The Saint Who Taught Me to Worship: The Feast of Augustine

Tim-OMalley-e1375811311325-137x150Timothy 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

Like many of those involved in liturgical scholarship, my own interest in the liturgy began at any early age. I remember being highly aware as a seven year old that worship of God in the Eucharist was the sort of activity that might change what it meant to be alive in the first place. I was the strange second grader who longed each Sunday for Mass. In high school, my desire for worship turned to the contemporary praise songs that played over Praiseand over again on the local Christian radio station in Knoxville. This music, and the accompanying affections, were essential to my life of faith. As I grew older, slowly turning away from this praise music, I discovered the rich hymnody and poetry of the Anglo-Catholic world–once again coming to know the reality of God through a new, poetic form of praise. Worship, the act of praise and adoration, was integral to my life as a believer–until the fall semester of my junior year when I was studying in London. In the midst of loneliness, as well as a parish choir that was less than spectacular, I noticed that my feelings in worship dried up. The disappearance of these affections during Mass slowly led me to doubt whether God existed at all. I attended Mass but felt nothing. In the spring semester on campus, I found myself in a joint theology/philosophy seminar on Augustine taught by John Cavadini (my current boss) and Fr. John Jenkins (the now president of Notre Dame). Early in the semester, we turned our attention to that magisterial work of Augustine–De civitate dei (a text that I find quickly becoming my favorite work by Augustine in my middle years). As we reached Book X, that book which treats the theme of worship and sacrifice, I found myself face-to-face with the following passage:

Our heart is his altar when it is lifted up to him [sursum est]; we plead to him by his Only-begotten priest; we offer bleeding victims to him, when we strive for his truth even to shedding blood [ad sanguinem]; we burn the sweetest incense to him when we are aflame with holy and pious love in his sight; we consecrate and we return his gifts in us and our own person; by solemn feasts and dedicated days, we render sacred and proclaim the memory [dicamus sacramusque memoriam] of his benefits, lest, by the passing of time ingrate forgetfulness might creep upon us; we sacrifice to him a victim of humility and of praise on the altar of our heart kindled by the fire of love.[1]

This account of worship did not emphasize how Augustine felt in the act of worship. Rather, it treated authentic worship as nothing less than the gift of ourselves to God. True worship was not about generating the right emotions so that we can “feel” God’s presence in our lives. Rather, true worship, formative worship changes what it means for us to be human in the first place. Our memory, our understanding, and our will are to become sacrifices of divine praise to God–gifts offered to the God who first loved us. Worship was not about what I felt. Instead, it was about who I was to become: one who praises God in all that I do. AugustineofHippoElsewhere in this same work, Augustine writes:  “God will be the end of all our desires, he who will be seen without end, loved without weariness, praised without fatigue.  This work, this desire, this motion, will be truly common to all, like eternal life itself.”[2]

The destiny of the human vocation is nothing less than total praise, a common gift of our humanity to God in love without any effort except the duty of delight. This treatment of sacrifice forever changed how I would think about worship. Liturgy is not dependent upon the kind of feelings that are generated in the act of worship. Divine praise is an objective action, one in which we practice giving our wills over to God. We practice that vocation of total praise, which is the destiny for those of us who desire eternal membership in the city of God. This task is never easy. It is not without a formation of our desires, a form of practice that requires the Christian to learn not only to feel but to love. As Augustine comments in his Enarrationes in Psalmos:

What about you?  Do you too want to sing and play psalms?  Then not only must your voice sing God’s praises but your actions must keep in tune with your voice.  After you have been singing with your voice you will have to be quiet for a while, but sing with your life in such a way that you never fall silent.  Suppose you are engaged in business and you are contemplating some dishonest deal:  you have allowed your praise of God to be silenced and, worse still, you have not only smothered your praise but have committed blasphemy; for since God is praised by your good works you are praising him simply by performing them, whereas your evil deeds are a blasphemy, and so you blaspheme as you commit them.[3]

The vocation of humanity is this kind of praise, a perfect praise in which every form of worship finds its end not in better, more sophisticated (and novel) worship that generates more and more emotion. But in that gift of self, which Christians call love. Worship is not about us, it is not about our affections. Instead, it is about becoming who God intended us to be: members of a symphony of perfect praise of the voice and the will alike. On this feast of St. Augustine, I’m grateful to this member of the choir of the saints, who taught me to praise aright.

[1] Augustine, ciu. 10.3 (CCL 47A:  275.14-23; Dyson 394-95):  Cum ad illum sursum est, eius est altare cor nostrum; eius Vnigenito eum sacerdote placamus; ei cruentas uictimas caedimus, quando usque ad sanguinem pro eius ueritate certamus; eum suauissimo adolemus incenso, cum in eius conspectu pio sanctoque amore flagramus; ei dona eius in nobis nosque ipsos uouemus et reddimus; ei beneficiorum eius sollemnitatibus festis et diebus statutis dicamus sacramusque memoriam, ne uolumine temporum ingrata subrepat obliuio; ei sacrificamus hostiam humilitatis et laudis in ara cordis igne feruidam caritatis.

[2] Augustine, ciu. 22.30 (47B:  863.33-36; Dyson, 1179):  Ipse finis erit desideriorum nostrorum, qui sine fine uidebitur, sine fastidio amabitur, sine fatigatione laudaitur.  Hoc munus, hic affectus, hic actus profecto erit omnibus, sicut ipsa uita aeterna, communis.

[3] Augustine, en. Ps. 146.2 (CCL 40:  2122.6-14; Boulding, 421).

Elisabeth Kincaid’s “On the Rotten Fruit of Niceness.”

A really fine piece by Notre Dame doctoral student in moral theology, Elisabeth Kincaid, looking at Kendra Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.

The essay/review appearing at the evangelical and catholic Anglican blog, Covenant, situates the theme of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism both in history (Jonathan Edwards) and in American culture as a whole. Here’s an excerpt, but we encourage you to read the whole thing:

The solution cannot be either a reiteration of the gospel of niceness or a quest to become relevant in a society which is uninterested. Rather, Dean’s study suggests at least one alternative. The parents whose children are most likely to be able to articulate and understand their own faith are parents whose children have seen them make some type of radical life-style decisions which are directly tied to their faith convictions. While teens might roll their eyes and complain about their parents being “weird,” it is the parents who make the radical choices that run counter to the culture, but along with the teaching of Christ, whose children stay involved in the church.


Jesus Pulls a Fast One

From a friend of the Center for Liturgy, Rick Becker, on attending Mass on 8/13/14: Jesus Pulls a Fast One

What’s the take home here? For a clue, we can return to Matthew 18. The weekday Mass reading that got me thinking about this stuff stopped at verse 20, but if you check your New Testament, you’ll see that what follows the discourse on church discipline is surprising – beginning with verse 21:

Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

In other words, sure, we have to have rules and consequences for breaking them. And, sure, we have to take more drastic measures when rule-breakers refuse to reform – drastic measures like the tax collector/Gentile treatment.

But you can’t fool me, Jesus. You want me to love them and forgive them all anyway – the whole tax collector and Gentile ilk, obstinate sinners all. Just like you loved them and forgave them all yourself.

Just like you love and forgive me.

Hannah Arendt and Political Worship


Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

In the last several weeks, I’ve undertaken a project of reading a selection of books that treat a political theology of worship ranging from Augustine’s City of God to Bernd Wannenwetsch’s Political Worship. The study of the latter led me to a re-reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, a text I haven’t poured over since a doctoral seminar in political theology with Fred Lawrence at Boston College.

Arendt’s description of the disappearance of the private for a suffocating notion of the public and her genealogy of labor and work are worthy of greater attention by liturgical theologians interested in the cultural obstacles to worship for the modern person. Yet, what I found fascinating was her account of action and speech:

Without the accompaniment of speech, at any rate, action would not only lose its revelatory character, but, and by the same token, it would lose its subject, as it were; not acting men but performing robots would achieve what, humanly speaking, would remain incomprehensible. Speechless action would no longer be action because there would no longer be an actor, and the actor, the doer of deeds, is possible only if he is at the same time the speaker of words. The action he begins is humanly disclosed by the word, and though his deed can be perceived in its brute physical appearance without verbal accompaniment, it becomes relevant only through the spoken word in which he identifies himself as the actor, announcing what he does, has done, and intends to do (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 178-79).

This intimate union of speech and action is related to the liturgical life of the Church. Christian liturgy is necessarily “speech-filled” action. This does not mean that every liturgical action requires an oration from a well-intentioned priest, seeking to let the assembly in on the meaning of what he is doing. But, it does mean that the worshipper must come to know what he or she is doing. It is not meaningless, frenetic activity on the part of the worshipper. It is not action for actions’ sake. Instead, liturgical action is necessarily “speech-filled.” It is meaningful activity–a moment in which the person allows God to act upon his or her humanity. This action is heroic, conscious, a decision to let God’s order of the world become flesh in my body (and hopefully, every body that I come to encounter).

Arendt’s discussion of speech and action continues on to a deeper analysis of the “political” nature of “speech-filled” action. Speech and action are always a public or political event: “Because of its inherent tendency to disclose the agent together with the act, action needs for its full appearance the shining brightness we once called glory, and which is possible only in the public realm” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 180). That is, the person participates in speech and action so that the public might know the identity of the actor. The purpose of this revelation is for the sake of glory, an awareness that the actor is him/herself great.

In Christian worship, this revelation of identity continues. In the mere fact that one engages in worship, the Christian testifies to his or her identity as one baptized into the prodigal love of the triune God. Engaging in Lauds each morning (even alone) is never a private activity insofar as one is acting in such a manner that one’s identity is discernible only in the glory of the Word made flesh. The worshipper does not reveal his or her glory in worship but the glory of God. This glory is revealed not for the private edification of the few but for the entirety of the world. Thus, worship is intrinsically political insofar as it testifies to the public at large the work that the Father has accomplished in Jesus Christ, the Son. Worship does not become political when it deals with “themes” such as the preferential option for the poor or injustice. It is political because it is always a public performance of speech and action, one in which the actor reveals that his/her identity is to be discerned only in the self-emptying love of divine worship.

Of course, this does not mean that we can’t worship incorrectly. It is entirely possible that we (and the particular church community) can engage in liturgical worship as directed toward the revelation of our own glory. Yet even this form of worship is political, albeit one based in the politics of pride rather than the divine politics of love. The goal of liturgical formation, then, is not simply to teach Christians to engage in frenetic activity in the context of worship. Instead, we are called to form Christians to see in the liturgical life of the Church a heroic occasion to reveal to the “polis” the fact that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That this fact, this way of being, has forever altered my identity.

Perhaps then martyrdom (and its eucharistic motifs in the early Church) are not simply an occasion of the “politicization” of Christianity. Instead, it is simply the logical conclusion to a “public” approach to worship in which what is revealed is the glory of the crucified God-man, Jesus Christ. Political worship in the Christian life finds its conclusion not in the theocracy of the state. Rather, the end of political worship is the human body giving itself over to a way of love that will inevitably result in the suffering of one who enters into relationship with others. Every Christian who engages in action as an occasion to love unto the end like the Son, a form of love learned in the worship of the Church, has become a “political worshipper.”

Pope St. Pius X and the Liturgical Musician

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

Contact Author

Today the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. Pius X, an important figure for all Catholics, but especially so those involved in liturgical music ministry. Throughout his eleven-year reign as the Bishop of Rome (1903–14), Pius X wrote more on the topic of sacred music than all of his predecessors—the fruit of a lifetime spent encouraging others to praise God in song. Pius X 2 - Giuseppe SartoPrior to his election as Pope, when he was known as Giuseppe Sarto, he directed the student chant choir as a seminarian, and following his ordination, he taught courses in sacred music and chant to seminarians. As a parish priest, he worked tirelessly to cultivate a love for the chant repertoire of the Church among his parishioners. As Bishop of Mantua, he convoked a diocesan synod in which he expressed the need to reform the musical practices common in many parishes, in which the popular operatic arias and theatrical songs of the day were finding their way into the music of the liturgical celebration. As Cardinal-Patriarch of Venice, he crafted a letter outlining in detail his vision for what the liturgical music of the Church ought to be, and in the first few months of his papacy, on the feast of St. Cecilia, he promulgated a document known as Tra le sollecitudini (TLS) that stemmed from his earlier work, in which he calls for the reform of sacred music throughout the universal Church.

This document was unprecedented in its theological breadth as well as its practical specificity, but what is perhaps most striking is its ultimate objective in reforming sacred music: “to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful” by “active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church” (TLS, Introduction, italics added). Pius X 1As Pope, Pius X’s motto was “to restore all things in Christ,” and his musical reforms reflected this motto. At their heart, Pius X’s musical reforms were intended to restore the active participation of the faithful in the celebration of the liturgy, a prophetic anticipation of the reforms set forth in the Second Vatican Council. The words quoted above will no doubt resonate in the hearts of those familiar with the oft-cited passage from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which emphasizes the Church’s desire for “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgical celebration on the part of the faithful (see SC, §14).

The music of the liturgical celebration is a particularly beautiful way in which the ideal of “full, conscious, and active participation” may be realized. Individual voices raised together form a concrete expression of the Church’s fullness, her unity in diversity; the beauty of the music reflects our conscious awareness of the beauty of God and of his saving actions in Christ through the power of the Spirit; and the very act of pouring forth life and breath in sung prayer is an offering of self in grateful praise that can only be described as eucharistic.

Pius X understood well the importance of music for the liturgical celebration, and his insistence that liturgical music uphold “the sanctity and dignity of the temple” continues to resound even today (TLS, Introduction). Chant manuscriptFor Pius X, such music embodies three qualities: it is holy, it is true art, and it is universal (see TLS, §2). Pius X specified that the music best exhibiting these qualities of holiness, true art, and universality comprises Gregorian chant, “Classic Polyphony” (particularly that of Palestrina), and “modern music” that embodies “excellence, sobriety, and gravity” and that is “in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions” (TLS, §§4–5). Sadly, liturgical musicians today often find themselves at odds with one another on what specific forms of music exhibits these qualities, and these debates can even be filled with animosity for those with differing opinions. Nevertheless, Pius X himself encouraged a variety of music in the liturgical celebration, as long as that variety enriches the celebration rather than detracts from it, and as long as the music itself lends itself to the participation of the faithful.

With such an overwhelming plethora of music marketed for use in worship available today, the task of selecting repertoire for the liturgical celebration is daunting to say the least. Now, more than ever, prayerful reflection and careful discernment is needed on the part of all who shape the liturgical celebration—not just directors of music, but also the priests and bishops who oversee their ministry. HPIM1336.JPGEven over a century later, the wisdom of Pius X can continue guide those in parish ministry striving to cultivate “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgical celebration by selecting music that “can express the inexhaustible riches of the Mystery in the Liturgy and thereby encourage the active participation of the faithful in celebrations.”[1] Through his intercession, may the Holy Spirit continue to guide all liturgical musicians in their ministry so that the liturgy and its music may achieve their ultimate purpose, “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.”[2]


[1] John Paul II. Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio “Tra le Sollecitudini” on Sacred Music (22 November 2003).

[2] Second Vatican Council. Sacrosanctum Concilium, §112; cf. §10. See also Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini, §1.

Film Review: Mary of Nazareth

Danielle Peters-cropDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life,
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

The most recent film on the Blessed Virgin, Mary of Nazareth, directed by Giacomo Campiotti, chronicles the life of the Our Lady from early childhood to the Resurrection of her Son Jesus. It has received many endorsements and may well be counted among the classics.

In his remarks after viewing the movie, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI pointed out that “it is not easy to characterize the figure of any mother, because the riches of the maternal life are difficult to describe, but this is even more challenging when it comes to the Mary of Nazareth, who is the mother of Jesus, the Son of God made man.” Thus it is with Campiotti’s production. Like most cinematic Marian narratives, this latest motion picture draws heavily from Holy Scripture, thus presenting, in Benedict XVI’s words, a “respectful approach to the life of the Virgin Mary.” In addition, numerous scenes stem from apocryphal sources, such as Mary’s presentation in the temple, or from legends, as for example that Mary wove Jesus’ seamless robe, which are not foreign to a Catholic audience. However, any screenwriter confronted with the challenge to fashion an original work of art needs to creatively balance the authentic historical sources with his own vision of the plot. This newest film on Our Lady is no exception.

Its Italian director implemented abundant symbolic scenes and gestures in the originally 200-minute film (cut to 153 minutes for the English version). These imaginative visuals allow the onlooker a glimpse into the spiritual battle raging in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4) with Mary and her Son at the center. We identify three categories reflecting the director’s artistic liberty which help him attend to (1) the person and mission of Mary of Nazareth; (2) the “mystery of Mary”; and (3) the viewer’s pondering heart.

The Person and Mission of Mary of Nazareth
Mary of Nazareth-Domestic life
Campiotti’s Mary of Nazareth (Alissa Jung) is no conventional woman. Contrary to the laws and customs of her people, according to which a woman was defined either as the daughter of her father or as the wife of her husband, Mary appears as a self-possessed woman whose sole desire was to fulfill God’s wish, no matter the cost. Thus she abides by the regulations and duties of her people as long as it does not interfere with her commitment to her Son.

We learn that she has cast an eye on the young carpenter Joseph (Luca Marinelli) and that she is attracted to his virtuous life. Gladly she accepts Joseph’s proposal to be his wife without consulting her father. The Annunciation scene depicts the young woman, betrothed to Joseph, dressed in white long garments and a white veil, symbol of virginity. She is kneading dough and her smile betrays the bliss of a young bride. The angel, portrayed as a young female with a male voice, does not interrupt or scare her in the least. Quite the contrary, upon seeing the angel she radiates tranquil joy and listens with holy expectation to his message. She remains calm even when asking the well-known “How can this be …?” She apparently knows that the child of her womb is the long-expected “Messiah, the Savior of us all.” She cites Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:12 and applies the periscopes to herself. Against the will of her worried parents and perplexed fiancé she embarks on her journey to Ain Karem to aid her cousin Elizabeth. What appears to be the stubbornness of a teenager is in actuality submission to an inner intuition which contradicts reason and the custom of her people.

As the child in her womb grows, the expectant mother is seen continuously cradling and communing with him. He is her support as she meets the reproach of her parents and the rage of Joseph in reaction to her by now advanced pregnancy. With an amazing self-assuredness Mary shares with them the message of the Angel; yet she is not the least disappointed in their lack of faith, nor does she feel rejected by their accusations. Mary of Nazareth-NativityShe bravely walks through town cradling her unborn baby and smiling with compassion at those who despise her. She is the one who takes the reluctant Joseph by the hand to perform the traditional dance at their wedding feast. Against the will of her parents and husband she insists on accompanying Joseph to Bethlehem. Ignoring Joseph’s hesitation, she shares her newborn Son with the group of shepherds allowing the men, women, and children a personal encounter with the Divine Child.

Mary takes an active part in Jesus’ (Andreas Pietschmann) adult life as well. We see her in the women’s section of the synagogue and gathered with the multitudes for the Sermon on the Mount. She is present at the house of Simon and happy to welcome her Son with his disciples to her home. She appears with Joseph at the wedding at Cana but is invited by Jesus to join the bridal round dance while Joseph happily looks on.

Up to this point Mary is driven by her motherly intuition and concerns for Jesus. She admits to Joseph that she misses him and she wishes that “he’d be back in my womb. He would be safe there.” At a coincidental encounter with Jesus in the desert she expresses her sorrow at the prospect of never seeing him again. Yet, the mother-son relationship takes on a new dimension when Mary intuits the couple’s need for wine at the wedding of Cana. The cinematic depiction places her in between Jesus and the wedding guests. Jesus cannot resist her compassionate plea and with a considerate nod works his first sign. In the days following this unheard of event, Mary blames herself for “forcing Jesus to come to the open.” It is an act for which she takes responsibility. At the same time she grows in the awareness of her mission next to her Son. Perhaps the crimson-red seamless garment she had woven for him is a sign for their new relationship. As he dons his tunic, Mother and Son wear the same color combination, red and blue, conceivably also a subtle hint at their common destiny. Mary consciously takes up her new mission as her Son’s disciple after Joseph’s death. She rebukes family members who inform her that Jesus “is not your son anymore” affirming “He is my Lord!” Her pure and unobtrusive glance compels even the vulgar guardian on Golgotha to disobey all orders thus allowing the grieving mother to be near her crucified Son.

Mary’s new mission as handmaid of the Lord extends to all members of Christ, uniquely portrayed in the prodigal Mary Magdalene, who finds her way to Jesus through Mary. On the day of the Last Supper, during their last encounter before the Passion, Jesus emphatically reminds his mother of her new role. Alluding to his Apostles and to Mary Magdalene, he urges her to remain strong because “they need your faith!” Referring to this emotional scene Benedict XVI emphasized: “She is a mother who desired to keep her Son with her, but she knows he is God. Her faith and love are so great, she accepts her part in his mission.” After Jesus’ death Mary exercises her role as she calms the broken-hearted, recreant, and fearful disciples. They listen to her as she assures them that he will return.

Mary of Nazareth-PietaAs handmaid of the Lord, Mary’s life is deeply interwoven with that of her Son as she embarks with him on his way of the Cross. Like Jesus she wrestles with God. She offers herself to die in Jesus’ place and with her Son she surrenders him to the Father for the salvation of all. She physically feels the pangs Jesus endures during his passion; should her fainting be seen as an alignment to her Son’s falling? Or is it a sign that she needed support from John and Mary Magdalene? Nonetheless, the grieving handmaid repeats her unwavering “Here I am…” after Jesus entrusts John to her care. And when she receives the dead body of her Master we sense that she is again sustained by the fabric of her faith as she utters under tears: “He will live.”

Their very last encounter depicts Mary and Jesus after the resurrection. Both are clad in white. As she utters once more her “Here I am” Mary appears to be of the same age as Jesus, perhaps an indication of the new dimension of her motherhood which she exercises beside her Son throughout eternity.

The “Mystery of Mary”
From the beginning to the end of the narrative, Mary is a pondering person veiled in silence and mystery. The motion picture contains elements of rich symbolism which are powerful catechetical tools to gain a fuller understanding of the person and vocation comprising the mystery of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thus, the movie begins with a scene reminiscent of the massacre of the innocent children shortly after the birth of the Christ-child (Mt 2:16ff). This time, however, soldiers ravage houses and streets in search for little girls in order to find Mary among them. Although this scene can neither be found in the apocryphal nor other related literature, it sets the plot surrounding Mary’s person. Her parents’ reaction after the horrific event resembles the leitmotif of all that will unfold. Having witnessed that their little daughter was immune to the dog’s smell which ordinarily “no heir of Eve can escape” they conclude: “Mary is a mystery; a mystery too great for us.” In the appraisal of their daughter, Joachim and Anne hint at Mary’s privileged origin (sinlessness) and divine election, her Immaculate Conception. In support of this intuition we observe the child Mary shortly thereafter, pulling her parents towards the temple. Not even the tears of her mother can stop her from running to the High Priest standing at the entrance of the temple. The 6th chapter of the Protogospel of St. James (written about 145 AD) records Anne’s promise to the nine-month-old Mary: “As the Lord my God lives, you will not walk again on this earth till I bring you into the temple of the Lord.” The following chapter relates that Anne and Joachim presented their three-year-old daughter in the temple where Mary dances on the third step of the altar and “all the house of Israel loved her.” Though a legendary account (from which arose the feast of Mary’s Presentation celebrated on November 21), the story shows that, even in her childhood, Mary was completely dedicated to God and separated from all worldly influence.

The purity of her soul places Mary in stark contrast to other women, who are all daughters of Eve. The motion picture succeeds in showing the contrast between her, the New Eve, and Anne, Elizabeth, the women of Nazareth, and above all the heinous Herodias and misguided Mary Magdalene.

Fast forward as the narration introduces us to the teenager Mary tending sheep. She appears quite content, her gaze directed heavenwards and totally unaware of the approaching snake, symbol of the devil that is unable to harm her. Joining her is a young Joseph whose attraction for Mary radiates from his glance and gestures. According to Jewish customs he had previously mustered his courage to seek Joachim’s permission to speak to his daughter which he received from Anne instead. The Protogospel of James, some Fathers of the Church, as well as theologians to the present day have speculated that, during her time in the temple, Mary may have taken a vow of virginity, thereby renouncing marriage. Chapter 8 of the Protogospel of James presents Joseph as a widower with children, “chosen to take the Virgin of the Lord, to keep her for him.” Yet nothing in the movie’s ensuing dialogue between the young master builder and Mary suggests that their relationship would be different from that of other couples. Mary of Nazareth-AnnunciationHowever, their love and commitment to each other is severely put to the test due to God’s intervention. After the Annunciation, Mary’s sole purpose and focus of life is directed to the service of the Lord. Her initial Yes, joyfully uttered in response to the Angel’s message becomes her cantus firmus loyally repeated throughout the joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious events of her earthly journey. To this Pope emeritus Benedict XVI remarked: “Mary of Nazareth is the woman of ‘Here I am’, giving herself completely over to the Divine Will. … In this ‘yes’, which is repeated even as she suffers the loss of her Son, she finds an overwhelming and profound happiness.”

As she tries to understand and embrace her mission in the service of her Son, she is unable to share her inmost feelings with Joseph. For some, Joseph’s rage upon seeing his pregnant betrothed may be difficult to reconcile with a “just and upright man” to whom God entrusts the future of the “child and his Mother.” Yet, traditionally Joseph is not portrayed as a young man as in Campiotti’s narration. Unlike the old widower with children from the Protogospel, our young carpenter expresses his disappointment by giving in to his human emotions with a temper tantrum. Nonetheless he, being drawn into Mary’s mystery, comes to understand and grow in his role as guardian of mother and child: the tender, loving dialog of the young couple as they approach their wedding night reveals their mutual agreement that “a family like ours” is different. The audience is free to interpret this subtle reference to Mary’s permanent virginity as Benedict XVI seems to have done: “Joseph, Mary’s husband, a man of flesh and blood … is called upon to believe in the uniqueness of Mary’s destiny, and to forego many of the rights and privileges of marriage.”

From then on, we observe Joseph take the lead of his family. He protects his baby Son from being massacred. The attentive onlooker will notice a white lamb in the place where the family has spent the night which may well be an allusion for the Lamb of God who this time escaped His murders. During Jesus’ public life Joseph steps humbly in the background allowing Mary to assume her new mission.

The Viewer’s Pondering Heart
Finally, Campiotti intersperses a few allegorical scenes with apparently no explicit meaning. Admittedly, some puzzles are solved when watching the 200-minute Italian or Spanish version of the film. On the other hand, the truncated script could be an invitation to the viewer to enter Mary’s school where she teaches us to contemplate God’s puzzling interventions in our own life. Possible lessons may include the episode of the three-year-old Jesus plunging in the water with his mother while still in Egypt. Both are clad in white and surrounded by the sun. One is reminded of Proverbs 8:24-31; or perhaps of Jesus baptizing his mother? The audience is free to wonder about the meaning of this interaction and of the boy’s light blonde locks while otherwise portrayed with dark straight hair. And still more, who can explain the symbolic significance of the wound on the boy’s forehead? Moreover, what are we to make of the parallel scenes at the court of Herod? What may be the role of Queen Herodias? Is she the devil personified when she tempts Jesus in the desert? Or is her dominant character an example of the influence women can exert over men? While Herodias uses her charm and beauty to lead to destruction, Mary in stark contrast places her femininity and charism at the service of the Lord and his mission.

In conclusion, director and cast are to be commended for a notably stunning portrait of the life of Mary of Nazareth, which is in all its aspects in accordance with Catholic teaching on the Blessed Virgin Mary. The motion picture succeeds in introducing us to the cultural and social environment in which Mary lived out her earthly existence. Furthermore, its rich symbolism unveils some of the subterranean aspects of her vocation and mission. Thus Mary of Nazareth is paradigm and teacher for all who wish to pattern their life in the spirit of her repeated declaration, “Here I am, Lord!”


Danielle Peters-cropDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life,
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Icons of Our Lady assumed into heaven usually depict her by herself. At times, we see her being lifted up with her gaze longingly directed heavenwards. We may also be familiar with images where Christ picks up her soul, portrayed like a small baby, while the apostles gather around her bier.

AssumptaAt first sight, the mosaic to the left does not appear to fit our traditional imagination of the Assumpta. Fashioned by Benedictine sister and artist Erentrud Trost, OSB, it is part of a series of windows at St. Dominic Church in Rickenbach, near Luzerne, Switzerland.

The stained glass window shows Mary, who apparently does not wish to enter heaven by herself. Even if she is the first and fully redeemed human person to enjoy eternal glory, she does not leave us orphaned. Like every mother, she wants to take her children with her to heaven! “Taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over,”[1] Mary is all the more mindful of her mission as our spiritual Mother. As Queen of heaven and of earth, she continues “by her manifold acts of intercession to win for us gifts of eternal salvation.”[2]

This reality is the focus of Sr. Erentrud’s artwork. Clothed with the golden garments of salvation (Is 61:10), Mary gathers us, who trust in her intercession, under her mantle. Confidently she turns her eyes upwards and presents us to the Father, symbolized in the hand touching her head. For all those sheltered in her embrace, the feast of Mary’s Assumption into heaven undoubtedly is “a sign of sure hope and solace”: Our Lady, by a unique privilege, delights in anticipation in the destiny reserved for all the just at the resurrection of the dead.[3]

Sometimes we hear, even from Catholics, comments like: “Why this dogma? Do I have to believe this? Why all this commotion about Mary? Isn’t that just another stumbling block for ecumenism?” Maybe even we ourselves have been wondering the same thing.

In answer to such reservations, allow me to propose a change of perspectives. How about God’s point of view? Can we even begin to fathom the jubilation in heaven when this most beloved daughter is welcomed? From the first instant of her existence, Mary was never separated from God’s love! Throughout her life she lived by her fiat, the commitment she made at the Annunciation. From crib to Cross, she never swayed in faithfully serving her Son. As handmaid of the Lord, she let herself be “fashioned by the Holy Spirit into a kind of new substance and a new creature.”[4] And so it is only a logical consequence that “when the course of her earthly life was finished,”[5] God called her to share in his communion of life and love for all eternity! By “not allowing her to see the corruption of the tomb” (Preface of the Assumption), he completes the work he has begun with her Immaculate Conception. She is at home, with body and soul! This is what we call heaven: the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.[6] Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, is in God’s love totally and forever! Is this not reason enough to rejoice and celebrate with her?

From God’s perspective, August 15 thus manifests the fullness of redemption Christ has merited for us all. Mary “is one with the risen Christ in the fullness of her personality, or as we commonly say, ‘in body and soul!’”[7] She “already shares in the glory of her Son’s Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of his Body.”[8] This brings us back to our icon. The artist draws attention to our journey heavenwards. Like Mary, we belong to God and are His beloved children! We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and, like Mary, we too may one day enter heaven! St. John Paul II was convinced that by contemplating the mystery of this solemnity “we see opening up before us those ‘new heavens’ and that ‘new earth’ which will appear at the second coming of Christ. Here below, the Eucharist represents their pledge, and in a certain way, their anticipation: Veni, Domine Iesu!” (Rev 22:20).[9] Is this not reason enough to celebrate a holy day?


[1] Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (21 November 1964, LG), §§59, 62.

[2] Ibid., §62. John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, Encyclical Letter on the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Life of the Pilgrim Church (25 March 1987), §40.

[3] LG, §68. John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Apostolic Letter on the Most Holy Rosary (16 October 2002), §23.

[4] LG, §56.

[5] Ibid., §59.

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press 1994, CCC), §1024.

[7] USCCB,  Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith, A Pastoral Letter on the Blessed Virgin Mary (21 November 1973), §57.

[8] CCC, §1023.

[9] John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Encyclical Letter on the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church (17 April 2003), §62.

The Feast of the Transfiguration

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

If I happened to be the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (a hypothesis that I consider far too often), the Transfiguration upon Mount Tabor would have been a rather regular event. I would have climbed that mountain at least once a week, inviting all those hostile to my mission to perceive who I really was. In fact, why limit the Transfiguration to Mount Tabor?   When engaged in hostile discourse with those who could not see me as the Messiah, who refused to allow the love of God to extend to those on the margins, why not shine like the sun as proof of my identity as the Word made flesh? When the disciples asked who would be the greatest in the kingdom, why not call down the voice of the Father? Transfiguration-Fra AngelicoI would teach my disciples through a pedagogy of bedazzlement, of awe and fear, that their line of questioning was at best problematic. They would come to know my deepest identity through my constant glory, through the light that emerged from my whole existence.

Of course, we know that Jesus Christ does not perform the mystery of the Transfiguration as a way of overpowering human freedom, of overcoming our wills through a glory that conquers us. On Mount Tabor, he reveals his identity as the Son, as the one whose face is ever turned to the Father in total self-giving love. Jean Corbon writes:

We must certainly enter into mystery of committed love
if we are to understand that the Transfiguration is not
an impossible unveiling of the light of the Word to the eyes
of the Apostles, but rather a moment of intensity
in which the entire being of Jesus is utterly united
with the compassion of the Father.
During these decisive days of his life He becomes transparent
to the light of the love of the One who gives himself to men
for their salvation. If, then, Jesus is transfigured,
the reason is that the Father causes his own joy to flame out in him.
The radiance of the light in the suffering body of Jesus is, as it were,
the thrill experienced by the Father in response
to the total self-giving of his only Son.
This explains the voice that pierces through the cloud:  ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him’ (Mt. 17:5)
(Jean Corbon,
The Wellspring of Worship, 93).

TransfigurationThe Son’s glory is not a matter of overwhelming power, of shocking Peter, James, and John to believe even in the midst of the darkness. The Son exists as gift, as one whose glory is most fully manifested not merely in the luminous character of Mount Tabor but on the darkness of Calvary in which he reveals to the world the depths of divine compassion. Mount Tabor provides the lens that we might use to notice that it is the beloved Son, the one who finds favor with the Father, who gives himself up for the life of the world. The one who converses intimately with Moses and Elijah is the very same one who offers his will to the Father, who transforms human life into a Eucharistic offering of gift.

Transfiguration iconOf course, this manifestation of love does not conclude with the Ascension of the Son into heaven. As adopted daughters and sons of God through baptism, as those whose lives are being formed into the image of the Son, the glory of Mount Tabor continues even now. It continues among those young adults who discover the gift of the Christian life as a pattern of discipleship, which does not seek power and prestige, fame and fortune, but love unto the end. It continues among those who dedicate themselves to the quiet art of discipleship, whose gift of Christian charity is never noticed by the world. It continues among those who look into the eyes of the poor, the sick, those suffering from loneliness and despair and who offer the kindness of a presence learned through the prodigal logic of the Gospel. It continues among those who see death not as an obstacle to avoid at all costs but as the last mystery of a life configured to the Cross. The light of the Transfiguration shines out in our parishes, in our schools, in every place that the logic of self-giving love slowly conquers the darkness, in which God’s compassion becomes our own.

The Transfiguration is thus not a remote mystery, an event experienced by three disciples in the Holy Land thousands of years ago. Instead, the mystery of the Transfiguration offers a vision of the Christian life as a glorious hiddenness; in which our truest identities are nothing less than adopted children of the living God. Indeed, for us, the Transfiguration continues not simply on Mount Tabor. But in South Bend, in Chicago, in New York City and Los Angeles. It continues because there are those who allow themselves to be conformed to the self-giving love of the Son, of a life offered to the Father to the end. When we enter our parish church, when we head out into the world to live our vocations as sons and daughters of the Triune God, we climb up Mount Tabor to receive a glimpse of the hidden glory of the God who freely loves unto the end:

Therefore, since each of us possesses God in his heart
and is being transformed into his divine images,
we also should cry out with joy:
It is good for us to be here—here where all things shine
with divine radiance, where there is joy and gladness and exultation; where there is nothing in our hearts but peace, serenity and stillness; where God is seen. For here, in our hearts,
Christ takes up his abode together with the Father,
saying as he enters: 
Today salvation has come to this house.
With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him,
we see reflected as in a mirror both the firstfruits
and the whole of the world to come (Anastasius of Sinai).

Transfiguration-RaphaelIt is good for us to be here, to be among those whose lives are conformed to the Son, precisely because even in the midst of the hidden life of the disciple, we taste sacramentally the joy of eternal life. Of that moment in which we ourselves will shimmer like the sun in the eternal courts of heaven; not out of any innate power we have received but because our whole lives will have become self-gift. To the one formed to see the world in this manner, this moment is available to us even now.

This is my beloved Son, listen to him.

Church Music Association of America Colloquium

Sam BellafioreSam Bellafiore
University of Notre Dame, Class of 2015

Contact Author


Also by this author: Revisiting Mass

From June 30 to July 6, I had the privilege of traveling to Indianapolis to attend the Church Music Association of America’s annual colloquium, a gathering of church musicians from throughout the United States and Canada.

The CMAA was celebrating its 50th anniversary. The association was born out of the Society of Saint Gregory of America and the American Society of Saint Cecilia. Both had been involved in decades-long efforts to promote Gregorian chant and polyphony when the groups merged in 1964. In doing so they aimed to heed Sacrosanctum Concilium’s urge that the “treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” (§114), and wanted to give Gregorian chant “pride of place in liturgical services” (§116).

CMAASince 1990, the CMAA has offered the annual colloquium as an opportunity for people of all musical levels to learn about the Church’s enormous tradition of liturgical music. There was a fascinating range of attendees: college professors, parish choir members, middle schoolers, and doctoral students. There was an African-American Episcopal priest starting a chant schola in the women’s prison where she serves as chaplain, a college student who had never read music, cathedral music directors, pastors, and a woman who runs a three-person schola, the only schola in the state of Montana.

The conference began with choral evensong at the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Indianapolis. The church’s established and respected choir and organist provided gorgeous music. For many attendees, it was their first exposure to the rich Anglican liturgical tradition.

On the first full day, participants selected one each of chant classes and polyphony choirs for the week. These daily classes and choirs were tailored to particular skill levels, from no previous exposure to chant or polyphony to more academic tracks. I was fortunate enough to have a class on Gregorian semiology with Dr. Edward Schaefer from the University of Florida. Put simply, Gregorian semiology is the study of chant notation. It usually deals with notes called unheightened neumes, small squiggles that were probably the first written music in the West. Unheightened neumesAfter several hundred years of transmitting chant solely through oral tradition, monks began writing these neumes around 800 AD. The neumes reminded chanting monks of a melody’s general pitch and rhythm. Musicians continue studying these neumes today to garner insight on how to interpret and perform chant. The neumes provide an especially rich tool for expressing text, which is the true basis for every aspect of chant. Dr. Schaefer skillfully led the class of about 20 people in studying several chants, comparing their neumes from two different manuscripts and singing two of the chants for Mass during the week.

Each day included a plenary lecture. Fr. Christopher Smith presented on the future of liturgical theology, Dr. William Mahrt on the liturgy’s musical shape, and Dr. Denis McNamara on church architecture. Dr. McNamara’s presentation on sacred architecture was the highlight. He gave an excellent introduction to the subject, emphasizing the corporate body of worshippers and their relation to the space where they pray. The liturgy, he explained, occurs in the present world but helps heal fallen humanity, drawing it back its original state and simultaneously ushering it toward beatitude. Dr. McNamara offered insights into the relationship between Eden and church architecture. He pointed out the long-standing practice of adorning church interiors with floral imagery to imitate the Garden. St. John the Evangelist Church, IndianapolisA church is an Eden we may enter despite our fallen state. Stained glass images of saints remind worshippers that beatitude is not merely a long-lost or far-distant event, but a reality that has already taken active root in the Church’s life. The presentation affected my experience of church architecture almost immediately. Dr. McNamara’s talk enriched the time I spent in downtown Indy’s historic St. John the Evangelist Church, where most of the colloquium’s liturgies occurred. The nave’s upper walls were lush with floral designs. Such ornaments, which never meant much to me, helped me to understand the liturgy a little better. The sanctuary is surrounded by striking murals of angels casting down their crowns before God’s throne (Rev 4), a reminder of the liturgy’s relation to the beatific vision. Over the week I experienced the building less as one in which we prayed and more as a place whose very structure was a kind of prayer that aided ours.

Each afternoon participants chose from several hour-long workshops on a variety of topics. I took two workshops with Dr. Jennifer Donelson on the (surprisingly easy!) art of conducting chant, and one on organ improvisation with David Hughes, the immensely talented music director of St. Mary’s in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Each evening, participants had Mass together at St. John the Evangelist. As you can imagine, the congregational singing was quite strong! The morning chant classes and afternoon polyphony rehearsals prepared music for the week’s liturgies. I had the opportunity to sing under Dutch conductor Wilko Brouwers, whose lively spirit and creative instruction did a marvelous job coaxing emotion and expression from the choir. Polyphony comprised only about half of what my polyphony choir sang. We also sang some 19th-century music as well as a beautifully modern setting of “O Saving Victim” by Zachary Wadsworth. The musical highlight of the week was the Saturday afternoon Mass, when one choir sang Victoria’s ethereally serene four-part Missa pro defunctis.

Two qualities made the conference especially enriching: charity and genuine collegiality. Both pervaded the week. It can be hard for anyone at all to discuss liturgical matters without getting mean-spirited, sharp-tongued or just a little crabby, but everyone at the colloquium demonstrated a remarkable openness and charitable frankness that helped make the week a refreshing pleasure. There was a strong sense of fellowship too. Folks at the colloquium came from a huge variety of backgrounds, musical experiences and parishes, but they were all united in the goal of helping the Church pray. Working toward a goal, co-working in the vineyard, cliché as it is, cannot be underestimated. Of course, we also celebrated the Fourth of July. We watched the fantastic Indianapolis fireworks from our hotel roof and later on some new friends and I huddled around our books and phones, sight-reading motets (with moderate success) late into the night.

You can read more about the colloquium and the CMAA’s numerous free resources here. I returned from the colloquium informed, enlivened, and refreshed for continued service with liturgical music. I highly recommend the colloquium to anyone who wants delve a bit more into sacred music, learn about liturgy, or deepen their participation in the Church’s prayer. As often as I can return to this plot in the vineyard, I will.