presented as a bumbler and a sinner. And I think that was by choice. He recognized his need for redemption, and he responded by making himself less, by trying to divert attention from his role as the first of the twelve and by letting his actions be the measure and example of his faith.
            Now, I can say unequivocally that that is not my tendency. Heck, I used to be a nightclub musician and spent a good portion of my young adult life on stage saying, "Look at me!" I have to make a concerted effort to make myself less.
            But of course, seeking all that attention does no good whatsoever, if the whole point is my personal glorification. If I act simply to draw attention to myself, I'm just a clashing symbol or a noisy gong, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians. Why do I act at all? Why do I attempt any good? Is because of my faith? Is it because I believe what I profess? This point cuts both ways. Our faith must be borne out in action, and our actions must... must reflect our faith. There is not either/or for us in this case as Catholics. Our faith and our action must be one, or neither is sufficient.
            Christ wants our hearts, heads, and bodies. We have to give ourselves completely to Him. After all, that's what He did for us up there and what He does for us weekly right there.
            St. James doesn't give us a whole lot of wiggle room, nor does our Savior. He's the one who says in this gospel, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." Well, what else does that mean? Does it mean that we simply say, "WORD, Jesus! You the MAN!" and be done?
            Or does it mean something else?
            It means something else. It means that we not just say but do. It means that we put our faith and lives, if needed, on the line—whether that means feeding the poor and serving the homeless when it is not permitted, or when it means opposing unjust laws forced on us by our government and Supreme Court.
            And believe me... it means both.
            The time for sitting on the fence is fast drawing to the close, so we need to climb down to one side or the other. We need to make a choice—whether we will be authentic witnesses of Christ, or whether we will simply offer Christian sounding platitudes.

            We need to live our faith in word and deed. Our families need it. Our nation needs it. Our world needs it.

Monday, September 07, 2015

What punishments of God are not gifts? Monday 23 Week in Ordinary Time—Cycle I

            This reading from Colossians is a bit perplexing, especially to those who do not perhaps understand Paul as the Church does. I can't imagine how our Protestant brethren make sense of these words in verse 24: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church[.]" On the surface, it sounds as if St. Paul is suggesting something incomplete in the suffering of Christ and his work of redemption. But of course, that's not what Paul is saying here. It would be heresy if that's what he meant. What he did mean, though, was that we, in our suffering, which is a share of Christ's suffering, participate in the redemption of the body of Christ—of all our brothers and sisters in Christ. By taking up our cross and suffering with Christ, we take part in His sanctifying work.
            One of the things I love most about our faith is that it makes sense out of human suffering. As Catholics, we believe that all things serve some purpose, even if we don't know what it is. If that's the case, then our suffering serves a purpose, and we can offer it for someone else's benefit. Our suffering also shapes us into the people we are. I read an excellent story online in GQ of all places. It was an interview with Stephen Colbert, the comedian, who just took over the Late Show. Colbert is Catholic and was known on the Colbert Report to occasionally school people on Catholic theology, sometimes in less than reverent fashion. But his faith is no show.
            He lost his father and two of his brothers when he was ten, and he speaks of it now in the most amazing terms. He said in that interview, "I love the thing that I most wish had not happened." He quoted J.R.R Tolkein's response to his friend about his own suffering, "What punishments of God are not gifts?’"
            What punishments of God are not gifts?
If our very existence is a gift, if the people we love in our lives our gifts, then what we suffer in loss must also in some mysterious way be a gift.

            Sometimes you'll hear atheists or agnostics complain about suffering.  They say, "How could a loving God allow people to suffer with cancer? How could He allow all of the suffering around us?" The gospel gives us the answer. Jesus stands up in front of the Pharisees and heals a man with a withered hand. Now how exactly does this answer the question? Well, this man's suffering was an opportunity to see God's goodness and mercy in action. If the man had been whole, he would not have experienced God's mercy, nor would anyone have witnessed. The Pharisees are like those new atheists. They can't see the mercy of God at work in front of them. Yet it happens all the time. People come to the aid of immigrants fleeing persecution. People step out of their comfort zone and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick. We see these acts of graciousness and mercy around us all the time. Where would we be without those who suffer? How could we act in mercy toward them if they were not in our midst? How would we experience God's mercy if we ourselves never suffered and needed the aid of others?

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Ephphatha! 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

I got a text message this morning asking for me to prepare a  homily for today, since our rector was very much under the weather (looks like flu). Anyway, I slapped this together and ran it through Google Translate* so I could preach at our Mass in Spanish. Turned out that I did not preach at our evening Mass. Anyway, here's the English version that did not get a hearing today.
            I didn't expect to preach today, so I hope that the Holy Spirit will loosen my tongue so that I will say something worthwhile for you, however brief it may be.
            Ephphatha! Be opened. Jesus is in the Decapolis, in an area we would call Syria these days. Jesus is speaking here with Gentiles, not the Jews of his native Galilee. This is an important detail, particularly in light of the first reading from Isaiah. Had Jesus been in Galilee among the Jews, perhaps the first connection they would have made with these signs are the word of Isaiah. Perhaps they would have recognized Jesus as their long-awaited messiah. But would it have been enough for them? They would see the signs, yes, but would they understand that Jesus did not come to deliver them politically or culturally as they expected?
            The passage is puzzling as well because Jesus tells the people not to tell anyone what happened. Why would He do this? Why tell them not to spread the word? Perhaps it was for the same reason that He didn't want the Jews to know yet that He was the long-awaited Messiah. He knew that they would bring their own expectations to this understanding. They would mistake Him for a political savior, an earthly king. But that is not what Jesus was about. He came for much more. And for them to come to the proper understanding, they needed to hear what Jesus came to say. They needed to hear the gospel first. In a way, the miracles get in the way of His primary mission because the people focus on them instead of His message. But Jesus was also merciful, and His miracles were really a sign of that mercy, not just a proof of His Divine power.
            Our baptismal rite includes a reference to this passage—a sacramental that we call the Ephphetha. We touch the ears and lips of the children being baptized with our thumb and say, "The Lord made the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father." Like baptism, all of our sacraments are very physical. They all involve matter of some kind—water for baptism, oils for confirmation and anointing of the sick. This passage here is about as physical and earthy as it gets. Jesus spits on His fingers and touches the tongue of the deaf-mute man. In another passage from the gospel, he spits and makes mud to smear on a blind man's eyes. Jesus demonstrates in the institution of our sacraments that we need these physical signs, that we come to understand His goodness through our experience. And that is how we ultimately come to understand, to hear the gospel—not just with our ears but with our hearts. We have to be prepared to hear it, to have ears opened. But having the capacity to hear is not the same as truly listening. And that's why Jesus tells the Gentiles of the Decapolis not to talk about the miracle. He wants them to listen first, to come to understand the gospel.
            We have an adage that God gave us to ears to hear and one mouth to speak, and that we should do both in that proportion—that is, to listen more than we speak. In my own experience of my faith, I can say that I have sometimes failed to follow that advice. But we have a mission. Jesus gave us a mission to take His words and proclaim them to the world in our words and our deeds. How can we know what to proclaim if we do not listen to Him? How can we speak the words of truth if we have not heard them? How can we give what we don't have?

            Christ is present to us at Mass in numerous ways. First and foremost, He is present in a mysterious way in the Eucharist we will celebrate, but He is also present in His word. We are strengthened as we receive communion today so that we can better proclaim the truth to the world. So hear the Word of God, be strengthened, then let your mouth be opened to tell the world how God has done all things well for you.