With little fanfare the Easter Season ended formally last night with Vespers from the Liturgy of the Hours. We resume the observance of Ordinary Time and will continue the proclamation of St. Mark’s Gospel, with the exception of next weekend, Trinity Sunday, when the Gospel of John (3: 16-18) is proclaimed; and several weeks during the summer when John 6 is read in its entirety, Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist. We are today in the eighth week of Ordinary time.
In one of those quirky coincidences, the Church celebrates today three different saints at the same time. Venerable Bede was probably the greatest scholar of the Dark Ages and was named a Doctor of the Church. Gregory is also known by his monastic name, Hildebrand, and is noted for Church reform and strengthening the papacy. Mary Magdalene De Pazzi was a post-Reformation mystic of some note.
Yesterday the National Catholic Register carried a story from Denver, where Archbishop Aquila announced that his diocese will return to the ancient practice of celebrating Confirmation and Eucharist in the third grade. This is the largest diocese to do this in the United States. We will talk more about this shortly, but I am including the link for your information.
Last night I made a few changes to the layout of the website. There is a new site to help Catholics who wish to progress with their own reading of Catholic life and theology. The internet links to the books are not yet patched in, but I will do that shortly. Also, what is posted there took several years of research, so consider it a work in progress. But I do consider it a critical part of the Café menu.
Tomorrow I have a meeting downtown with my “handlers” so it may be impossible to post. Most likely our next full post will be Wednesday.
I’m off the blocks a little late this AM due to my regular visit to my dentist for thorough cleaning and the full run of X-rays. I am happy to say that the pictures showed no “inner rot” and my only dental issue now is waiting another hour before the fluoride sets and I can drink coffee again. Speaking of coffee, I feel like I should pay double to my hygienist who has to regularly remove all this percolated residue.
You have no doubt heard stories about folks who stayed away from confession for a quarter century or more. Well, my story is one of avoiding dental care for 26 years, give or take a decade. One night at a charity event my wife introduced me to a student parent who happened to be a dentist—a gentle, petite practitioner who owns a very successful practice on our side of town. So I swallowed hard and picked up the phone for an appointment. It took about a year with extractions and partials and caps and the like, but she got me back to normal and has kept me there for seven years. Today I spend more time during my visits with her associate but back in the “construction phase” a deep and abiding trust bond developed between us.
As a therapist I have had people tell me they waited months or years and were terrified to talk to me.(Sadly, one such prospective client called just recently and I had to break the news that my practice is closed.) In my psychotherapeutic profession, treatment tends to be more intermittent or one-time, compared to primary physicians and dentists who administer regular health care. (Therapists, alas, cannot bill insurance companies for routine check-ups as a rule.) But I did have many patients who would return every few years for refocusing or changes in their life circumstances or flare-ups of old griefs or mood disorders, and the bonds of safety and trust become well developed.
Ideally this is the kind of relationship we hope to arrive at in the Sacrament of Penance. Within the boundaries of the Confessional a penitent is free to discuss the moral breakdowns in one’s life, the circumstances of those sins, and ongoing consequences and the need for reparation, when possible, to those who have been injured. In truth, the “Seal of Confession” is more absolute than the confidentiality of mental health practitioners, who must act to protect minors, the elderly, and others in imminent physical harm, as well as a patient with the intent and means of imminent suicide. It has long been a practice that the Catholic confessional is sacrosanct.
When I would preach on the need for individual confession, in fact, this was one of my strongest arguments. The walls of the confessional are inviolate. A penitent need not fear confessing anything. I would joke—although it was in fact true—that I had “heard everything before” and was immune to shock from anything that anyone would tell me. I had on a number of Christmas and Easter seasons heard confessions in the downtown confessional “service churches” of major cities in the northeast, and it was not unusual to hear the confessions of “Tony Soprano” or “Pauli Walnuts” or “Christopher Moltisani” or “Johnny Sacks.” (These are fictional names from the HBO series “The Sopranos;” I feel a pressing need to emphasize that, lest you were getting nervous.) If you watched the show, you can imagine what I am talking about in terms of confessional matter. Appropriate penances presented something of a challenge to this green confessor.
But the longer I was a pastor, I began to realize that the problem was not so much confidentiality fears as what mental health professionals call “a dual relationship.” In short, I was the pastor and I was the confessor. I believe that this creates problems in the confessional process. In the 1980’s to be sure, and in parishes like my own today, the ideal pastor was one who became as close and accessible to his people as possible. In my first pastorate I had 250 families and it was pretty easy to get to know them well and to visit them in their homes. I played on our parish softball team (poorly, I confess); Bishop Grady, of happy memory, told us pastors to always try to attend wedding receptions. And of course over the years I acquired an outstanding staff of lay professionals and priests who would frequently have supper together at the parish house.
When a pastor is close to his people in such frequent and familial or supervisory settings, is there an unintended but real (and very natural) reluctance on the part of the parish family to seek a kind of healing intimacy from the pastor that is even more intense in some ways than the psychiatrist’s couch. (My assumption, of course, is that the Sacrament of Penance is celebrated with enough intensity and candor to do some good.) Mental health professionals are drilled in the inherent dangers of dual relationships—not just the sexual ones, which is what most people immediately think—but many others, such as doing business with patients, socializing outside the office, having patients as students in college or other learning environments. A therapist who hires a patient as, say, a receptionist needs to have his head examined. What happens in job evaluations and salary negotiations?
With fewer priests and more one priest parishes, this kind of stress may become more acute, or it may lead to a superficial communication in the confessional that simply meets the bare minimum of liturgical requirement for absolution. One thing I attempted as a pastor was to make other priests available to my parishioners for confession and let them know in advance. I would say, though, that those of you who work closely with your priests may wish to address your confessional situation in your own way. Perhaps you may want to cultivate the custom of having a regular confessor in a neighboring parish, school, or monastery or religious community. In the best of all worlds, it may give you distance to examine your conscience regarding your own ministerial qualities and provide the freedom to confess what might be very hard to say to your boss.
The year 2001 was a very difficult one for my wife and I, as our beloved Danny was killed by a drunk driver late in March of that year. I hope that none of you have experienced something like this, but if you have, you know that you are not quite yourself in the weeks and months after the event. Speaking for myself, I quit a job I had held for five enjoyable years to jump into a corporate Medicaid quagmire that I loathed after three months. I remember a lot from that year—and some I have mercifully forgotten—but one of the lighter moments of 2001 was "losing the Ascension."
Our families and friends were extremely helpful to us, and to get us out of town for a break we received an invitation from two gifted priest friends—both outstanding in their respective fields—to come up to Boston for an extended weekend. Liturgically the trip took place during the Sixth Week of the Easter Season (which is our current week in 2015) and we flew from Orlando on Thursday. In Florida the Feast of the Ascension is transferred to the Seventh Sunday of the Easter Season. We arrived in Bean Town in midday and took a long guided walking tour led by one of our friends. The trip must have done me some good, because I can remember visiting Cambridge for the first time and asking to see the (mythical) law offices of Dewey, Cheethan, and Howe, the fictional in-house counsel for Click and Clack on Car Talk.
We got to Saturday night and joined one of the priests for a Saturday night parish Mass out in the coastal suburbs where he assisted when his university duties permitted. We were expecting the Mass of the Ascension, only to discover that Boston celebrated the Ascension on Thursday, or the day we had left Orlando. Even in our exhaustion and distracted state, finding ourselves in this sort of “obligational limbo” and particularly with two men of noted theological erudition, did not pass without some tongue-in-cheek analysis of our moral status. I believe it came down to whether we were guilty of culpable ignorance or worthy of the “travelers’ dispensation,” an old law which dispensed the Mass obligation if a traveler had covered 200 miles in a day. (Clearly this old provision of pastoral law was written long prior to commercial jet travel and I wouldn’t recommend going too far out on that limb today unless you know some Canon lawyers named Fathers Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe.)
Not to lose our train of thought, but there actually is a website devoted to the Ascension problem. I cannot vouch for the authenticity but certainly for the humor.
The Ascension "dilemma" brought some distracting humor into 2001 but for catechists and church ministers the variant practices around the country—date of the Ascension, appropriate age for Confirmation, initiation sequence, altar girls, communion under both species—create not simply confusion and at times annoyance, but probably more seriously, having to confront a casual attitude about Church policy and a breakdown of unity, which ought to begin from the ground up. At times these variants actually hold the Church to ridicule. One of the last Catholic dioceses in the U.S. to hold out against allowing Saturday Vigil Masses was Philadelphia under Cardinal Krol. According to the best-known Vatican blogger Rocco Palma’s Whispers in the Loggia, Catholics in Philadelphia crossed the bridges in such large numbers to the Camden NJ Diocese for Saturday night Mass that massive traffic jams developed just as during the work week. Philadelphia also became famous at that time for a spate of 12:01 AM Sunday Masses in various parishes.
The actual celebration of the Feast of the Ascension is not bound to a hard and fast doctrinal principle other than falling between Easter and Pentecost. Traditionally the Church celebrated the feast forty days after Easter, but this dating is based on only one Evangelist, St. Luke, and the term “forty days” is used metaphorically. By contrast, St. John dates Easter, Ascension and Pentecost as occurring on the same day, Easter.
The more pressing issue here is not doctrinal but pastoral. It is a six-hour plane ride (or two decent movies and a meal) between the furthest reaches of the lower 48 states (Seattle to Florida). Anyone with internet access can read the home page of every diocese, and nearly every parish, in the country. Americans immigrate and relocate to the point that mobility is genetically encoded in our culture. And yet as Catholics we live and make policy as if our communities were isolated Viking settlements along the coast of Greenland (which regrettably all died out.) The key point is that unity gives witness. My own opinion at this stage of my life is that many of our pastoral differences involve inflexibility or a need to assert independence on the part of many church leaders at all levels, including catechists. It is a harsh judgment, but we do profess to be “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”
Catholic piety has traditionally extended special devotion to Mary during the month of May. In my Catholic school each classroom had a “May altar,” a miniature pedestal or support with a statue of the Virgin Mary, candles, and vases of flowers brought to school by the students. As a little boy, you knew you were progressing into manhood on the day you no longer wished to walk the streets to your school carrying a rich brilliant bouquet of Buffalo lilacs. Perhaps not surprisingly I can’t remember May altars past the third grade.
I wondered where the May Marian custom began, and I turned to the theology department of the University of Dayton, which is a noted center of Marian Study in the United States. Interestingly the devotion began as “May Devotion,” a time of prayer and petition for crops and livestock. A few weeks ago I mentioned the practice of a Litany of the Saints/Procession on the Feast of St. Mark (April 25) and the three days preceding Ascension Thursday (Rogation Days) which usually fall in May. May was an intense month of prayer, but not specifically focused upon Mary, the Mother of God.
Dayton’s website cannot pinpoint an exact time when May Devotion became Mary Devotion during the fifth month of the year. The eighteenth century seems to be the first historical observance of popular but private devotion to Mary in May. The only mention of Mary in the Tridentine Roman calendar of that era during May was a calendar feast on May 31, “Our Lady, Virgin and Queen. (This was changed to the Feast of the Visitation in 1970.) Curiously, prior to 1970 there were 17 calendar feasts of Mary alongside the major Marian holy days such as the Immaculate Conception, September, not May, had the most, with three.
Between 1800 and Vatican II (1962-65) the Vatican appears to have placed guidance over public services of May devotion in the hands of the local bishops, and many locations had public services of devotion to Mary in May. One very popular devotion—still in use today in many parishes and schools--is “the May Crowning,” in which young children in particular engage in this honorific ritual. A large collection of Marian prayer books, litanies and devotionals were promoted after 1800. The primary devotion to Mary, of course, was the rosary. (Given the large number of autos today with rosaries hung from the rear view mirror, perhaps we should invoke Mary’s help in the reduction of road rage.) The rosary dates to medieval times and in an age before printing was often referred to as “the poor man’s bible” with its reflection on (mostly) Scriptural events.
It is important to note the times in which May devotion to Mary most flourished. I believe that the Protestant Reformation had some influence: Protestant thinking, even to the present day, tends to downplay the Catholic emphasis on Mary, on the grounds that this distracts from attention to Jesus. Along these lines, Protestants also contend that Marian doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption have no basis in Scripture. It would not be surprising to see a Catholic counterstrike in a greater devotion to Mary, perceived as under attack by dissidents.
When Vatican II opened in 1962, there was strong belief among some participants that an entire document would be devoted to Mary and her role in salvation. There were petitions that another Marian doctrine be declared: “Mary: Mediatrix of all Graces.” (In fact, EWTN continues to petition for such a pronouncement to this day.) But the vast majority of Church fathers proceeded with caution and devoted Chapter VIII of the document The Church to Mary’s special status. Their decision resonates well with the Gospel accounts of Mary, particularly those of St. Luke and St. John in keeping Mary within the Church as its primary disciple and first believer.
Vatican II also stole some of the thunder (unintentionally) from May devotion by its insistence that the celebration of the Easter Season in the Church calendar take precedence over any other public devotions. A Catholic News Service story of September 7, 2012, provides excellent background on this and other difficulties. May runs concurrently with the Easter Season, which has preeminence in the Church calendar. Pastorally speaking, the same Church guidelines apply to Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. On the other hand, Sacraments of Initiation into the life of the Risen Christ are strongly encouraged during the Easter Season.
Catechesis and Faith Formation regarding the Virgin Mary are best presented in the fashion we teach all critical matters of belief—biblically. I am pleased to see the development of study programs such as “Mary in the Bible.” Private devotions such as the Rosary are very worthy of handing on at any age. The only caveat is a caution against any cult or devotional group claiming to get new messages from Mary. These crop up from time to time. It is a formal doctrine of the Church that Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. Were Mary walking among us today, I have no doubt that her best advice for all of us would be her famous quote from the Wedding at Cana, “Do Whatever He Tells You.”
And if I may add a personal note: when my father died in 2002 I was not able to get home till the night of his first viewing. When I looked upon him, in his best Sunday suit, I could not help but notice that he held a much-worn, beaten, plastic rosary on string. My initial reaction was surprise and regret—if I could have gotten home sooner, I would have purchased the best rosary money could buy. Thank God I kept my thoughts to myself. The worn rosary was the one my father had carried with him for four years of hell in the North African and European theaters of World War II. He prayed the rosary many times a day and this devotion carried him through the hell of martial combat. Where devotion to Mary was concerned, my father was truly “a man for all seasons.”