Inklings of a New Evangelization: The Quiet Wood of Ordinary Time

MiriamMarstonMiriam Marston, a freelance writer and musician, has been based in the Archdiocese of Boston since 2006, serving most recently as the Assistant Director of Theology Programs at the Theological Institute at St. John’s Seminary.  She has released two albums of original music, and is currently working on a third.

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Other columns in series:
The Beacons Are Lit
                              Of Myths and Maps
Inside the Song
                                       A Word on Wonder
A Word on Tooks
                                   Secondary Worlds and Primary Truths
Escape and the Good Catastrophe      Treebeard and the Language of Reality
The Valor of Bilbo                                 Laughter and the Logos
Our Lady and the Elves                        Puddleglum’s Dark Night of the Soul
Francis and the Houses of Healing    Lo, How a Story E’er Blooming

He was standing by the edge of a small pool—not more than ten feet from side to side—in a wood…It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine…When he tried to describe it afterwards Digory always said, “It was a rich place; as rich as plum-cake…it’s not the sort of place where things happen.  The trees go on growing, that’s all.” ~ C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

By way of magic rings, two children named Digory and Polly have found themselves in a certain wood, surrounded by a number of pools, which happen to serve as doorways to other worlds waiting to be explored and adventures waiting to be had.  The Wood Between the WorldsThe wood, as Digory says, is a fairly uneventful spot, and yet, strangely enough, full of life.  This description prompts me to re-consider this present season of Ordinary Time in light of these images.  We spend more weeks in Ordinary Time than any other part of the liturgical calendar, after all, so these days must add up to be something more than a mere placeholder between seasons.

Perhaps it is because of the blanket of silence or the soft light pouring through the branches, but the forest makes Polly and Digory decidedly sleepy and forgetful at first.  They almost forget that they need only step a few feet in this or that direction, and they would be swept away to another world.  We mustn’t become sleepy or forgetful in this quiet wood of Ordinary Time!  As the trees keep on growing in this in-between place, so must we.   Even the green vestments of the priests are a reminder of this call to ongoing conversion and growth.  Ordinary TimeAre we waiting until Lent to address certain matters of personal prayer and discipline?  Why not go ahead and jump right in, on Wednesday of the fifth week of Ordinary Time?  And after the Easter season, as the numbered weeks tick by like hands on a clock, through the summer and fall, shall we let ourselves grow sleepy then?  When the parish becomes a little emptier, as people travel and go on holiday, will we press the pause button on our relationship with Christ, and make a private promise to revisit it come Advent, when it feels like “it’s the thing to do”?  Instead of pressing pause, we must press on…press on towards the heavenly Jerusalem, the glorious promise of Home, which has been written on our hearts, and is there, in the background of every good desire.

Digory says that the wood was as rich as plum-cake.  Well, I have never tasted plum-cake, so I could not tell you precisely how rich it is.  But I have had some exceedingly delicious chocolate cake and I was probably not the only one to indulge in a few extra slices during the festive Christmas season.  But these days, the extra desserts, as well as the cheerful lights and poinsettias, have retreated into the realm of memory.  And so we continue steadily down this pilgrim path, which might appear tedious, were it not for our belief that “Sunday after Sunday, the Church moves toward the final Lord’s Day, that Sunday which knows no end” (Dies Domini, §37).  So:  what’s a pilgrim to do on this particular stretch of road?  Perhaps a question has arisen in your mind concerning some words or phrases said during the Mass.  We’ve been saying consubstantial for a couple of years now in the Creed—it might be a good time to look it up if you’re still wondering what it really means.  If that’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine, since there’s still plenty to do, especially if you’re looking for new adventures in charity.  I’ve said (and heard said) variations on the following:  “For Lent, I shall make an extra effort to be more loving toward Person A.”  But why do I insist on waiting, as though the days leading up to Ash Wednesday are inadequate for such a goal?  As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has noted, Ordinary Time “does not mean that the commitment of Christians must diminish; quite the contrary, having entered divine life through the Sacraments, we are now called to remain open to the action of Grace in order to grow in love towards God and neighbor.”

Lewis gives us another good “in-between” place to consider:  a wardrobe.  When I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, it was the description of that wardrobe which left one of the most vivid impressions on my mind: the fur coats and mothballs, and, above all, Lucy’s sense that something extraordinary was already going on.

“Nothing there!” said Peter, and they all trooped out again—
all except Lucy.  She stayed behind because she thought
it would be worthwhile trying the door of the wardrobe…”

“Nothing there”…after the busy season of Christmas, we might think that there is not much there, and we jump ahead and focus on Lent instead.  But the Word of God spent thirty years of His life in the simplicity of Nazareth: working, eating, making friends, and sleeping—thus contradicting the notion that the commonplace is something less than holy ground.

“This must be a simply enormous wardrobe.”

Into the WardrobeThat was Lucy’s thought as she was moving through the fur coats and mothballs.  But when she felt something like snow under her feet, and something like a tree brush up against her hands, she knew that this was no ordinary wardrobe.  And this is no ordinary time that we live today.  It is enormous and as alive as Digory’s curious and quiet wood.   There is no better place and time than where we are right now to stretch our hearts in love and throw our arms wide open, ready to receive and show mercy.

Ever since receiving his superhero pajamas at Christmas, my nephew has not stopped requesting to wear his red cape.  He’ll make sure to put his cape on before dinner.  During playtime, he’ll suddenly sense the absence of that fluttering red fabric and he’ll cry out “Where is my cape?”  Bedtime, lunchtime, in the store, in the car…he wants to look like Superman at every instant, even when no one is looking.  My nephew pursues the noble goal of imitating his favorite superheroes.  And my prayer (as his godmother) is that one day, this two-year-old excitement about superheroes will translate into a fervent desire for the supernatural happiness found in imitating Jesus Christ.  So already, he has the right idea.  Not to mention he looks utterly adorable in a cape.  It makes me wonder how much daily effort we put into wearing the “cape” of Christian virtue, especially in these days of Ordinary Time, when the storefronts and parishes have resumed their regular sales and activities, and much of the seasonal excitement has faded away.

I turn to my nephew for added inspiration for the same reason that Lewis (like many other writers) often made children the primary protagonists in his stories.  The wisdom of the child lies in their ability to really look at a thing.  Have you observed a little child completely absorbed by the most mundane object or image, say, a little crack on the wall that has just enough texture and color to keep her occupied for a good ten minutes? An adult could walk past the very same thing, never giving it a moment’s notice.  But children will add even this small moment to their internal catalogue of knowledge and experience.   May we approach this season of Ordinary Time with a similar outlook: ready to be transformed—even just a bit—by the unassuming realities of grace enfolding us at any given moment.

The Song of the Gospel: Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Editorial Note: This series is not intended to be a commentary on the practices or ministry of liturgical music per se. Rather, its goal is to examine recent hymn texts in the light of Scripture, in the hopes of bringing to light new ways of reflecting on the Gospel for each Sunday.

This coming Sunday, the Church will not be observing the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Instead, we will celebrate the feast of the day: the Presentation of the Lord. Rarely does the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord fall on a Sunday—it hasn’t happened since 2003, and it won’t happen again until 2020; therefore, it is a special opportunity to focus on the beauty of Christ, the light of God, who has come into the world to scatter the darkness of sin.

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord: Luke 2:22-40
When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses,
Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord,
just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,
and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.
This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him
by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death
before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.
He came in the Spirit into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus
to perform the custom of the law in regard to him,
he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.
She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord,
they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him.

Long-Awaited Holy One (Worship, 4th edition #870)

Text: Delores Dufner, O.S.B. (b.1939), ©1984, 1992, 2003, 2011 GIA.
Used with permission.

Long-awaited Holy One,
Simeon hailed you as God’s Son.
Anna welcomed you with praise,
Glad fulfillment of her days.

Light of all the nations, shine!
Show, to those who wait, a sign:
God on earth, our host and guest,
In our flesh made manifest.

Radiance of God’s holy face,
Shine your love in ev’ry place.
Splendor of God’s glory bright,
Lead us to eternal light!

The first line of this hymn addresses the Holy One, the One who is to come into the world, for whom the people of Israel have been waiting, longing. Identified in the second line as “God’s Son,” the One whom Simeon hailed, we know that this hymn addresses the child Jesus, proclaiming Him as the One who will fulfill God’s promise of redemption. This first verse is a poetic proclamation of the events narrated in the Gospel, presenting us with the major figures: Simeon and AnnaJesus, the Holy One and Son of God; Simeon, the one whose patient waiting and faith in God were rewarded; and Anna, who proclaimed the good news of the Child “to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem,” thus making her one of the first evangelists. In this verse we are invited to see ourselves in these two figures, who in their waiting for the Messiah, fulfill the words of the prophet Malachi: “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with healing in its rays” (Mal 3:20a). In the Incarnation, Jesus Christ is the Sun of Justice, the “glad fulfillment” of God’s word and promise of salvation, “‘prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel’” (Lk 2:31-32).

The second verse begins with a line that draws its inspiration from another translation of Simeon’s canticle, in which he refers to Jesus as “a light to reveal [God] to the nations.” In the hymn, we address Jesus precisely as this “light of all the nations.” The light of Christ is not intended for some of the nations. Just as light does not discriminate or limit where it shines, so too with Christ: the light of His love and His peace shines on all nations, on all people. The second line of the hymn verse pleads for a sign “to those who wait.” The Christ-Child is the sign that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that the events that will culminate in Death and Resurrection have been set into motion. Presentation in the Temple-Rembrandt van RijnFor the shepherds, this sign was an “infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12); for Simeon and Anna, this sign was a poor family who had come to the Temple “to perform the custom of the law in regard to [Jesus]” (Lk 2:27). The sign for all the nations is “God on earth, our host and guest,” God-with-us, God made manifest in Jesus Christ, “the word [who] became flesh” (cf. Jn 1:14) in order to shatter the darkness of death with light of life and love. Simeon himself acknowledges that Jesus is to be a “sign” for all peoples; however, in his prophecy sounds the first note of foreboding for the miraculous Child. Jesus is to be a “sign that will be contradicted;” He is “destined for the rise and fall of many,” and will suffer at the hands of those who reject Him. Yet it is precisely in this suffering, offered out of love for the life of the world, that the light of God’s love blazes forth in Jesus and shatters the darkness of death forever. As John reminds us in the prologue to his Gospel: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:9-12a). The light of the Sun of Justice shines on all nations, and those who leave behind the darkness of sin in order to turn their faces toward the light of Christ will experience the “healing in its rays” by “[becoming] children of God.”

The final verse of the hymn takes the form of an intercession to Jesus, once again utilizing poetic forms of address. Here, Jesus is the “radiance of God’s holy face.” Throughout the Psalms, the reference to the “face” of God is a metaphorical conceit; however, in Jesus Christ, to speak of God’s face is no longer to use metaphorical language. In Jesus Christ, the invisible God has become visible: God now has a human face. And through Jesus Christ, the radiance of God shines forth “in ev’ry place” as precisely as love. The hymn concludes by asking Jesus, “the splendor of the Father,” to “lead us to eternal light.” Jesus, the “light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32), indeed the light of all nations, shines His light into the darkness even now, guiding along the path of redemption all who seek His illuminating love. He will continue to do so until the day when all things are fulfilled, when those who have followed Him “will look upon his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:4-5).

In celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, we celebrate Jesus Christ, the light of the world. “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:3b-5). May the radiance of Christ illumine our hearts and shine forth in our very lives, so that in us, Christ may continue to dispel the darkness of sin by the light of love.

Encountering Christ in the Parish: Avoiding a Post-Parish Ecclesiology

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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I recently attended an event that addressed the “messy questions” that ministry in Christian churches should be facing.  One of these messy questions was related to whether “parishes” or “congregational” ministry was where vocational work should be directed.  The argument of the presenter was that in the future, we would have ministers who continued to spread the Gospel of Christ but no longer through the work of churches. Rather, each individual minister would reach out to some segment of society, working outside the confines of ecclesial structures alone.   The major drive of the argument was simple enough:  we don’t need to worry about the Church because we preach Christ Jesus not an institution.

To a certain degree, the presenter is correct.   Of course, Christianity hopes to preach Jesus Christ and not its own institutional structures.   No one has been moved to give their lives over to any particular church through discourses on fundraising, on the need to hire a new minister, on the complications of maintaining church growth, or by looking at a diocesan structural chart.   People give themselves over to the Word made flesh, to Jesus EthiopianIconChrist, the God-man who heals humanity through divine love.

But, the argument in the end, is ultimately short-sighted (not just for Catholics and the Orthodox but for many Christians, some of whom expressed their deep disagreement with the presenter to me).  That is, the local church for these groups is not simply a place to gather, an institutional structure to maintain at all costs despite rapid changes in the world. Rather, the particular parish or congregation is itself an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, an entrance into the Trinitarian life of God.  As Louis Bouyer writes:

The unity, the communion of the agape–of the very love that makes the eternal life of the Father–is the communication of the Spirit of the Father, who is also the Spirit of the Son, because it is the communion in the Body (i.e., in the concrete, total human existence, definitively glorified through the Cross, the Son of God made man), the communion in his Blood (i.e., in his life, which from now on is transfigured, ‘divinized’).   Simultaneously, this vision of faith gives inexhaustible realism and depth to the affirmation that the Church is ‘the body of Christ.’  It signifies and certifies that the life of the Church, her concrete life, when she is gathered together especially for celebrating the Eucharist–but also all the activities, collective and individual, which flow from it, within the Christian itself or in the midst of the hostile world–is the life ‘with Christ’ and ‘in Christ’ about which the Apostle constantly speaks (Louis Bouyer, The Church of God, 319-20).

Churches are not simply communities of practice (to use a term popularized by Etienne Wenger) akin to other social organizations.   Indeed, parishes and congregations are the historical manifestation of that divine love revealed in Christ now overflowing into the world.  To speak about a post-parish ecclesiology, a Church without particular congregations, is ultimately to strip the Church of its sacramental identity.   It is individualism run amok, the flattening of the Church to its sociological quality alone.

Simultaneously, the institutional and human facets of any church exists as the sacramental memory of what it means to practice being redeemed.  The Church passes on those salutary practices and narratives without which any church becomes, at best, nothing more than another social service organization gathered around our founder Jesus Christ. At worst, the elimination of specific bodies of believers in parishes and congregations, who continue to incarnate these narratives and practices through time, will mean the disappearance of the Gospel from existence.  Think about it.   Without parishes and congregations that continue to hand on and receive back (traditio et redditio) the living, breathing tradition of the Church, so much wisdom present within Christianity will be lost. There will be no specific, institutional body whose existence extends beyond one or two generations.  PortugalChurch

The problems with the post-parish or post-congregation approach are myriad.  An individual minister, existing apart from a specific parish or congregation, may create his or her own narrative of the Scriptures–one appropriate for the setting that he or she works in.   He or she will eliminate those practices, which don’t address his or her context. The specificity of language will be lost. Practices will be forgotten.   And soon, it won’t be the Gospel of Jesus Christ that Christians preach.  It will be my gospel, your gospel, the gospel created for the people and by the people.  For these reasons, it strikes me that the trend among Catholics and Protestants to look beyond the parish or congregation is deeply disturbing.  For to bypass the institution of the Church is ultimately to give up that common memory that enables the Word to be preached throughout the world.   Christianity will no longer offer universal salvation but a narrative that works well enough for this group but not another.  Such an approach will mean that we create little sects, conservative and progressive, etc.  But, the Church will cease being the universal sacrament of salvation.

Further, this line of argument seems to operate out of an implicit clericalism.   Why is it the responsibility of the theologically trained ordained or lay ecclesial minister to serve as a minister within the world?  Catholicism (although at times over-emphasizing the distinction) is right to put the onus of transforming the world upon the lay vocation.  It is the engineer, who transforms the world through the craft of engineering.   It is the doctor, perhaps a theological novice, who incarnates divine love in his or her practice.  Parents form their children through the mundane gift of family life in the art of self-giving love. The responsibility of the minister, of the priest, is maintaining the parish or congregation so that the lay person can transform the world, so that the engineer can learn what divine justice is, so that the doctor can learn to be patient toward difficult patients, so that parents can discover how the Gospel can take flesh in their domicile.StAdalbertsChurch

In the end, the talk that I heard brought to mind a recent article in Notre Dame Magazine by Michael Garvey–a layman, who is an assistant director in Notre Dame’s Office of Public Relations.  Anyone on campus who has attended Mass or wandered the tailgating lot on Notre Dame football weekends has met Michael Garvey.   His article captures a truth that the post-parish ecclesiology cannot account for.   I quote a brief section here:

I happen to love our latest pope (and, really, who doesn’t?), but we were never promised loveable popes. We have plenty of saints to keep us company and give us heart, thank God, but we were never promised that the Church would be administered by them, nor even that the Church would be administered by minimally decent and reasonably competent people. We are not promised that Jesus will never again be denied, deserted and betrayed, nor are we promised that trusted teachers, priests, bishops and popes won’t do the denying, deserting and betraying. We are not promised that they (and we) won’t sin again and again and again, only that He will always forgive.

What we are promised is not that we possess the Truth but that He has a Church and that He will always be there, however we may deny, desert and betray Him. What we are promised is that the One who told Moses so frightfully “no one can look upon Me and live” now offers Himself to us as food. What we are promised is his presence in the Eucharist, his mercy in our sorrow, his welcome as we lie dying. What we are promised is that He loves us, and that, if we will only bring ourselves to ask, He will bless us with a ravenous hunger for intimacy with Himself. That He will save us, in other words.

Getting rid of the Church, disposing of our local parishes and congregations for the newest trends in ministry, is to deny that it is through the human body that salvation takes place. The Church has an embodied memory that our parishes and congregations continue to pass on from age to age, in geographical localities throughout the world.  I don’t want my minister, my priest, to be an independent contractor, to carry out his or her own plan discovered in some sophisticated theological seminary, which at times pretends to know better than the local, communal memory of the Church.   I want my minister, my priest, to offer me that love of Christ that continues to become embodied in the Eucharist, in practices of mercy, in the commitment and discipline of lauds, in friendly conversation (and perhaps disagreement) with fellow sojourners.

In other words, I want a parish.  One that is concerned with manifesting the witness of the communion of saints through the ages in this time and in this place.  Perhaps the decline of parishes and congregations is not ultimately a result of new trends in ministry, of the need to give up on parish and congregational life as the center of Christian life.   Instead, just maybe, the decline is because we stopped passing on the memory of the saints that really mattered in the first place.  For, this memory is how we, embodied creatures that we are, located in time and space, is how we encounter Christ in the first place.  To give up on the parish or congregation, one that exists in history, is to cease expecting anyone to encounter Christ in the first place.

Breaking Open the Word with Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C. (2nd and 3rd Sundays in Ordinary Time, Cycle A)

FrCharlieGordonCSCRev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C.

Co-Director, Garaventa Center

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 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

We can learn from John’s integrity. As much as we long for
acceptance, as much as we want to be respected and admired for our talents and achievements, our lives can’t focus on ourselves. Ultimately, our lives have to be directed outward. They have to point to other people — and to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

JohnTestifiestoJesus3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

Our Lord’s tactic might offer encouragement and
instruction to his disciples today. Like our master, we
shouldn’t hesitate to pursue our efforts at evangelization in
contexts that seem unlikely, or even threatening. We need to
brave our own Sepphoris and reach out to our own Decapolis.
“Preaching to the choir” will not serve. Rather, we should try
to identify the heart of darkness in our own time and place,
and strive to set it alight for Christ. If sometimes the heart of
darkness is our own, we’ll need humility enough to open
ourselves up to the light. If we feel discouraged – if it seems
our world is willfully forgetful of Christ and doggedly
determined to achieve its own destruction – we can be
encouraged to remember that those very circumstances were
chosen by Jesus as ideal for the proclamation of the Good
News. It is where he chose to begin.


The Song of the Gospel: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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With the Advent and Christmas seasons behind us for another year, and with the arrival of a new calendar year (now nearing the end of its first month already!), it seems an appropriate time to introduce a new weekly addition to Oblation. This series, entitled “The Song of the Gospel,” will focus on the way in which Scripture is proclaimed and commented upon through the medium of the hymn text. Using the Lectionary cycle as my guide, I will choose one hymn text each week either based on the Gospel passage or specific to the liturgical season for the upcoming Sunday liturgy. I will then exploring the text of that hymn in light of the Gospel passage, discerning how Scripture and/or the theological themes of the liturgical season are nuanced, and hopefully discovering new ways of reading, singing, and living the Gospel in the process. I will be limiting my weekly selections to relatively new hymn texts (written in the past 10-20 years)—texts that might not be as familiar as others, but that might offer new insight upon closer examination. This series is not meant to be a commentary on the practices or ministry of liturgical music per se. Rather, its goal is to examine these hymn texts (perhaps even now sitting undiscovered in pews throughout the country) precisely as texts, in the hopes of bringing to light new ways of reflecting on the Gospel.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Matthew 4:12-23
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.
He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled:
Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,

on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.
From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers,
Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea;
they were fisherman.
He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
At once they left their nets and followed him.
He walked along from there and saw two other brothers,
James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.
They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets.
He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.
He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues,
proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom,
and curing every disease and illness among the people.

You Call to Us, Lord Jesus (Worship, 4th edition #775)
Text: Joy F. Patterson (b.1931), ©1994, Hope Publishing Company.

Reprinted with permission of GIA.

You call to us, Lord Jesus,
As once in Galilee
You called to James and Andrew,
“Come now and follow me.”
They left their nets and followed,
And did not look behind;
Lord, we like them will follow,
Our life in you to find. 

You came to preach deliv’rance,
To set the captives free,
To heal the brokenhearted,
To make the sightless see.
Your ministry of mercy
And justice is our task;
Help us like true disciples
To do the work you ask. 

You summon us to visions
Of what this world can be,
Of hope and peace and freedom
For all humanity.
For justice we will labor
For ev’ry human soul
Till greed and hatred vanish,
And humankind is whole.

The path you bid us follow
Is not an easy road,
And doubt or pain or conflict
Will sometimes be our load.
Lord, grant us strength and courage
To walk the way you trod,
Till we behold in glory
The radiant face of God.

The very first line (and title) of this hymn demonstrates that it is not a simple retelling of the Gospel story. The author begins by stating, “You call to us, Lord Jesus,” effectively stating that when we listen to this Gospel passage, we are not meant to hear a merely historical recollection of how Jesus went around gathering together a group of seemingly random men to be His posse. We are meant to hear in this narrative the call, the invitation that Jesus extends not only to Peter, Andrew, James, and John, but also to each one of us: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). The hymn text invites us to contemplate specifically the examples of Andrew (and by extension his brother Simon Peter), and James (and his brother John), who “left their nets and followed / And did not look behind.” This second phrase hearkens back to the immediacy and the totality of the Apostles’ response recounted in the Gospel: “At once they left their nets” and “immediately they left their boat and their father” (Mt 4:20, 22a). Jesus Calls Andrew and PeterThe verse concludes with a pledge and a promise: “Lord, we like them will follow, / Our life in you to find.” The life of discipleship is one that cannot be found by staying with the boats and the nets in the comfort of familiarity. It is only by leaving everything behind to follow Him who calls us that we discover the life we were meant to live, as Jesus makes perfectly clear later in Matthew’s Gospel: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25).

The first verse establishes that all are called to discipleship; the second verse will establish the identity of the One who calls to us: Jesus Christ. The imagery of the first four lines depicts Him as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased. Upon him I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations. I, the LORD, have called you for justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations. To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness” (Is 42:1, 6-7). Readers of this text may also recall the other prophecy of Isaiah, proclaimed by Jesus Himself in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4:18-20, cf. Is 61:1-2). The One who calls us to be disciples is none other than the One who fulfills all promises, who calls us “out of darkness into [God’s] own wonderful light” (cf. 1 Pet 2:9; Preface I of the Sundays in Ordinary Time), and if we are to be His disciples, then we must make His mission our own. The last four lines of this verse throw this into sharp relief by reminding us that Christ’s work of justice is now our work, and it is only with His grace that we are able to “do the work [He asks].”

The first and second verse present a more particular image of call, caller, and called. The first half of the third verse broadens the horizon to demonstrate what a life of faithful discipleship—making Christ’s work of justice and mercy one’s own—might bring about in the world: hope, peace, and freedom. Again, as with the previous two verses, the second half of the verse shifts focus, taking us from the vision of a peace-filled world to the role every disciple must play in bringing that vision about: “For justice we will labor / For ev’ry human soul, / Till greed and hatred vanish, / And humankind is whole.” Lest we become lost in the beauty of this vision, the fourth verse immediately alerts us to the reality that our completion of this task will be beset with trials and difficulties such as “doubt or pain or conflict.” FollowingYet, the second half of the verse recalls that the disciple does not walk this path alone; the disciple follows the One who has called him to this path, the One who continues to guide her in her journey. “Lord, grant us strength and courage / To walk the way you trod.” And in the final lines of the hymn, we are presented with the eschatological implications of a life of discipleship, the promise made to each person who perseveres along this path of mercy and justice, who endures doubt, pain, and conflict with patient, struggling steps. The one who follows Jesus in this life on earth will follow Him also into the eternal life of heaven, where all faithful disciples will “behold in glory / The radiant face of God.”

May we, like the first Apostles, leave everything to follow Jesus, for it is only in leaving everything behind that we open ourselves up to all that lies ahead: eternal life with God through Christ Jesus.


Fostering a Culture of Adoption in Parishes: 5 Things That Could Be Done Right Away

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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Last night at the National Vigil for Life Mass in Washington D.C., Cardinal O’Malley offered the following reflection on adoption:

Where there are community and solidarity, more humane solutions present themselves when there is a difficult pregnancy.  When the abortion decision of the Supreme Court was handed down, the logical response of our Pro Life Movement was a resolute call for “Adoption, not abortion”.  The truth is each year there are fewer and fewer adoptions while the number of abortions is over a million.  Many young Americans don’t know anyone who is adopted, and if they do know someone, it is probably someone from China, Russia or Guatemala – giving the impression that entrusting a child to an adoptive family is not something Americans do.

The history of adoption is not always a glorious one.  There is a popular film in the theaters right now portraying some of the worst practices of the past.  Philomena, portrayed by Dame Judi Dench, tells the story of a young girl forced to give up her baby.  It is a tragic history.

We need people to hear the good stories of adoptions of courageous birth mothers and generous adoptive families that have truly provided a loving family for an adopted child.  In Boston we are making adoption part of a pro-life curriculum for our young people.

As a parent who has adopted (something I’ve talked about in America Magazine), I was thrilled to hear about the call to place adoption front and center in the consciousness of the pro-life movement.   Here are five things that a parish could do right away to foster a culture of adoption.

1)  Start a Fund to Assist Couples Who Are Seeking to Adopt

Adopting is expensive.   When I wrote an earlier piece for America Magazine on infertility (and the call to adopt), I was inundated with letters from couples who wanted to adopt but could not afford the $15,000-$25,000 that domestic adoptions often cost.   If not for the generous support of family, the University of Notre Dame, and a last minute extension of an adoption tax credit, it would have been impossible for Kara and I to have adopted our son.   Dioceses and parishes should begin to fund raise to assist couples in the process.   Lawyers and social workers in parishes might even volunteer their time to the parish to lower some of the expenses.

2)  Develop Crisis Pregnancy Ministries Related to Discernment

Very good adoption agencies (like Lutheran Social Services) offer incredible support to the birth mother and father throughout the adoption process.   But in researching other agencies (some Catholic), we found that much of the emphasis was placed on the adoption itself with little concern devoted to providing prenatal and post-adoption counseling to the birth mother and father.

Parishes really need to commit themselves to providing these sort of ministries (and they might be better placed to do so than most agencies).   A young woman, suddenly pregnant, should be able to walk into any parish in the United States, be greeted by a parish staff who directs the young woman to monetary assistance, spiritual counseling, and anything else that might be needed.   The goal of these ministries will be to help the mother and father (if he is involved) to discern whether adoption might be the best option (and to direct them to social service organizations that might be of assistance).

3) Highlight Couples Who Adopt, Birthparents, and Adopted Children at Pro-Life events

Pro-life organization are rightly concerned about advocating to end abortion through various legal channels, as well as highlighting the spiritual and physical “costs” of abortion. Yet, like most groups committed to advocacy, the tendency is to focus on the legislative, intellectual, and cultural challenges that a group may face.   Highlighting adoption is a way of telling a positive narrative, which may be particularly attractive to those outside the “in-group” of the pro-life movement.  Videos, documentaries, and all sorts of digital media should be created.

Such narratives are, of course, not always positive.   There is difficulty to adopting.  But love is always hard.  Parenting itself is never easy.   Adoption needs to cease being connected to a cultural script attached to themes of abandonment.  Adoption can be a unique gift of love, a Trinitarian moment of self-gift, between birth parents, the adopting couple, and the child.   Love is hard, so the stories told can’t be saccharine.  But, they need to be told nonetheless–precisely because they are “sacramental” moments in which God’s love has been manifested in the world even in the midst of darkness.

4) Marriage Formation that Treats Adoption and Foster Care

Marriage formation programs focus almost exclusively on topics related to sexual procreation (and the creation of the perfect upper middle class family but I’ll ignore this for now). These programs ignore the fact that some of these couples will be unable to have children.  Further, such an approach passes over the very real calling many couples feel to either adopt or be certified as foster parents.

This is a missed opportunity for tons of reasons.   One may come away from too many marriage prep retreats thinking that marriage is really about you, about the children you’ll have, about your family and the summer villa on Martha’s Vineyard you hope to eventually rent.   Rather, marriage is about the transformation of the created order through the baptismal priesthood of the couple who have been conformed to Christ. Adoption and foster care is part and parcel of this transformation of the created order, of allowing a love first bestowed through Christ to become a gift to the human family as a whole.

5) Preach About Harder Things

The Church still struggles to think about moments of crisis, of those in need.   I hear too many homilies about vacations, about large and perfect Catholic families, about apologies for the intensity of the Gospel.  Homilists must continue to discuss in public the kind of “hard things” that raise awareness about specific needs in the communities.   Foster parenting (which may lead to adoption in certain cases) in particular should be a response to addressing the reality of drug use, poverty, and domestic abuse that is often the source of so much suffering among children and abortion itself.   To adopt, to commit oneself to foster care (knowing that the goal is ultimately to re-connect the child with his or her birthparents) is a Christian response to suffering, one that demands kenotic, self-emptying love.

But homilies tend to pass over these darker aspects of the societies that we live in.  We don’t need homilies that cite the saddest statistics.  But we need homilies that present an accurate reflection of the world that we live in and provide a vision of the way that we may transform the world through self-giving love.



That Which We Know to Be True

Megan ShepherdMegan Shepherd, M.Div.

Associate Director, Notre Dame Vision

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Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Thursday, January 16, 2014 (Psalter Week I). We are grateful for the author’s permission to share it here.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,
kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith,
to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.
In this you rejoice, although now for a little while
you may have to suffer through various trials,
so that the genuineness of your faith,
more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire,
may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Although you have not seen him you love him;
even though you do not see him now yet believe in him,
you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
as you attain the goal of [your] faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9)

These seven verses from the first letter of Peter (1 Peter 1:3-9) capture the truth of our Christian existence: that through baptism, by conforming ourselves to Christ, we are transformed—we are reborn. In this new life we find hope in the face of persecution, rejoice in the midst of suffering, and trust in an unseen God.

Not because we fail to grasp the reality of our situation, or ignore real problems and pain, but because through Christ we are able to pierce through the veil of distortion and perceive the truest of realities: the inheritance awaiting us in God.

Through baptism we see things as they really are; we see the promise of the loving God. It is this glimpse of our inheritance, the promise of salvation, that allows us to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to see within our everyday lives how God is calling us to love, faith, and hope.

For although you have not seen him you love him;
Even though you do not see him now yet believe in him,
You rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. (1 Peter 1:8)

Mountain FastnessAt the moment of new birth all is fresh and new—clarity and confidence flow freely.  The Psalmist provides us with an image of this new birth: set atop a mountain where all seems good and strong, safe and clear. The new vista of new life in Christ.

I said to myself in my good fortune: “Nothing will ever disturb me.”
Your favor had set me on a mountain fastness. (Psalm 30:6-7a)

We treasure the moments that recall this grace: of consolation and seeing God’s grace easily, times we feel secure in our relationships with God and others, untouchable by anything that threatens our faith.

Yet in time we grow weary of sustaining hope and joy in the face of trials and suffering. Our desire for God is put in tension with the daily demands of our human existence and competes with worldly glory and concerns. And to us it may seem that You hid your face and I was put to confusion”  (Ps 30:7b).

We live much of our lives in this state of confusion. We know in the depths of our being the ultimate truth, the promise of our salvation in Christ.  But our choices, actions, and attitude paint a different narrative: one where despair, sorrow, fear, and sin seem to rule the day.

The reading from First Peter acknowledges the many challenges that we face in our lives of faith, the “various trials” that we may have to suffer. Each of us carries our own burdens, our own stories of pain and suffering, isolation and persecution.

While we cannot presume to know another’s story, we can connect their pain to the pain we each carry to unite us. Not in despair, but in hope. Hope that together we can help each other to see that there is a greater story behind and within our story.  And to reclaim that which is already ours.  Out of trust and faith and hope (in things unseen) we make an act of will—we make a choice—to call out to God and ask for help to see.

As we prayed in the Antiphon: I cried to you, Lord, and you healed me; I will praise you forever.

Person PrayingSo let every good man pray to you in the time of need.
The floods of water may reach high, but him they shall not reach.
You are my hiding place, O Lord; you save me from distress.
You surround me with cries of deliverance.  (Psalm 32:6-7)

Thus we pray together asking God to help us: to see that despite our fears, the waters will not reach us; to witness the grace in moments of suffering and pain; to hope for the promise of the future.

We pray to be reminded of that which we know to be true: seeing with new eyes the daily evidence of grace at work in the world, thus deepening our capacity to conform ourselves to Christ.

Silence, Outsider: The Catholic Internet, Donatism, and the Medicine of the Eucharistic Life

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

Some time last year, I began to read the comments section on as an amateur experiment in sociology (that is, I was bored).   I noticed certain “types” to the comments that followed sports articles.   There were those who disagreed with whatever ESPN decided to cover but felt that they had a responsibility to point out the flawed logic of the article for the benefit of human society.  There were the few interested in fostering an online community of those concerned with sports, primarily reserved to the regional ESPN sites (where you could trust that you were speaking to fellow fans and not Yankee or Laker fans).  There were those called “trolls,” interested in fomenting disagreement among the commentators. Often, even when trolls were not present, a commentator upon an article who used sarcasm (always misunderstood in the comment section–seriously, never use sarcasm) would be greeted by cries of “you idiot, maybe do some research before you come on this Trollssite.”   Women were often greeted by sexist comments, which led to racist comments, which ended in insulting another’s school, hometown, socio-economic status, grammar–whatever might create further conflict.

The habit of reading comments on led to an additional commitment to peruse the comment sections of Catholic blogs and other publications.   Surely, among those who professed faith in the divine love of Christ Jesus, who have dedicated themselves to seeking truth through love, one could find some assemblage of civility.   Rather, as most knew (and I was painfully unaware), Catholics were just as good as their sports counterparts at violent forms of discourse.  As someone who is simply quite bad at conflict, I often finished my reading of these comment sections with my pulse racing, my anxiety heightened.  I’d often ironically think to myself:  See how they love one another.

In reality, the tendency of groups of Christians to fail to love one another is by no means new.  The lack of civil discourse bemoaned by universities and politicians committed to some higher good (than their own ascent to power) is really nothing more than a modern manifestation of a secular Donatism.  Only the ideologically pure, those who operate according to the intellectual and personal vision that we have set forth, are welcome to participate in this community.   Among Catholic bloggers and members of online communities, the Donatism ceases to be secular.   It’s the old-fashioned type.Donatism

How does a North African heresy from the fourth and fifth centuries contribute to a present day account of online, Catholic discourse?  Quoting Jaroslav Pelican:

Beyond the many questions of church organization, religious persecution, and even social and tribal rivalry raised by Donatism, the central doctrinal question was:  What is the causal connection between grace and perfection, or between the unity of the church and the holiness of the church?  The Donatist answer to the question was simple and, at least upon first examination, consistent.  “By doing violence to that which is holy,” said Petilian, “you cut asunder the bond of unity.” Donatism was no less insistent than Augustine that there could be only one church.   The Donatists also laid claim to the title “catholic,” which they denied to anyone else.  But they made the unity and the catholicity of the church contingent upon its prior holiness. Therefore they demanded that the church be purged of those among its clergy and bishops who had been guilty of betraying the faith under persecution.  Only that church was a true church in which the “communion of saints” was a communion of genuine, perfect saints [my emphasis].   And the only church that met this qualification for the Donatist community; it alone had true unity, for it alone had true holiness (The Christian Tradition, A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 1:  The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), 309).

The Catholic conversation presently operating on the internet tends toward its own self-confident (even prideful) Donatism.   There are communities of Catholics online who stand above the Church and articulate criteria that they believe essential to being Catholic.   They then apply these criteria (apart from the actual, existing Church of bishops and councils and the sensus fidelium) to universities, to parishes, to priests or bishops or popes whom they find do not conform to such criteria.   Notre Dame isn’t Catholic, they pronounce.   St. Michael’s parish isn’t Catholic enough.   Pope Francis is a bad Catholic, not like Benedict (or vice versa if that’s the game you play).   If one objects to these judgments as less than nuanced, even wrong, then one is called a heretic.  The goal is to silence the opponent, to ensure that no matter the argument that one offers, it is discredited because the person arguing is among the damned and the stupid.YoureWrong

Of course, this discourse is omnipresent, even among those who sometimes call themselves progressive.   There are communities of Catholics who compose theological blogs and other publications that employ the same tactics to silence those who disagree.  The criteria is its own form of orthodoxy whatever that is:  discourses of power related to race, gender, sexuality, specific understandings of justice relative to ecclesial organization, etc.  You too are damned but because you don’t realize how your own thinking is clouded by the -isms that we have been saved from.  We stand above you and judge the veracity of your thought, the holiness of your discourse, the purity of your intentions–whether you can belong to us.  The one who disagrees is told that he or she should learn from his or her mistake and know next time to take up our way of thinking.   Or, he or she is told simply to shut up or mocked or insulted for not being intellectual enough (or committed to justice as the case may be) to understand our position.

LockedDoorThe answer to this rhetoric of violence operative in the online Catholic communities is not fuzzy thinking or offering an oration akin to “can’t we all just get along.”  After all, there are serious arguments to be had.   Questions related to theology, to Catholic identity, to ecclesial structures of organization, to what constitutes an authentic ethical or political life, to the nature of what it means to be human, among Catholics cannot simply be ignored. Such concerns are to be taken up by serious thinkers.   Arguments are to be had, deadly serious ones in which certain disagreements are acknowledged as fundamental.   Likewise, there are occasions in which racism, sexism, clericalism, the elitism demonstrated by theologians in particular (a nouveau clericalism of the academy), etc. must be decried, called out for what it is.

But what makes Catholicism not Donatism is that such arguments are not carried out as a discourse of hatred, of violence, against the “Other.”   Rather, such discourse is carried out with another human being created in the image and likeness of God.   Another human being who we hope may participate with the entire communion of saints in the beatific vision.  Another human being, who even in his or her “error” (as we judge it to be and perhaps rightly so), is the neighbor we are called to love.   Another human being, who is the manifestation to us of Christ here and now.CommunionofSaintsB

The internet cannot form us in such a style of discourse (an irony that I acknowledge in the context of a blog entry).   Rather, it takes particular communities of love, ones that transgress the total clarity of vision that predominates in the implicitly Donatist blogosphere.

Such communities exist.   We call them Eucharistic communities in which Catholics express the particularity of their faith not through arguments directed against the other but in the embodied act of receiving the living God and loving in turn; in practicing being a member of the communion of saints.   It strikes me that parishes, a remaining place of some ideological diversity in the Church (at least I hope!), may form us to love aright, to renew an ecclesial discourse that seeks truth through love with people whom we don’t always agree with.

I came to this conclusion at Christmas when I encountered someone I had interacted with in a back-and-forth conversation online several weeks earlier (via Facebook–the place where the rhetorical violence often gets kicked up a notch).  I fundamentally disagree with this person and still do.  But, at the sign of peace, I found myself face-to-face with an interlocutor whom I never expected to encounter at this moment, offering the very gift of peace which in a moment would be experienced in Eucharistic communion.  I wished him peace, I hoped that this very Eucharistic communion would draw us closer together, closer to the totality of divine love itself.

Since then, each moment I’ve received the Eucharist, I’ve thought of this interlocutor.   I’ve wished him peace.   I’ve hoped that both of us would be formed in the subversive logic of Eucharistic gift.   This Eucharistic love is the medicine for the Donatism taking place on the internet.   Those of us frustrated with this discourse cannot think to ourselves, perhaps it is possible to form a more perfect communion, leaving the other out (the left and the right, which will simply be re-created in our supposed new, more perfect communion of the EucharistCrosssaved).   Instead, we must learn to hope and work for a Eucharistic peace in which all of humanity might be joined together in love.   It’s something to argue about.   It’s serious enough that there might be real and authentic conflict.   But if in the course of the argument, we lose the capacity to love, if we strive to silence the other at all costs, then, we have succumbed to a world without love–a non-Eucharistic world in which violence is the only way forward.   To perpetuating the violence of the cross again and again.  To hell.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, happy are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

Of Chaos, Ushers, and Handing Out God

RichardBeckerRichard Becker, RN, MS, MA

Associate Faculty, Bethel College, School of Nursing

Co-Director of Religious Education, St. Matthew Cathedral 

Editors’ note:   This post first appeared on God-Haunted Lunatic.

Holy Communion at St. Thomas was always an unholy mess, and I loved it.

Back then, it was a hodgepodge parish comprising every conceivable socioeconomic sector of Chicago. There was Mass in three languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese) every weekend, plus an Eritrean priest would come by once a month to celebrate a Ge’ez liturgy for the Ethiopians. Sunday mornings were always chaotic, with kids in the aisles and people milling around here and there, the Korean grandmothers telling their beads all through Mass, and men occasionally ducking out for a smoke. It was like a big messy family reunion.Geez

Then came Holy Communion. Unlike most American parishes, St. Thomas of Canterbury didn’t dismiss for Communion by rows. We had ushers, to be sure, but their main role was to take up and safeguard the collection, and then to intervene in case an inebriated or otherwise unruly worshiper got out of hand.

Instead of a nice, tidy, orderly march forward, the distribution of Communion at St. Thomas was more like a crush of surging humanity – like what you see on CNN after a natural disaster, and folks are crowding around those trucks handing out aid. The crowd is scared, they’re hungry and thirsty, and they’re not going to wait in a queue.

I get that. I’d be the same way.

There’s something seriously wrong with how we’ve applied principles of efficiency and uniformity to the Mass, especially when it comes to Communion. What is Holy Communion after all? Matthew Lickona plays it straight: “I have a secret. I eat God, and I have his life in me. It’s the best thing in the world.” Seriously, the Church is handing out God to anybody who shows up – for free! But we sit there, ho-hum, like we’re waiting for our number to be called at the BMV. “Free God, here!” we should be shouting from the street corners. “Come and get your free God!” If we did that, and folks could recognize their hunger for God, and they believed us, wouldn’t they come crowding the aisles to get some? And would we blame them?Volunteer receives Communion during the World Youth Day closing Mass on Copacabana beach

That being the case, what’s our problem? Sedately we sit there in our pews until the ushers allow us to get in line – no cutting! Considering what’s up at the front of church, you’d think it would be more like midnight before Black Friday at Walmart – some urgency, possibly some anxiety that the priest might run out.

On the other hand, if we do happen to dillydally – maybe pause to pray a bit more than we should – what then? Nudges, nods, and then clumsy encounters as our neighbors dutifully follow the ushers’ directives, clambering over us non-conformists and troublemakers.

I can think of at least three reasons why the messiness of my old parish in Uptown was preferable to the standard orderly Communion seen in most churches today, and I discovered that the first two had already been adeptly delineated by one Rev. Paul F. Bosch, a retired Lutheran pastor and liturgy professor from Canada.

To begin with, dismissal for Communion by rows is a distraction – as Bosch writes:

It can shatter your revery. It can intrude on your meditation. Those hymns we sing in many churches as people commune: They’re intended to be aids to prayer.

The Mass is a prayer. Hence, those who participate in Mass ought to be invited to…well, pray! And what better time to be communing with God than immediately prior to receiving Him in Holy Communion. Again, Bosch:

Surely during the distribution of Bread and Cup it would be appropriate for worshippers to be encouraged to reflect, to meditate on the Day’s Prayers, on its Readings, on its Sermon, on its Hymn tunes and texts. And not dissuaded or violated in that attempt!

Perhaps some would protest that the confusion and disorder accompanying a random rush toward Communion would itself be a distraction, but consider that there is nothing in the rubrics themselves that justify the pew-by-pew approach. Nothing in the General Instruction, and certainly not in Canon Law. Not a peep, at least as far as I could find.

Instead, we have the Catechism instructing us this way:

To prepare for worthy reception of this sacrament, the faithful should observe the fast required in their Church. Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest.

OK, bodily demeanor conveying respect and solemnitybut at “this moment” – i.e., at the moment one actually receives Communion. And, lest we forget, the Catechism also advises “joy.” When I think of somebody joyfully anticipating an honored, looked-for guest, I think of my kids: Out in the front yard, craning their necks to watch for vehicles coming up or down the street in our direction, running around in excitement because they know the guest is almost here, almost here! But standing in a line and waiting their turn? Not a chance.PhysicanChrist

So, there’s distraction, but here’s a second objection to orderly Communion – again, in Bosch’s words:

Ushers at communion, escorting worshippers to the Table row by row, present an unnecessary and unseemly social pressure to worshippers sitting in those rows.

Dismissing the faithful in neat, tidy rows means that anybody who stays behind will be noticed! Thus, there’s a tremendous amount of incentive to go ahead and get in line with everybody else, regardless of ones disposition, preparedness, or even beliefs.

I remember this pressure myself back when I visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as a Protestant teen. Now, the Europeans don’t normally dismiss for Communion in rows, but when everyone else went forward, I just got up with them – I thought it would be too awkward to be the only one left behind. When the priest handed me the Host, I took it back with me to my seat, heedless of the intense glares and raised eyebrows of surrounding clergy and congregants. Finally, my Catholic friends motioned to me to consume the Host – my controversial First Communion!  It was an innocent mistake that I’m sure is repeated often in this country, but it is one that could easily be avoided by adopting an unregimented Eucharistic distribution.

Distraction and social pressure – two good arguments in favor of chaotic Communion. And here’s a third: The Sacraments by their very nature are meant to be messy, all sensory and corporeal and bodily and all that – water splashing about, and flame and fragrant oils, and spit and salt, wine and bread, breath and utterance and God made present. It’s crazy stuff, like the Church herself, and family life, and marriage and sex and having babies, and birth and death. Nothing neat and tidy about any of that. And nothingEucharistCatacombs neat and tidy about eating God’s Body and drinking His Blood, that’s for sure.

All this calls to mind those unnerving lines in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Mr. Beaver describes the lion Aslan in this way:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.

“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion,” Mr. Beaver adds later on. Dangerous lions were also in the forefront of St. Ignatius’ mind when he wrote these words about martyrdom and the Eucharist: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”

This is the very One we receive in Holy Communion: Wild, not tame, not safe; dangerous, in other words. That being the case, there is something strange about approaching Him like we’d approach a teller at the bank. It seems more fitting that Holy Communion would resemble a riot rather than a rank.

So, away with orderly Communion! Bring on the chaos. Of course, lest there be any doubt, we’d still need the ushers! Somebody will still need to take up the collection and intervene when there are disorderlies. But instead of policing the Communion lines, I’d recommend that they stand at the exits and remind Communicants Whom they’re carrying when they leave. And what that means – namely, this:

As then in the sad and anxious times through which we are passing there are many who cling so firmly to Christ the Lord hidden beneath the Eucharistic veils that neither tribulation, nor distress, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor danger, nor persecution, nor the sword can separate them from His love, surely no doubt can remain that Holy Communion…may become a source of that fortitude which not infrequently makes Christians into heroes.

Christian heroes? Think: Ignatius of Antioch. Think: Martyrs. Really, maybe the ushers should be warning folks about the Communion line. It’s not only messy; it can cost you your life!


Pope Culture III: The Imitation of Christ in Hölderlin

Jessica MannenJessica Mannen
Master of Divinity Candidate,
University of Notre Dame


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“I remember Hölderlin for that poem written for the birthday of his grandmother that is very beautiful and was spiritually very enriching for me. The poem ends with the verse, ‘May the man hold fast to what the child has promised.’ I was also impressed because I loved my grandmother Rosa, and in that poem Hölderlin compares his grandmother to the Virgin Mary, who gave birth to Jesus, the friend of the earth who did not consider anybody a foreigner.” –Pope Francis

In this series, I have assigned myself the task of experiencing and reflecting upon those works of art that Pope Francis names as his favorites in the famous interview appearing in America magazine. I find the disclosure of these preferences to be a uniquely beautiful insight into Francis’s heart, and offer these reflections as a way to pray with and for the Holy Father.


Friedrich HölderlinIn naming Friedrich Hölderlin as one of his favorite poets, the Holy Father presents me with a bit of a challenge. Since I don’t speak a word of German, I resolutely headed to the library to find this poem in English translation. Unfortunately, I had no luck; in keeping with his theme of humility, Francis has kept close to his heart a poem that is not considered important enough to appear in volumes of Hölderlin’s selected works. I’ve also been told by several German speakers that Hölderlin is untranslatable—as all good poets are—but we’ll do the best we can.[1] Here is the poem in its original German:

Hölderlin poem-German

As Pope Francis notes, this poet compares his grandmother in her contentment and piety to the Blessed Virgin, who “gave birth to the best of humans” (line 8). More to the point, though, Hölderlin compares his beloved grandmother to Jesus, to the best of humans Himself. The nouns in lines 5 and 15 are nearly identical: long life has won the poet’s grandmother a gentle soul, and Christ keeps none of the living out of his soul. Similarly, his grandmother’s acceptance of life’s pain, her old age, and her impending death are reflections of Christ’s befriending of death and return “from pain and toil victorious back to the Father” (18).

There is a chain of imitations here. Hölderlin’s grandmother imitates Mary, but in doing so really imitates Christ. Hölderlin himself expresses a desire to imitate his grandmother, to grow into old age with the same piety and tranquility as she and to eventually join her in heaven. In doing so, he too will most truly be imitating Christ. What a beautiful summary of Christian community, and especially of the communion of saints! Communion of Saints-circularIn looking to our holiest brothers and sisters as role models, we in fact live out the way of life that Christ himself first demonstrated. The saints, though, provide us with an even greater variety of images and pathways for how to live out the life of Christ into which we are baptized.

Hölderlin’s grandmother, like most saints, was never canonized by the church, and her name does not even appear in this ode by which she is memorialized. Even so, she served as a model of holiness for her own family, and her vocation to motherhood (and grandmotherhood) is realized in the “children who mature and grow and bloom” around her (4). Her path of sanctity is truly holy because, like Christ’s, it is guided by love. It is love that “nourishes” those who grow up in her home (26). It is love that nurtures their very growth.

This love is not present by accident. In a world where most “know it not, that the High walks among the people,” Hölderlin’s grandmother rather “knows him well” (9, 19). Her familiarity and friendship with Christ enable her to become, like Mary, a vessel for his love to enter the world. In allowing this love to guide the daily affairs of her family life and of her gradual aging, Hölderlin’s grandmother becomes one of the countless anonymous saints whom the Holy Spirit forms into the Church.

[1] Heartfelt thanks are owed to Patricia Bellm, who talked me through a rough translation and helped to interpret the poem’s overall message in a way Google Translate just can’t.