It so happened that on Friday, the day of the funeral in Charleston, I was driving through the state. As we crossed the Savannah River on I-95 and entered the Palmetto State, we passed the American flag flying at half-staff. It was rather stunning to behold. There was no Confederate flag; in all the years I have made this trip, I can't remember ever seeing one at the state line.
We continued on toward Columbia SC in temperatures over 100, and north of the state capital we found that all the public radio stations were covering the pastor's funeral and the President's eulogy. Then as we approached Charlotte the other news stories started coming in succession: the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, terrorist attacks, the shooting of one of the escapees up in northern New York.
Late in the afternoon we arrived for the night in Wytheville, VA, a venerable town in the Shenandoah where about five major interstates share a valley of convenience, so to speak. We arrived in time to catch the 6:30 TV news and see pictures of the day's events for the first time. Between the fatigue of driving and the incredible amount of events to digest, we were happy to crash in an Applebee's for supper. This particular restaurant had just installed those little table computers, and we decided to compete in a silly game until I caught the small print: "...$0.99 will be added to your bill for each game." Be advised. A day full of surprises.
No surprise on Saturday as we pushed on to the Hudson Valley, 590 miles or thereabouts. If you live in the Northeast you know what the driving conditions were like. A hard rain from mid-Virginia to the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson where we encamped at the historic village of Tarrytown. There are two Catholic Churches here, one staffed by a religious order. We are heading over to this latter church for Mass shortly.
Naturally there is a lot to reflect upon from the events of this week. Last night my in-laws asked my reaction to the pope's encyclical on the environment. I had to chuckle and back off, as I have not read the document, and have had no chance to read the Supreme Court ruling, for that matter.
I am looking forward to talking about these weighty matters; for the moment I will be visiting a number of local church communities with an eye for jewels for the ministry.
I must confess that I have not yet read the pope’s encyclical on the environment, in part because of its substantive length, and partly because it is, well, new. I was lucky enough to have had a graduate course in historiography or the discipline of assessing sources. A side effect of this course is my intimate knowledge of everything ever written about the foreign policy of the Grant Administration. Now that comes in handy every now and then. Many years ago I had lunch with General William Westmoreland, the controversial commander of the U.S. military effort in Viet Nam in the 1960’s. As I recall, he was suing a major TV network for libel, I think, and I suspected he didn’t want to talk about that. So I mentioned that I was giving a presentation that night to my seminar on President Grant. The general leaned across the table and said, “Did he really drink as much as they say he did?” Expert that I now am in this field, I was able to say with confidence, “Only when he was bored and when his wife wasn’t around.” (Come to think of it, that’s true of a lot of guys.)
But seriously, I am eternally grateful to one Edmund Kallina, Ph.D., of the faculty of the University of Central Florida. I needed two graduate history courses at midlife to qualify as an adjunct instructor in history in our state university system, and the chairman of the department, noting my advanced age at that time of 42, said to me in effect, “The heck with prerequisites; let’s see if you can survive Kallina.” It was close. I never worked as hard, and I was terrified every minute I sat at the seminar table. I discovered during the course that several of my classmates were practicing attorneys honing their research skills. But that single course saved me days and weeks and months of reading inferior materials and showed me how to assess texts and make use of the leads they provided in getting to the bottom of my pursuits. I should add parenthetically that Dr. Kallina would become the chairman of the department, in my view a much deserved position.
I tend to approach documents and books with a degree of caution. Books cost money, but more importantly, they consume time and energy, which is why critiquing is such an important skill for a professional, and that includes catechists. An accurate and competent text can change a lifetime of outlook on a specific subject, can tease out interests and even passions we didn’t know we had, and make us better ambassadors for the causes we carry.
I learned in my studies under Dr. Kallina that time itself is a factor in assessing sources. For almost a century after President Grant left office in 1877 historians of the day tended to generalize his administration as one corrupt cesspool; I found one young history professor’s very harsh generalizations about Grant written around 1900. Ironically its author, one Woodrow Wilson, would eventually lead another war, the one “to end all wars.” Grant’s foreign policy, it is now generally accepted, had highly successful moments, notably in settling a very explosive problem regarding Britain and war reparations. (Great Britain had materially sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and some American politicians were calling for a seizure of Canada.)
There is a little known theological principle today (at least rarely acknowledged) called “reception,” or reception of the faithful. Given that all Christians receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church has understood (to varying degrees at various times) that any formal instruction or teaching by the Church must be “received” by the faithful. The most famous act of reception in our history is the formation of the New Testament itself; by 200 A.D. the canon or official library of what we call the New Testament was formalized based upon the faith and liturgical practice of two centuries of Christian experience. Reception is a prolonged process; some Christian communities did not received St. John’s Gospel till around 400 A.D. Official Church communications today tend to avoid the term, probably because of its implications for the present day papal authority on such matters as artificial birth control, where “reception” of the Church teaching is at best debatable.
Pope Francis’ Laudato Si has certainly created a stir. Some public figures have either criticized the Pope’s reasoning or denied his right to discuss matters in the secular sphere. Others have welcomed the encyclical with a mood of great joy and have rushed to speculate on its implementation without due diligence. My fear, in both cases, is that we are not doing what faith and science equip us to do, that is, study the document. That includes following the text’s internal logic, examining carefully its Biblical roots and place in the Church’s teaching tradition, looking carefully at its footnotes and sourcing, and making a fair assessment of scientific and economic reasonings brought to bear. Popes have every right to address “secular” matters, but their use of non-theological data is fair game for what universities call “peer review.”
Here is where history is a great teacher. In 1965 the Church received the greatest influx of new pastoral teaching in our lifetimes, certainly, the documents of Vatican II. And yet it cannot be denied that the haste to implement specific measures—often without a full understanding of documentary concepts—led to a state of affairs that bred, among other things, polarity between a variety of interpretations. So adopt a healthy distrust of instant analysis. Give the pope and his teaching the ultimate honor of time, so that there will be nothing superficial or dishonest about your “reception.”
On Friday afternoon when I was writing the entry for the Feast of the Sacred Heart a bolt of lightning apparently played havoc with the inside of my old computer. Fortunately I am still able to withdraw old files and photos, which is what I am in the process of doing right now. Last night I went out with my "shopping list" for a new desktop. These things are never easy. So, I will attempt to post modestly from a mobile device and hope to be back to full service by about mid week. Bear with me as I attempt very limited posting from a mobile device. Have a great weekend.
The Feast of Corpus Christi in my parish was little more than a rumor last night, for this weekend seemed to be, in the words of the immortal Michael Corleone, a time “to settle all family business” before the doldrums of summer set in. So, we had no sermon, the baptism of several babies, a seminarian’s farewell, an altar server’s farewell off to college, and an unfortunate sound system anomaly that cut out every third word. The hymns were all copyrighted after 2000 and none drew from very rich treasury of Eucharistic hymnody dating back to the great Thomas Aquinas himself. It is always a mystery to me how the Church’s greatest theologian also composed possibly its greatest hymn. If you need a good lift today, Aquinas’s Pange Lingua can be found at this sponsored site on YouTube. Ironically, this hymn was written specifically for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which was established in the thirteenth century.
It occurred to be the other day that this past May 20 marked the 59th anniversary of my own First Communion. In all honesty I recall the event with a minimum of “gushiness.” I remember the great preoccupation of all the adults about me that we get this “right.” We rehearsed a number of times, and we shopped till we dropped to find a starched white shirt that fit. It didn’t, really, and I was uncomfortable the whole day. (And it was really uncomfortable a few weeks later for the outdoor Corpus Christ procession.) I actually got scolded at home after the Mass for walking too slowly back to my seat after receiving the Eucharist. I think that, like many of my generation, I developed a touch of cynicism about religious practice and adult agendas that in the long run has inoculated me from excessive heartbreak.
I will say, though, that my second grade teacher, Sister Mary Anne Therese, was the most level headed adult involved in my faith formation at that stage. She taught me about the Eucharist in a very healthy way and avoided the pious outlandishness of some of the texts in use. (Some texts, sadly, were anti-Semitic, featuring fictitious Jewish medieval desecrations of the hosts that reportedly “bled real blood.”) She was also an innocent party to one of the more disillusioning moments of my catechesis. Knowing that we had great curiosity about Jesus’ house, the tabernacle, Sister Mary Anne must have wrangled permission for us to actually look inside a third tabernacle in our church presently not in use. (Yes, we had three tabernacles, and did use two on Sundays.) This was my “Raiders of the Lost Ark” moment of religious instruction; I got on a stool and looked in, half-expecting to see little angels singing Pange Lingua. What I actually saw was once white linen lining that was severely water stained; this tabernacle had not been opened in years.
What saved my First Eucharistic experience was actually the second one. We had Monday off from school, but I got up on my own and went to the earliest Mass on the daily schedule, a Mass attended by a few elderly souls and some blue collar workers, and took my place at the communion rail with no outside pressure. I said my prayers at my own pace, and today I honestly think of that Monday dawn Mass as my first communion. Whatever inspired me to do that is probably the same divine force that has kept me in the Church and receiving the Eucharist when my own humanity and the Church’s makes that hard to do,
One of the most important challenges of religious education and faith formation is creating the mindset where life without the Eucharist is an impossibility. I am struggling here to find the best wording; maybe there isn’t one. Yes, I have imagined life as a member of another Christian assembly. (I have a perfect Lutheran temperament, but no Pentecostal inclination.) But it is extremely hard to imagine a life outside the wondrous liturgical cycle of the celebration of Jesus’ word and feeding that is our Mass. One of the true gifts of my life was the opportunity to live for five years in a Franciscan community of scholars who understood the Scriptures and the Sacraments in such a way that their presiding over the sacred rites was truly life-giving.
One of the major crosses of anyone who studies theology—and this certainly includes catechists, school teachers, church ministers, or any Catholic who explores our Tradition—is the discovery of what it is we really do as a Church. If you take the time to unpack today’s Gospel, for example, from St. Mark, and explore the acquired wisdom of Church Tradition of what the Last Supper Passover and Jesus’ words truly mean—you will find that what was once routine is now “the pearl of great price.” You will be restless and out of sorts with what looks like business as usual in local parish life. But you’ll never leave your parish…because your heart will be burning inside you to share what you have discovered.
The word we’re looking for? Evangelization: explaining the menu of the Eucharistic banquet.
On My Mind