I was unable to meet the Good Friday publication deadline, but I hope and trust that you were all able to observe the day in a way that brought blessings. I attended Good Friday services today in the church where I began my priestly work in Florida about 40 years ago. It was very much like coming home again.
The Poisons We Pick is a thoughtful essay on the roots of the opioid crisis in the United States. The Church must bring its collective wisdom to the public debate, but as the author correctly observes, few of us understand the sensation of addiction, which is different for each substance, the history of substance abuse, the cultural forces which nurture abuse, and the recent loss of social and religious supports which sustained large segments of the population in our past.
Looking back over the recent history of Friday posts, I see that there haven't been any. As I am taking a little break from posting in general, the next Friday post will be August 18. Or maybe not. Tough day to write, I guess.
The best adjectives to describe this work are basic ones: thoughtful, logical, systematic, detached—the kind of qualities one looks for in a serious study, and particularly in a treatment of Vatican II. The Council (1962-1965) has been acclaimed and derided, quite intensely, in the five decades in the United States. I dislike using the pedestrian term “useful” to describe fine literature, but John W. O’Malley’s 300-page overview of the Council is the kind of work one buys in hardcover, because it will enjoy a long shelf life. It will be the quintessential one-volume history of the Council for catechetics, adult education, the college classroom, and the general adult Catholic readership.
What strikes me about O’Malley in his narration and conclusions is his ability to make sound judgments without lapsing into judgmental excesses. Many commentators have found this balance hard to achieve in their own writings on the Council. The old assessment of Vatican II as progressive European theologians staving off a Machiavellian Roman Curia still lingers, particularly on Catholic blog sites. O’Malley does not run away from “prelates behaving badly,” but he provides an insightful overview of how those passions developed. Chapter 2, “The Long Nineteenth Century,” is an intriguing and balanced account of Church and society in the formation of Vatican II; the author dates this century as extending from the French Revolution (1789) to the eve of Vatican II.
The “nineteenth century” was the coming to full bloom of secular modernity; for the Church, there was no hope of turning back the clock to a time before nationalism, democracy, science, and separation of Church and State, the end, as O’Malley phrases it, of the “old marriage of throne and altar.” (p. 54) Given that the modern era posed physical as well as philosophical threats to geographic Rome--Risorgimento and the end of the papal states, for example--an embattled central church used the tools at its command: a fierce adherence to its past and a resistance to the present. The defensive posture of the Roman Church maintained itself through the election of Pope John XXIII.
O’Malley captures the scope of the Council in terms of size and cost with some wonderment that such an event as Vatican II could have taken place at all. The author does not idolize Pope John; he recognizes that the pope—a keen observer of twentieth century horrors—came to the Throne of Peter with a conviction that the times called for a new conversation between the Church and the world. Pope John could model what he hoped for in his messages and encyclicals, but O’Malley comments on the unwieldly machinery collected for the drafting of documents and floor management. Visionary as he was, John XXIII fielded an old guard administration.
The efforts of the Curia to engineer a brief Council in the mode and format of Vatican I are well known. But O’Malley explains the Curial mind without malice at numerous points in the narrative. If I may jump ahead to a telling episode on the debate over Revelation, “Dei Verbum,” in October 1965 the floor debate virtually ground to a halt over the language on the relationship of Scripture and Tradition. While a strong majority of the Council fathers endorsed a greater role for the Bible in Church life, the Curia lobbied Pope Paul VI to maintain a definition of Tradition as equal to Scripture. For Cardinal Siri, among others, any hint of diminution of Tradition as an equal revelation source would undermine doctrines of the Virgin Mary, notably the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, neither of which enjoyed a strong Biblical foundation. (p. 278)
O’Malley’s narrative incorporates three impulses driving the majority of Council fathers and their theological advisors: Aggiornamento, Ressourcement, and Development of Doctrine. “Aggiornamento” is a term often applied to Pope John’s “throwing open the windows.” In his addresses, John used the term favorably as a need to openness and change in the face of new challenges throughout the world. Aggiornamento was a mood; Ressourcement, on the other hand, was a technical theological term for a contemporary review of the primitive or early practices of the Church. “Perfectae Caritatis,” for example, challenges religious orders to return to the principles of their founders. “Development” too was a theological principle of exploration into existing teachings to consider new applications. A notable example is John Courtney Murray’s contribution to the Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty.”
O’Malley manages to produce a consistent chronology of the floor proceedings despite considerable odds. Among them was uncertainty over just how long the Council would last. That Vatican II extended over four years came as a gradual surprise and point of concern for bishops—and certainly to the Curia, which had hoped for a one-session conclave of several weeks. Once the original plan for the Council was scuttled, its proceedings were managed by Curial moderators in a fashion of haphazardness, an unevenness of clock management, and a maddeningly disjointed daily agenda of serious debate interrupted frequently by calls to vote on schemas or portions of schemas on entirely different subjects. Hardly a Roberts Rules convocation.
As a result, many bishops from the “third world” and the Eastern rite churches received precious little attention to their pressing concerns by Council’s end. Moreover, some documents were written hastily (on “Social Communications,” for example) so that precious time could be allotted to major doctrinal and pastoral concerns. The author speaks positively of the bishops themselves—their openness to Pope John’s vision, their own theological acumen or their selection of competent advisors, and their willingness to tackle controversial questions from the start: the “Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy” was the first document promulgated.
In his final chapter, “Conclusion,” O’Malley does offer a telling assessment of perhaps the biggest error of the bishops, particular Western bishops: “They assumed an easier transition from ideas of the scholars’ study to the social reality of the church than proved to be the case.” (p. 292) Hence the turmoil when the bishops returned home.
John W. O'Malley, What Happened at Vatican II? (2010)
No Friday wisdom from the Brew Master today. But a reader forwarded me a recent editorial from America Magazine, "Religious Education is Broken; It's Time To Fix Our Sunday School Culture." My thanks to the contributor. If you read the link, take some time to check out the written responses from other readers, many of which offer thoughtful follow-up.
My posts this week have been late or non-existent. I have been involved in a week of landscaping projects in which I have drunk more Propel than coffee.
I will be away tomorrow (Saturday) presenting a workshop on sacramental theology for catechists and Catholic school teachers in Orlando; today I will be tied up with preparation, updating the links, bibliography, etc.
However, I do have a link to a new study just completed by CARA, Women and Men Entering Religious Life: The Entrance Class of 2016. This is a fascinating and detailed look at those who entered religious life--religious sisters and brothers--in 2016. I am a bit of a nut on hard data and research as opposed to impressions and opinions, so I find these kinds of study very helpful to the ministry. Among other things, this study gives an indication of the kinds of parish and institutional ministries impact individuals to the point of dedicating their entire lives to prayer, community and ministry. Much of this data on local church life is transferable to all parish, educational, and institutional settings in the Church.
A well-written study animates thought and impacts attitude. If you open the link, don't overlook the "raw" responses of participants, pages 59-117. This kind of window on religious life does not come along very often.
My prayers are with all of you today on this observance of the Passion and Death of the Lord. The solemn commemoration of Good Friday in the Roman Missal can begin anytime from noon throughout the day and into the evening, depending on parish option. The rite includes personal veneration of the cross. Margaret and I will be attending our parish’s 3 PM observance. The collection today is for the churches in the Holy Land, a region of the world that is worthy of our prayers and attention.
The Good Friday Rite is not a Eucharistic celebration. There is no consecration; the Eucharistic bread distributed today was consecrated at last night’s Mass of Holy Thursday. In my youth, the Good Friday service (a morning event until Pius XII’s reforms of 1954) was often called “The Mass of the Presanctified [Hosts],” though no Mass was offered on Good Friday. In my household, and probably many others, the hours between noon and 3 PM were observed in silence, which meant specifically that the black and white TV and transistor radios were silenced.
Today’s Good Friday rite has very ancient roots. The veneration of the cross and “The Greater Intercessions,” [now called The General Intercessions] go back many centuries. These Good Friday Intercessions were the cause of some controversy; as late as the 1950’s the English translation of one intercessory prayer from the rite read thus: “Almighty and everlasting God, who drivest not away from Thy mercy even the perfidious Jews: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people: that acknowledging the light of Thy truth, which is Christ, they may be rescued from their darkness.” Compare this text with the Intercession for the Jews in today’s reformed rite.
When Pope Pius XII reformed the Holy Week rites, he introduced the distribution of the Eucharist to all the faithful on Good Friday. Prior to 1954, only the priest received communion on Good Friday. I discovered this week that in many Catholic rites the faithful “fast” from the Eucharist on Good Friday, as do their priests, in celebrating their specific rituals. I also discovered that the reception of the Eucharist by all the faithful at the Good Friday Roman rite is a major issue for the “neo-trads,” those laboring away to “restore” the Roman rite to some distant baroque utopia in the past.
The point seems to be the appropriateness of receiving communion on the memorial day of Christ’s death. I can understand a kind of piety for which this might be an issue, and as I noted, other rites in communion with Rome do in fact observe a Good Friday Eucharistic fast. Pope Benedict, in an interview some years before his election, suggested “a Eucharistic fast.” However, there are a number of good reasons for receiving the Eucharist, too. Not least of which is the fact that Good Friday is the day when salvation was won for us, and the Eucharistic bread is the sharing of the life won on the cross. John’s Passion narrative seems to make this point, as I will note below.
The Scripture readings for Good Friday are of long precedent for this observance. The first reading is the famous Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah chapters 52 and 53. There are indications in the Gospels that Jesus was very familiar with Isaiah, to the point of identifying his ministry with texts from Isaiah. Logic would suggest that Jesus, a devout Jew, would have drawn from Isaiah the template of a redemptive death. The first reading is probably as close as we will ever come to knowing the prayer springing from the heart of Christ during his Passion.
The second reading comes from the Letter to the Hebrews, one of the most important books of the New Testament that nobody reads. One of its neglected insights is its description of Christ’s death: In the days when Christ was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” The four Gospels do not relate a pattern of “loud cries and tears” to the Father; Hebrews may be the closest to an actual description of Jesus’ emotions during his torments.
John’s Gospel holds a place of eminence in the Triduum, and it is John’s Passion narrative that is proclaimed today. If the Letter to the Hebrews gives us a glimpse of Jesus in his humanity, John’s Gospel portrays the human Jesus in his divinity. In listening to or reading John’s Passion, note that the Jesus portrayed here is fully human and fully divine, a point John stresses throughout his Gospel. In the Good Friday reading Jesus is fully in command of events despite his dire predicament. His intervention with Pilate is a prime example. Unlike the other Gospels, which portray meteorological gloom and darkness, John records that on Good Friday the sun—the sign of divine revelation in John’s writing—is shining high in the sky throughout.
A great many things are rendered in the last moments of Jesus’ life as narrated by John. Jesus sees his mother and the unnamed “disciple whom he loved” at the foot of the cross, and in uniting them in family terms, he has in fact established a family or community of his believers. As he hung upon the cross, Jesus requests wine and drinks it, a sign that the time to drink wine has begun in his Father’s kingdom. Salvation has been won in perfect obedience. Look at this text closely: When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, "It is finished." And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.
In John’s theology, the instant of Christ’s death coincides with the Pentecost event, the giving of his Holy Spirit. John elaborates “…but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out. An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true; he knows that he is speaking the truth,
so that you also may come to believe.” The soldier’s lancing is not recorded anywhere else; the seeming mutilation of a corpse results in a torrent of water and blood that splashed upon his new family still standing at the foot of the cross. Church commentators from earliest times have understood the water and wine as symbols of Baptism and Eucharist, the initiation sacraments into God’s kingdom. In John 2 the evangelist records that the wedding feast miracle of water into wine is the first of Jesus’ signs; his death and outpouring of water and blood is his last.
It is noteworthy, too, that soon two clandestine followers of Jesus come in from the dark of disbelief to bask in sunlight. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus have seen the light. By the sunset of Good Friday, the Church is already growing by the grace won on the cross. There is no reason to refrain from stepping forward to receive the bread of salvation in today’s worship. The invitation has been given from the cross of the Savior.
Have you heard of the "Benedict Option?" America Magazine, the Jesuit weekly, reviews the idea, the book, and the author in an excellent essay on line here. Note the links to other current America pieces available online, too. This is an excellent journal to consider subscribing, available in paper and online. There is a free email service, too, for select articles and essays at the foot of today's essay.
Last week I had the pleasure and opportunity to take a week’s cruise through the western Caribbean. When anyone asked me, I said I was taking time to visit churches, which was true. I had the chance to visit places of worship in Cozumel, Mexico, and Falmouth, Jamaica. There was no church on the privately-owned island in the Bahamas where we picnicked; and my experience of Grand Cayman was limited to the bus tour, though we did stop for refreshments in the village of Hell. Jamaica is predominantly Anglican, or at least the largest and oldest church in Falmouth is Anglican, appropriate in that Jamaica is a commonwealth of Great Britain. There is some humor in that the Catholic Church down the road was built in the shape of a biretta, the old-style hat worn by priests in my youth. This in-your-face architecture can be seen in the parish’s website. Given that walking tours of Falmouth are provided by the country’s park police, I would venture a guess that all the churches there suffer from under-utilization.
We generally do our shore trips in the mornings, and then enjoy the afternoons on ship reading on the balcony or at several comfortable reading sites spread throughout the vessel. Our home ship was Celebrity’s “Silhouette.” We had crossed the Mediterranean and the Atlantic in this same boat in 2013, and it is like home to us. My favorite getaway on the ship is the Hideaway, a little reading/coffee nook on the seventh deck with funky furniture like upholstered eggs that you crawl into. Thanks to the miracle of back-lit IPads, it is easy to lose several hours in a good book with all the solitude of a monastery.
I don’t post on the Café during cruises, partly because I don’t have my resource library close at hand, and partly because, as a rule, we don’t purchase a wireless package, which can be pricey on cruise ships. Plus, the Weebly blog platform works much more effectively from a PC than an IPad. So, without posting duties and cut off from the world, I had an opportunity to engage in considerable reading. I did bring some books for future courses I am teaching, but my primary read for the trip was The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends (Kindle-1989) by Thomas Merton.
Thomas Merton has played a significant role in my life, dating back to my years as a graduate seminary student when I submitted his name as an author for my final oral examinations in moral/spiritual theology. Merton, the Trappist monk and probably America’s best known spiritual writer of the twentieth century, had tragically died of electrocution just a few years before, and the first spate of biographies, reprints, and impressions were flooding the market in the early 1970’s. I can’t say that in my 20’s I was immersed in a life of meditation, but I was deeply impressed and intrigued by anyone who could enter the austerity of a monastery, as were millions of readers who bought his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, in 1949 and ever after. (SSM is a Kindle best seller in 2017!) One of my earliest impressions of him was his opposition to the Viet Nam War from behind the cloister walls, a point that one of my examiners found offensive. I learned then that Merton was and remains a highly controversial figure.
[Talking about cruising and ships passing in the night: Merton and I applied for the very same province of the Franciscan Order, he in 1940 and I in 1962. The province rejected Merton and accepted me. In football, that is known as a bad draft.]
The book at hand, The Road to Joy, is a selection of his letters to friends. There are a number of such volumes of his letters to particular populations. (In 2002 I reviewed his volume of correspondence to writers.) His letters to friends, the second released by his foundation, is a delight, and quite honestly provides a moving insight into the complexities of a man who strove for holiness but never forgot he was an SOB, either.
Before going further, it might be useful to suggest a Merton biography or two if you are unfamiliar with the man. My personal favorite is Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (1984), the first critical biography and probably the first to have access to at least some of the monk’s private journals and letters. I take note of another biography, Living Wisdom: The Life of Thomas Merton by Jim Forest (1991, 2008), that I have ordered to read on Prime this week. The journals/diary—seven volumes—and the published letters in many volumes today—were released gradually over many years as they involved identified living persons, sometimes in unflattering or compromised ways.
In reading on the ship, I was amazed again at the wide range of friends Merton cultivated over his lifetime of 53 years. In the early years of his correspondence—he entered Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky in 1941—his letters were limited to longtime friends he had known at Columbia University, St. Bonaventure University, and in his years living in New York City. With the publication of SSM in 1948 and a growing international reputation, Merton developed new friends who encountered him as a monk, a priest, and a man in pursuit of deeper communion with God. The irony is that when Merton entered the Order in 1941, he was fully prepared to sacrifice any thoughts of a writing career. However, early in his monastic life his superiors encouraged him to take up spiritual writing, and eventually approved the idea of a spiritual autobiography. All the same, Merton was restricted by monastic rules: his letters were censored and limited in number, and he virtually never had visitors until very late in his life. Nor was he permitted to travel outside the monastery until the last few years of his life.
For all of this, the output of books and letters is startling in number and quality. All of the reputable biographers agree that Merton remained faithful to the monastic schedule of public and personal prayer. He understood that to teach (young novice monks), write publicly, and counsel would be fraudulent without a personal communion with God. What makes his letters compelling is his realization that he was something of a paradox: a man living the life of a professed recluse while very much in the public eye. I got the sense that Merton knew himself very well and understood the rewards of fame.
The very first section of letters are those to Merton’s earlier professor of English at Columbia University, the noted American Poet Mark Van Doren. The 1939 letters are playful, but in 1940 Merton writes about “leaving the world” and then his disappointment at being rejected by the friars. He submits a copy of a proposed novel for his mentor’s review and wryly discusses his draft physical. The post-graduate Merton was teaching at St. Bonaventure University in 1941 but he writes “there is still this very big open question about what I am to do.” On December 13 Merton writes a hasty note to Van Doren making a gift of his manuscripts should any prove profitable (some poems were published) as he is entering Gethsemane in Kentucky, his monastic home for the rest of his life.
His next letter to Van Doren does not appear until April, 1942, where Merton bubbles with enthusiasm over his new life and lays out its theological meaning in ways that remind us that there is nothing quite like the zeal of a convert [although he does ask if any of his writings were selling.] In May 1943, he tells his old friend he is getting the itch to write again, and by 1945 his letters to Van Doren speak of his poetry being reviewed by his order’s censors prior to submitting for publication. The letters between the two men decrease over the next decade as Merton’s success as a writer increased his correspondence accordingly.
But on April 9, 1957, Merton writes “I had another occasion to think of you, when news of Charlie’s exploits on TV filtered through.” “Charlie” is Mark’s son, then the reigning champion of television’s “21” game show. However, a public investigation revealed that Charlie had been fed the questions in advance, a scandal powerfully portrayed in Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show, in which actor Paul Scofield plays the role of the tortured father Mark. There is no further mention of this in letters, but the editors insert a note after the April 9 correspondence reporting that Mark and his wife came to Gethsemane to see Merton later that year.
Toward the end of Merton’s life, the mail he received at the monastery was too much to answer, but apparently, every letter was screened by Merton or a fellow monk for correspondence that demanded attention. On January 9, 1967, he received a letter from a tormented homosexual trying to live faithfully in the Church. After initial words of encouragement, Merton wrote: “Homosexuality is not a more “unforgiveable” sin than any other, and the rules are the same. You do the best you can, you honestly try to fight it, be sorry, try to avoid occasions, all the usual things. You may not always succeed but in this as anything else God sees your good will and takes it into account. Trust his mercy and keep trying. And have recourse to all the spiritual aids available.” (Loc 7490)
Merton received countless letters from children and minors asking his help with their reports and term papers. Generally, he sent them a booklet provided to visitors to the monastery, but he developed several pen-pal relationships with young people who kept him abreast of 1960’s rock music, sending him albums and tapes. He became a fan of Bob Dylan’s poetry. He explained to a young girl that he was moving from the monastery to a small hermitage to live a hermit’s existence, but he quickly added that his life as a hermit was not the same as “Herman and his Hermits.”
This past Wednesday I completed teaching a course on adult spirituality for a Catholic school faculty, and I spoke at some length about Merton. Fresh from my sea time with an old friend, I talked about the importance of “getting to know” a saint or a spiritual person as a critical step in developing an adult life of prayer. Merton will never be canonized because his paper trail is too detailed—his struggles between religious idealism and an intellectual’s cynicism/pride is all there to see, and he is no plaster saint. And yet, it is the struggle that has inspired me and apparently many others, that even burdened with our unique shades of original sin the forgiveness of God and the grace to aspire to holiness through daily prayer are always with us, to be rediscovered in times of sin, sickness, crisis and loss. Or vacations. I’m glad I found my friend again in the Hideaway on Deck 7.
WILD CARD or TOM'S OFF DAY
Wild Card Day or Tom's Day Off
The interesting things that come across my desk.