(Apologies for posting Monday's blog today, and vice versa.)
We have been praying for vocations to the priesthood for a long time. It is true that when I was growing up in Catholic Buffalo (1948-1962) we prayed for the Conversion of Russia—in fact, it was Pius XII, I believe, who added a special formulary to be prayed at the end of every public parish Mass for the deliverance of Russia from Godless Communism. It was also very common to pray publicly for “the grace of a happy death.” St. Joseph featured significantly in these prayers, the assumption being that if you have to go, what better way than with Jesus and Mary at your bedside? Of course, implied in every happy death prayer was the hope that one would have a priest at one’s bedside or wherever it was your fate to go. We used to carry in our pockets, purses or wallets little cards that read: “I am a Catholic: in case of accident please call a priest.” As irreverent kids we had a slightly different version: “I am an important Catholic: in case of accident please call a bishop.”
I don’t think they carry cards like that in the Canadian Rockies, where I had my eyes opened about a decade ago. My wife and I (and a pine marten, we discovered to our chagrin and that of the managers) were vacationing in a rustic condo just outside of Banff, Alberta, about 100 miles west of Calgary. I called the local church, which happens to be in Canmore, AB, should you vacation there, and was told that there was a Saturday night Mass. The recorded message then went on to say that in danger of death a particular local lady at XXX-XXX-XXXX should be called immediately. She in turn would make calls to Calgary to see if a priest could be found in time. I guess if l lived in the Banff/Canmore region, I would go to confession a lot more frequently than I do now. I did check this week’s bulletin and it seems you have a better chance of priestly comfort during ski season, which seems to begin in August from the scheduling.
I got a more direct look at what the priest shortage looks like in Ireland earlier this month. My wife and I were looking in on one of her elderly relatives around suppertime. We had seen her earlier in the week, and on this Friday night she looked particularly grand—she had gotten her hair done, among other things. The occasion, it seems, is the regular Friday night Mass/confession/adoration sequence in her little town’s church, one of two on Valencia Island. We accompanied her to the church about seven properties down the street. Sadly, we had learned a few days earlier that both Catholic churches on Valencia Island were closing at the end of the summer. Mass would be available at Portmagee or Caherciveen, each on the mainland by bridge or auto ferry, hardly an impossible drive for most of us but definitely a practical and psychological loss for the older populations of Chapeltown and Knightstown.
I have to think that in some way the decline in church attendance in our country and elsewhere is related to the declining number of priests. Some publications use a rather crude term to describe the situation, referring to today’s active clergy as “sacramental studs.” The term describes the lifestyle of racing from place to place to perform the basic sacramental rites of Mass, Baptism, Confession, and funerals, with no significant time to bond with parish communities in the ways we have become accustomed. There is a further complication in many dioceses, including my own, where a significant percentage of the clergy are foreign born and the cultural differences add to the distancing.
In many ways American Catholics have indeed absorbed a critical teaching of Vatican II, that sacramental celebrations are interpersonal, and not unreasonably many parishioners desire celebrants of sacraments to have a personal connectedness to them and their families, even with moderate familiarity. This is particularly true with life milestones: weddings and funerals come immediately to mind. I am more than aware that connectedness to the local priest can go overboard: in my own parishes I rebelled against the idea that any parish function was meaningless if the pastor didn’t attend. But it is fair to say that pastors—and their associates, when available—become the personages around which parish life hums along. In most dioceses around the country there are large numbers of parish communities who for all practical purposes are serviced by circuit-riding clerics, not so terribly different from seventh century France when a bishop might ride his horse into the middle of the town, anoint (confirm) the young children hastily gathered from his saddle, and then gallop off into the sunset for several years.
Discussions of this sort often end up in the same direction—ordain women and married men. Those are two quite different theological propositions, so let me address just one, the practice of a married clergy. There is precedence for this, and certain circumstances where it is now permitted, as in the case of Episcopal priests who convert to the Roman communion. I happen to enjoy cop shows on TV, particularly the Catholic dynasty of NYC’s finest, “Blue Bloods.” Danny Regan (Donnie Wahlberg) is a very successful—albeit rough around the edges—detective who can be found at his precinct at just about any hour of the day or night tracking down leads on his case du jour. He is fortunate to be married to a woman of considerable character, but I would be lying if I said their marriage is “happy.” Their common life is extremely limited, and this stress bubbles just beneath the surface of marital civility.
In my practice over the years I did counsel Protestant ministers and their wives—it is a difficult arrangement under the best of circumstances. Given that the Catholic Church has taken a highly visible role in promoting family life—to the extent of exploring “family faith formation”—we would be the most public of hypocrites if our expectations of our married pastors caused their marriages undue stress. We would probably see less of a married priest than a celibate one if he was a good husband and father. I don’t think people appreciate that. One thing is clear: in any scenario for the future, the vocations we should be praying for are our own. We will need to think of our church life in the fashion of a volunteer fire department, where everyone’s well-being depends upon my commitment to training, vigilance, and presence.
A Turn In The RoadRead Now
We are coming to a turn in the road this coming weekend, as the Church Liturgy takes a break from our year-long exploration of the Gospel of Mark; Ordinary Times Sundays 17 through 21 in the B Cycle are devoted to Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, a unified whole sometimes referred to as the “Breads Discourse.” Late in August we will return to the Markan narrative, though the mood of that Gospel will show significant change. Before leaving Mark, though, a short summary of the recent weeks might be helpful. A lot has been reported over the last three Sundays: Jesus runs into stiff opposition in his home town, so much so that Mark makes the surprising observation that Jesus could not work miracles there due to his family and neighbors’ lack of faith. Other evangelists writing after Mark would smooth this harsh admission by saying that Jesus would not do miracles in Nazareth. On the following Sunday Jesus sends the Apostles out on mission to do precisely what Jesus himself had been doing, invoking the Father’s power to cure the sick and expel demons. Last Sunday we learned that the Apostles were euphoric over the works that “they” had done, without apparent recognition of the Father’s power. (Mark 6:30)
The Markan scholar Father Francis Moloney observes that the sixth chapter of St. Mark is something of the high water mark for the followers of Jesus; from 6:30 forward the apostles’ faith and understanding seems to wither in the face of growing opposition to the message, among other things. Moloney traces this downward spiral right through the end of the Gospel, when the very last of the faithful women flee from the empty tomb and “tell nothing to anyone.” (Mark 16:8) This pattern of gradual abandonment of Jesus will be followed closely when the Markan narrative resumes in several weeks.
I have not had an opportunity to research the thinking behind the insertion of St. John’s Gospel at this juncture in Year B. There is a statistical logic to consider: Mark’s Gospel is barely sixteen chapters and would labor to cover the liturgical demands of an entire church year. Likewise, the powerful Gospel of John does not have its own cycle year, and aside from major feasts and occasional inclusions does not appear very often in the Sunday liturgy. Catechetical exposure alone might account for this summer anomaly.
Perhaps the more significant question is a theological one: did the editors of the Lectionary wish to develop a thematic connection between the narrative of Mark and the Breads Discourse of John? The more I look at the texts side by side, I am beginning to think so. Mark’s Gospel of last Sunday concludes with mention of Jesus’ pity for the vast crowd in front of them, described by Mark as “sheep without shepherds,” an oblique but cutting reference to the inexperience of the Twelve. Jesus attempts to feed them, so to speak, by “teaching them at great length.” (6:34)
Here the narrative switches to next week’s Gospel of John (6:1-15) where Jesus also faces a large crowd that causes him concern. We have not talked much about the structure of St. John’s Gospel; in its makeup this Gospel is considerably different from the three “Synoptic” Gospels and particularly Mark’s. John has very few miracle accounts, perhaps a half-dozen, and in about every case a miracle is a starting point for a “discourse” or critical teaching narrative. John’s Chapter 6 will focus entirely on the life-giving nature of Jesus himself as the bread sent from heaven. In typical Johannine style, the evangelist begins with a miracle familiar to most of us, the “miracle of the loaves and fishes.” This miracle appears in all four Gospels; confidence in its historical roots is rather high.
There are some curious features easily overlooked: John reports that the “Jewish feast of Passover was near” (a gateway to several Hebrew Scripture themes). John reports that while Jesus “knew well what he intended to do” he puts the disciple Philip on the spot about the logistics of feeding this very large group. John observes that Jesus was “testing” Philip. Why the test? Was the Johannine Jesus as frustrated with the Twelve as the Markan Jesus after the apostolic preaching/healing crusade? It is hard to say. It is also worth noting that Jesus did not feed the crowd; he overfed them, with a dozen baskets of bread and fish remaining. The number twelve is too specific to be happenstance; that Jesus instructed the disciples to collect the leftovers leads me to think that this miracle was intended for their purposes of faith along with the crowds. The Bread from Heaven, evidently, is not a food of sustenance, but rather a feast of unlimited proportions.
An interesting parallel exists between Mark’s and John’s accounts of crowd reactions. For much of the early portion of Mark’s Gospel—consisting heavily of healings and exorcisms—Jesus attracted enthusiastic crowds because of these signs. Hard instruction, as Jesus delivered in Nazareth, cost him many followers, notably his family and neighbors. In John’s description of the miraculous feeding, the crowds are so delirious that a coronation of kingship on the spot was a very real consideration. However, in the next Sundays through the dog days of summer, Jesus will elaborate on the real food of eternal life, his own body and blood, with its attendant demand of faith. On the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Breads Discourse will end with a radical change in crowd reaction: “From this time on, many of his disciples broke away and would not remain in his company any longer.” Like Mark, John will note the empty places at the table.
Masculine FaithRead Now
According to my Fit Bit yesterday (Monday) I walked 21,000 steps, nearly 10 miles, and climbed 100 flights of stairs (or one or two rain forest mountains). We hiked out to the home of Margaret's father and brother, the latter known as Uncle Con. Con is remembered for his maintenance and care of a Marian grotto, which is a place of local devotion today. In fact, I have attempted to attach a photo of a highway sign pointing to the grotto; can you decipher the Gaelic names on the sign?
Today was the first day of our stay in Ireland where the weather truly lived up to Irish reputation. Low sky, high winds, cold rain--in fact, we arrived home at 6 PM to discover that our power was out. I went to the pub across the street and was assured that it was an area-wide problem. An hour later I returned home to reassure my traveling mates.
This afternoon I finally got to see Con's grotto. I was expecting to see a little garden, a statue, and a bench. What I actually saw was rather breathtaking: a life-sized statue of Mary several hundred feet up a wall of a working slate mine. Con was one of hundreds who worked on this remarkable project, undertaken to honor the Marian Year of 1954. This would have been just four years after the declaration of the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, declared by Pius XII, in his encyclical Munificentissimus Deus. (I have been waiting six months to show off my erudition in this regard--actually, the Assumption was the subject of my graduate research in 1972.)
Con's story, I would guess, might be typical of devotional men of his place and generation. Con worked multiple jobs throughout his life, including checking the equipment of international communications outlets on Valentia Island. (The trans-Atlantic cable ends in three places on the island, including next to the Catholic Church down the street.) His surviving relative told me that every day he visited the shrine to say his prayers, and worked as a volunteer at the site, accompanied for many years by his faithful dog. It would seem that devotion to Mary was a major component in sustaining his faith.
I was receiving my first religious instruction in Con's working years, and I recall that Mary was looked to as a mediator of mercy, that devotion to God's mother would soften the divine wrath. This outlook on Mary was true in the U.S., and it was very true in Ireland. Today, in driving about Valentia and the mainland we encountered two modest but well-kept roadside Marian shrines, with turn offs where one or two cars might pull in off the shoulder.
Devotion of Mary allowed a laboring man to put his energies and skills to good use; Con is remembered by his family for his labors at the slate shrine (Even as an in-law, I have heard these stories for years.) The rosary, with its straight formulary and order, must have appealed to task oriented males in the way that monks find satisfaction in regular recitation of the psalms.
These are educated guesses on my part, of course, but the physical landscape of the land and the physical evidence of its devotions seem to me to be clues to the underlying faith of a Catholic land that has had its struggles from within and without.