Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Vacant Chair

Today is the day that the papal reign of Benedict XVI comes to an end. The pope turned in his two-weeks (er, two weeks and three days) notice on February 11, two days before Ash Wednesday. The official announcement was in Latin, but I’ve seen and heard it called, variously, a resignation, an abdication, and a renunciation. In the official English translation, he states, “… I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter….” The See of Rome will be vacant as of 8:00 pm (Central European Time) today – that’s 2:00 pm for those of us on Eastern (U.S.) Standard Time.

I’ve avoided reading anything other than headlines and excerpts about this for the past two weeks. Most of the respectable Catholics have called Pope Benedict’s act one of great humility. I can see that. The Catholic Church is probably the largest institution in the history of man. The administration of it has got to be physically demanding, and Benedict was an old man when he was elected. Any sensible person would deem himself unfit for the job.

Speaking just for myself, however, I don’t like it. The office is more than an administrative post – it is a sign. If a man undergoes an ontological change when he is ordained a priest and becomes a living icon of Christ, wed to his bride, the Church, how much more so must that be true for a man who takes the title “Vicar of Christ?” Only a priest can consecrate the bread and wine; only a pope can teach infallibly. And now our pope has quit. As understanding as I try to be, I can’t help but feel abandoned.

To acknowledge the emotion is not the same as giving in to it. The feeling of abandonment is real, just as is the sure knowledge that God will not abandon his Church. There will be a new Peter.

Everything seems wrong, though, for a pope to announce just before Ash Wednesday that he will leave the chair of Peter vacant in the middle of Lent, less than a week after the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, in the middle of the Year of Faith that he called. The next pope, when he grows old, will come under immense public pressure to follow the precedent of Benedict, rather than the example of John Paul II. That cannot be a good thing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

If Jesus Came Today

I heard an interesting little meditation/poem today, quoted by Fr. Wade Menezes, C.P.M. in episode 7 of The Gospel of Life vs. The Culture of Death (you can listen here). After scouring the internet, I found the text here.

If Jesus Came Today...

Would you have to change your clothes before you let Him in?
Or hide some magazines, and put the Bibles where they'd been?

Would you hide your worldly music and put some hymn books out?
Could you let Jesus walk right in, or would you rush about?

And I wonder...if the Savior spent a day or two with you,
Would you go right on doing the things you always do?

Would you go right on saying the things you always say?
Would life for you continue as it does from day to day?

Would you take Jesus with you everywhere you go?
Or would you change your plans for just a day or so?

Would you be glad to have Him meet your closest friends?
Or would you hope they'd stay away until His visit ends?

Would you be glad to have Him stay forever, on and on?
Or would you sigh with great relief when, at last, He was gone?

It might be interesting to know the things that you would do,
If Jesus came in person to spend some time with you.

Author Unknown

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Blowing Gaskets

I blew a gasket during my drive in to work last week. Not literally. What I mean to say is that my emotional relief valve lifted, and I vented primary coolant to the atmosphere. Still too metaphorical? OK. I was driving to work last Friday, when I got angry about what I was hearing, and I shouted at my radio. Clear now?

What set me off was a segment on NPR’s Morning Edition. He was reporting on hearings convened by the Senate Appropriations Committee concerning the looming spending cuts mandated as part of the so-called Sequestration. The Secretary of Education cited cuts to Head Start, calling them “educational malpractice, economically foolish, and morally indefensible.” The Secretary of Homeland Security asserted that layoffs and furloughs to border patrol agents, customs agents, and airport screeners would lead to a porous border and long delays at airports. A (the?) Deputy Defense Secretary testified that training and maintenance would be curtailed and that many of the Defense Department employees affected are veterans. Naylor went on to report that fewer inspectors for the U.S. Department of Agriculture would mean that billions of pounds of meat, poultry, and egg products would go unprocessed.

In short, if these spending cuts are allowed to happen, the U.S. economy will grind to a halt.

I doubted this implied assertion. If true that a reduction in spending of $85 billion out of an annual “budget” of $3.5 trillion is going to result in widespread chaos and economic breakdown, then the federal government really does have its fingers in too many pockets. In many of the cases cited in the hearing on which Mr. Naylor was reporting, it’s not so much that government participation is necessary; rather, the government will not allow the activity to continue without it. Either way, the government has made itself “too big to fail,” and if that’s a bad thing for a bank, it’s also a bad thing for a federal government.

What finally spiked my blood pressure, though, was the comment of Senator Susan Collins of Maine: “If we’re just going to have across-the-board cuts, what is the point of our being here?” My eyes grew wide, my nostrils flared, and with flecks of saliva flying, I screamed at my radio, “The point of your being there is to pass a G—D--- budget!”

The last time the Senate passed a budget was April 29, 2009.

Pardon me while I replace my gasket, reset my relief valve, and clean the spittle from my dashboard.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ash Wednesday Prayers

I’d like to return to Ash Wednesday for just a moment – long enough to comment on the Opening Prayer and the Dismissal, both of which struck me rather forcefully.

First the Opening Prayer:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

This is one of those occasions where I am thankful for the new translation. The ICEL translation is so watered down.

What struck me was the martial imagery of a military campaign, battle against evil, and being armed with weapons. It’s the same thing that led me, thirty years ago, to take Michael as my confirmation name. I was inspired by the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, asking the prince of the heavenly hosts for defense in battle.  This is a remarkably masculine prayer. 

And now the Dismissal:

Pour out a spirit of compunction, O God,
on those who bow before your majesty,
and by your mercy may they merit the rewards you promise
to those who do penance.
Through Christ our Lord.

As we were leaving mass, I had to ask my wife, “What’s a spirit of compunction?” I had a vague notion, but the exact meaning eluded me. The definition provided by, which seems to fit the context, is “a feeling of uneasiness or anxiety of the conscience caused by regret for doing wrong or causing pain; contrition; remorse.”

I’m not sure what the distinction between compunction and contrition is, but I pray for it often, especially when examining my conscience in preparation for confession. There are things that I know are sins, and I can usually articulate the reasons why they are sins, and yet the emotional remorse for those sins eludes me. So when I have trouble feeling sorry for committing a sin, I beg forgiveness for not feeling sorry and ask that the “spirit of compunction” might be poured out upon me.

It was refreshing to hear these prayers as part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ash Wednesday Elsewhere

My wife, two oldest daughters, and I piled into the car and drove over to St. Joseph in Egypt (that’s in Ohio, not Africa) for Ash Wednesday mass last night. It would be perfectly logical for someone to ask why we drove to a tiny parish miles away when our own parish is only two blocks away and has mass at the same time.

The last time that I went to mass at my own parish on Ash Wednesday was several years ago. The Coordinator of Religious Education was very excited, and we found recently confirmed high school sophomores lining the center aisle. If you entered a pew from the center aisle, the sophomore would request to stay in the aisle seat. Something was going on, but I didn’t know what.

When it came time for the Our Father, the sophomores took one step into the center aisle and joined hands across the aisle, pressing their neighbors in the pews to hold their hands as well. I was not impressed by this para-liturgical innovation.

I haven’t been back on Ash Wednesday since, for fear that I might witness such a spectacle again and be moved to despair that my parish has any liturgical sense at all.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

EVERY Friday?

I have made no secret of the fact that there are two days on the liturgical calendar that I dread. It surely points to my lack of spiritual development that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday loom large for me because of the fasting requirement. I don’t fast well. As soon as I’m told not to eat, I become acutely aware of the emptiness of my stomach. In the past, I’ve developed severe headaches on fast days.

I know that this is a sign of my own spiritual laziness. Some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29 and Matthew 17:21), and when the bridegroom has departed, then they will fast (Mark 2:20 and Matthew 9:15). I know that fasting teaches us discipline and instills in us a degree of detachment from material things. I know that we can unite any suffering (headaches and hunger) that we sustain as a result of fasting to the suffering of Christ, and thus it becomes redemptive. In the words of Catholic mothers everywhere, “Offer it up!”

In obedience to the authority of the Church, therefore, I fast on the days that the Church tells me I must, but rarely do I go beyond that.

Now (OK, actually it goes back to December 6) it seems that our bishops want us to fast and abstain on every Friday of the Year of Faith. I hadn’t heard that until this week. Back when the bishops had their fall meeting, there were some calls to return to abstinence from meat on every Friday of the year, and that got some attention. This is at least an order of magnitude greater, but I haven’t heard a peep. It's all contained in the bishops' Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty.

Here’s the news release from the bishops’ web site. Here’s a letter from Archbishop Schnurr endorsing the practice for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Note that I can’t find the letter on the website of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, rather I have to go to a parish web site to find the Archbishop’s letter.

The Church has established Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as days of fasting and abstinence from meat, and all Fridays of Lent as days of abstinence. This year, however, Lent comes at a time when the bishops of the United States have asked us to do more.
As part of a five-part “Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty,” the bishops of the United States have called us to fast and abstain from meat every Friday, if we are able, during the Year of Faith.

Archbishop Dennis Schnurr 

The weekly fasting, by the way, is only one point in a five point program. Other points include a monthly holy hour and a daily rosary. It’s a pretty rigorous proposition, and if the bishops were serious, it seems like (a) they would make more of an effort to get the word out, at the very least issuing a news release and having the message read from the pulpit at every Sunday mass and (b) the press would take note.

One of the precepts of the Church is to observe days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church. The action points in the bishops' Call to Prayer are suggestions rather than obligations, and they don’t have any real canonical status. However, our bishop is telling us we should do something. He has apostolic authority. We should listen to him.

(H/T to Rich at Over the Rhine and Into the Tiber)