Our regular morality posts will resume July 25.
As many of you know from abbreviated posts over the past few days my wife and I are not at home. We attended the wedding on Saturday of my wife's nephew up in Portsmouth, NH. And since my niece is also marrying in a few weeks up north, we decided to take a jaunt into Canada to visit the Maritimes and French Quebec.
There used to be a TV commercial for American Express cards, don't leave home without it. We have our plastic with us, but what we don't have are our passports. We were pretty far along on I-95 in Maine when we discovered this, and I decided we might do well to seek lodging in Bangor, ME, where a 24-hour express delivery might more easily find us.
Our guardian angel back home in Florida went to the trouble of getting past our security and our filing system at home, obtaining the right document, and then rushing to the express office. It appears that the precious cargo will be here before 10 AM tomorrow morning and then we will be off to Nova Scotia. I am happy to note that our guardian angel is a faithful member/reader of the Cafe, proving either (1) reading the daily posts will make you saintly, or (2) only virtuous people are readers. Wouldn't we all agree that the second option is much more likely?
So what do you do with unexpected time in Bangor? When in doubt, go to Mass. Margaret and I attended the 5:30 Mass at St. Teresa's Church in Brewer, ME, last night. St. Teresa's is one of five churches networked into one parish under the title of St. Paul. I picked up a bulletin and read that the pastor, Father Timothy Nadeau, has been reassigned, apparently as a pastor, in Lewiston, ME. (For boxing fans, Lewiston is the site of the second Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight of "phantom punch" fame in 1964, I think it was.)
I have experienced this before; last summer while on Valencia Island in Ireland, it was announced that the two Catholic Churches on the island were closing in two months. And even in Portsmouth this past weekend, the pastor who performed the wedding told us he had just come out of retirement to assume pastorates of two parishes concurrently.
Closer to my own heart, I had a chance to visit Rye Beach, New Hampshire, just south of Portsmouth, on Saturday before the wedding. Years ago the Franciscan friars of my province owned a majestic retreat house about a half block from the ocean. I gave retreats to Catholic sisters there in the summers of the 1970's, and they were among my happiest memories of my youthful ministry. You certainly couldn't argue with the environment; in the still of the evening you could hear the waves crash.
The schedule wasn't bad, either. A conference in the morning, afternoons for the beach, Mass at 5, an evening conference, then recreation, maybe even a bonfire at the beach. I remember, too, the sunrise services by the water that the young sisters enjoyed so much (though the retreat master less so.)
My last retreat there was 1978, just before I moved to Florida. The facility needed costly repairs, there were fewer Friars to staff the facility, and fewer sisters to enjoy the restorative sea air and the congeniality of the friar community. I knew that my order had divested itself of the property, but I returned Saturday with the hope that I might still see the building. I had some trouble getting oriented to the precise spot, but it appears that a very high end home was now sitting on the site. I learned later from the mother of the bride that FIVE such houses were built on the old retreat campus.
The world is changing, the Church is changing, and a lot of me yearns for the old days when you could cross into Canada with a driver's license and a wave.
It seems like a long time since our last meeting around the camp fire to discuss morality, and I had to go back a few posts to get my drift again. (That was the Monday post of May 30; does that seem a long time ago.) At that juncture we discussed Pope Innocent III’s decree in the early thirteenth century regarding the “Easter Duty” obligation of confessing one’s sins between the beginning of Lent and Trinity Sunday. This was a universal obligation and a new concept. For it seems that despite everything we have discussed previously, notably the Irish monastic innovation of private confession and the books of sins, the Irish Penitentials, the Sacrament of Penance was not a common experience in the parochial experience of the Church. Innocent’s mandate thus swelled the numbers of penitents in local churches, and stimulated the science of morality into the major league of Catholic theology.
Of course, the Church was twelve centuries old when Innocent laid down his requirement. Penance, in various forms, was celebrated from the earliest Apostolic times. Why, in the 1200’s, would a sudden urgency about penance take hold in the general Catholic faithful. There are several possibilities. In no particular order, I would begin with the Crusades. When Pope Urban II in 1095 invoked the First Crusade, a chronicler of the time quotes the pope as providing this incentive: “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.” In short, Urban was stating that anyone who died on this Crusade was assured an instant place in heaven—his sins and their residual punishments would be dissolved.
If forgiveness of sins and eternal life were the destiny of the Crusader-martyr, those who did not go on Crusade—a vast majority of Catholics—were left to wonder about their own destinies with more urgency. Thus, the appeal of a sacrament whose primary purpose was the absolution of sin and the avoidance of potential hell fire would take up a new urgency.
A second consideration is the simple fact that the thirteenth century was a golden age of theology, and minds like Thomas Aquinas were fine-tuning such concepts as the form of the sacrament itself, the nature of sin (as in mortal and venial), grace, and a particularly thorny issue: the reparation or “penance” (as we would say today) that is due as a follow-up to the penitential sacrament. Aquinas and his peers understood that a good intention, or true contrition, was necessary for the optimum celebration of the sacrament, but they were realists enough to understand—as Augustine had years earlier after his baptism—that the inclination to sin does not automatically disappear with valid absolution. Medieval writing from this period understood the sacramental penitential event as both an opportunity/obligation to make reparation for past sin and as a kind of school of virtue.
The thirteenth century situation was different from the third century, where the penance was performed first, and then the bishop absolved the sinner and welcomed him back to the Eucharistic table. The Irish had reversed the process; the penance, which could be quite severe, was assigned by the confessor after the absolution. Medieval theologians were thus faced with an interesting and rather urgent question—what happened if the penance was not completed, or completed poorly, or without a true repentance? What precisely was the status of the penitent’s redemptive situation?
Gradually a consensus was reached that nearly all believers, though genuinely absolved, accumulated a residue of unfinished business in terms of reparation of sin that tainted, to varying degrees, their spiritual status. The Church turned particularly to the Gospel of Matthew (5:8) where Jesus states that only the pure in spirit would see God. The assumption developed that aside from Mary and the heroic saints, all Christians who died were imperfect—in very personal ways and degrees—and that a period of purification or “purgation” was necessary according to the quality of one’s life. Hence the development of Purgatory, a place or state of purification. Medieval Christians tended to think of Purgatory as a fiery, tormented place of purification, and it was dreaded only modestly less intensely than hell itself.
The Christian in later medieval times would have sought out the Sacrament of Penance as a juridical assurance of avoidance of hell (“imperfect contrition”) but he was still faced with his purgatorial dilemma. And so developed the concept and practice of the indulgence, from a custom in the early Church where a bishop might mitigate a sinner’s penance by his Apostolic authority in the pre-absolution phase of the sinner’s repentance. By the eleventh century, though, French bishops—again appealing to their Apostolic power—would accept financial offerings for churches and monasteries in return for mitigation or full remission of the punishments of purgatory. Pope Urban, of course, made the promise of a plenary or full remission of post mortem punishment an enticement to attract soldiers for the First Crusade. As the medieval era progressed, an indulgence could be gained not merely for one’s self, but for one’s loved ones as well. Churchmen were quick to point out that the exchange of money was not a purchase of salvation, but a prerequisite to receive from the Church’s “treasury of acquired merits.”
As the Middle Ages drew to an end, this explanation appeared to more and more thoughtful Christians as, well, “a fine medieval distinction” in the pejorative sense. One such offended Christian was the monk Martin Luther.
For the next four weeks I will be on summer schedule, and I will pick up our historical/theological narrative of morality in late July. However, I will post as possible each day, so check in as your summer schedule permits.
It is a little difficult to get back into routine with our normal Monday posts on morality, after the Sunday morning shooting. I still need to digest the meaning and the scope of what happened, as do most of us who live here in the Orlando ambit. At this moment my wife and I are planning to attend this evening a memorial at our Cathedral of St. James in downtown, just a good walk from the scene of the early Sunday morning tragedy.
The moral considerations evolving from Sunday are immense and complicated, and you no doubt have heard much analysis already from any number of sources. The best I have seen so far comes from Frank Bruni of the New York Times, “The Scope of the Orlando Carnage.” I have great respect for those who, under pressure of time and trauma, can still produce thoughtful reflection. That is not my greatest gift, unfortunately, so I am grateful to folks like Frank.
I go to the memorial tonight with some apprehension, and not just because parking at our cathedral is a nightmare. The term “soft target” is running through my head, and the Orlando Police have discouraged memorials because the force is worn out and overextended. That said, it seems like the decent thing to do, for many reasons.
Vigils for the Dead are not exactly sacraments, but for all practical purposes they can be the same thing. Sacraments are moments of intense communion with God in powerful communal human experience. I think it is safe to say that such divine encounters will happen, uniquely in the hearts of all who attend, including my own. So, I will be back here tomorrow to share with you the dynamic of grief and restoration in my own diocese.
The service is being streamed at 7 PM tonight (EDT) through this link.