Eclipse of the Heart

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D. Director, Notre Dame Vision Contact Author

Preliminary Note: This is not a scholarly argument but rather a quick, unscientific reflection based upon firsthand observation.

 My wife and I send our kids to a Catholic school.  The primary reason for this is because we think the educational opportunities happen to be stronger at this school than at other schools available to us in our immediate area.  Secondarily, we appreciate the general warmth and kindness of the school community.  Neither of these reasons is directly related to a Catholic identity.  catholic_schoolIf we happened to live where I grew up, our kids would go to one of the public schools because what happens to be true of our Catholic school here was true of the public school I attended there.

Appropriately for Halloween, I remember being haunted.  In this case what haunted me once was what a slightly older school parent said to me a couple years back.  With her son set to graduate from the eighth grade and move on from our grade school to high school, I asked her what she thought about his Catholic education to date.  She said that he and all of his friends were, generally, “really nice kids” who “received a really good education” and were prepared to do well in high school.  The hint of disappointment I thought I heard in what otherwise seemed like a positive assessment was confirmed when she added, “and I just don’t think that’s enough.”

I have a lot of questions regarding how well (or not) Catholic schools actually form young people in the Catholic faith, or even teach the Catholic faith in a robust and substantive (though of course age-appropriate) way.  I know many of the schools are successful in teaching other things very well and I believe that, by and large, they are positive communities, with many of them offering quality educations in places where alternatives are bleak.  At the same time, I find myself more than hesitant to declare that they are altogether effective in promoting lasting faith formation and attuning young people to the particularities of the Catholic faith.  At worst, I fear that if just enough is given in terms of religious education and formation in faith, then students will be inhibited from growing further in the future and/or will settle upon a rather deficient understanding of Catholic belief and the quality of faith.  My experience of Catholic education from the perspective of a parent (as well as from a University setting where I meet many young people who are products of Catholic education), is that, by and large, it really isn’t all that effective in instilling a love for the Church or of forming a religious imagination.  I don’t mean to suggest that those two things should replace a fine education and a warm environment, but I do mean to suggest that the former are distinctively Catholic markers whereas the latter are not. IMG_2444

Halloween has become for me an annual occasion of my discontent.  When
I helped out with my son’s kindergarten class several years ago, I
found myself deeply disappointed at the beginning of October when I discovered that the expectations for the end of the month festivities all had to do with typical Halloween stuff. I expected something else. There seemed to be nothing at all happening in regards to All Saints’ Day.  Maybe it was part of the class’s lesson in religion, but the celebration itself didn’t have the saints in view, neither the canonized ones nor the anonymous ones.  It was as if Halloween was worth celebrating for all its fun and treats, but the saints weren’t. At least that was the implicit message in what was being offered, even if no one at the school intentionally made that choice.  And that’s just it: no one was intentionally making a choice to be Catholic, to create a distinctively Catholic culture, to educate in Catholic things and to form Catholic imaginations, and so the default was to do pretty much the same thing as everyone else, while saying please and thank you in the process.

This memory resurfaced about a week ago when I learned from a friend that her daughter’s Catholic school (in the same city as our own) was intentionally making a change in the way they approached this “holiday”.  Here is an excerpt from the note sent to room-parents:

Monsignor would really like us to shift our emphasis away from ghosts, witches and goblins to the real origin of All Hallow’s Eve—the vigil (preparation) day for All Saints’ Day.  So we are encouraged to downplay the secular emphasis on Halloween and build up the Catholic feast of all the holy men and women who have gone before us in faith, hope, and love.

All Saints 3In effect, Halloween was being removed so that the light of the saints could shine through.  This school was making the choice to let the kids see that and not just what they would already have seen otherwise.

A strange thing happens with Halloween.  It is not so much that a religious holiday gets morphed into a secular celebration (like Christmas) but rather that a secular celebration eclipses a religious holiday and makes it invisible (more like what the “holiday shopping season” does to Advent).  Just like everyone else, Catholic school children are given a festive opportunity to pretend being something they’re not rather than practicing and celebrating what they are and are called to become: holy (young) men and women.

Halloween teaches kids to look forward to and be excited about dress-up and candy.  This isn’t inherently harmful except that it comes at the expense of what might otherwise incite their imaginations and stoke their excitement, if we would only teach them accordingly.  Isn’t there a grand opportunity here for Catholic schools to teach our kids how to be excited about and dream about the possibilities for holiness in the company of both the great and unknown saints who have lived and died in faith?

In short, I think that for this particular holiday—the Solemnity of All Saints—we would be wise to ask ourselves how well we are working through our Catholic schools make sure that the following invitation falls upon receptive hearts and well-formed imaginations:

Let us all rejoice in the Lord, as we celebrate the feast day in honor of all the Saints, at whose festival the Angels rejoice and praise the Son of God. (Entrance Antiphon, Solemnity of All Saints)

In Defense of Emptiness

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

Contact Author

When we hear the word “empty,” we automatically tend to think of it in negative terms. Here are a list of synonyms from an obliging online thesaurus: desolate, devoid, despoiled, forsaken, abandoned, waste, godforsaken—you get the idea. Empty landscapeThis word “empty” is not one that we would readily like to have applied to ourselves: no one wants to think that their lives are empty, or to hear someone say that they are empty-headed, or worse, empty-hearted.

Yet there is a way in which being empty, becoming empty, is actually a necessity for living the Christian life, for only that which is empty can be filled by the grace and love of God. Put another way, emptiness is a precondition for receptivity. As we conclude this month of the Rosary, I can’t help but think of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the exemplar of this receptive emptiness. British author Caryll Houselander characterized Mary’s virginity—indeed her very being—as a form of emptiness; however, this emptiness did not represent a lack in any way, shape, or form. To quote Houselander’s exquisite little book The Reed of God:

The-Annunciation“It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it was intended. It is emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness, which can have only one destine: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that it in his heart. It is emptiness like the hollow in the cup, shaped to receive water or wine. It is emptiness like that of a bird’s nest, built in a round warm ring to receive the little bird” (21).

Houselander goes on to say of Mary:

“She was a reed through which the Eternal Love was to be piped as a shepherd’s song. She was the flowerlike chalice into which the purest water of humanity was to be poured, mingled with wine, changed to the crimson blood of love, and lifted up in sacrifice. She was the warm nest rounded to the shape of humanity to receive the Divine Little Bird” (21).

This emptiness of the Blessed Virgin is the same emptiness to which all of us are called. 4fce9c220050d.preview-620It is only by becoming empty of self that we are hollowed out to become a reed through which the song of divine love can resound throughout the world, an image that brings new meaning to the first line of the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Make me an instrument of your peace.”

Indeed, it is only by becoming empty of self that God can fill us with himself, yet even as we are filled, so too are we called to pour forth. God desires not merely to fill us, but to fill us abundantly, as the psalmist proclaims: “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Ps 23:5b,). God pours himself forth—recklessly, with loving abandon, holding nothing back, overflowing our hearts with himself, so that through us, his love may flow into the hearts of others. God empties himself so that we might become full, and this divine self-emptying is definitively made manifest in Jesus Christ, as St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians:

“Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness, and found in human appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6–7).

advent_2002_gateInto the emptiness of Mary’s virgin womb divine love was poured, and love himself became incarnate only by emptying himself of divinity. It is only into our own empty, waiting hearts that God can pour forth the gift of himself, so that we in turn might pour that love forth into the empty, waiting hearts of others.

After Prodigal: A Brief Look at Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘The Judge’

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck
MTS Student, History of Christianity,
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

At least on the surface, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is a simple enough narrative: a greedy son demands his inheritance from his father, and takes it to a “distant country” where he squanders it and is forced to seek work at a pig farm.  After dayprodigalsons of working among the swine, he realizes how far he has fallen since leaving his father’s home. The father, filled with compassion, sights his son returning from a long way off and runs to embrace him.

Aside from the slight grumbling of the older son, the story wraps up neatly with the reconciliation of father and son. Upon simply returning home, the son is greeted with an embrace, a robe, and a fattened calf.

But imagine this story through a different lens – one in which the context is not first-century Palestine but twenty-first century United States, and in which the father in the story does not represent God but is instead a very human father every bit as flawed as the son. In a world all too accustomed to divorce and broken homes, it does not seem too difficult to imagine a situation in which reconciliation is not as easy as simply returning home.

I recently saw Robert Downey Jr.’s new film The Judge, and was struck by the way it attempts to re-imagine the parable of the prodigal son. The Judge tells the story of Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a successful, big-time defense attorney who returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for the first time in twenty years for his mother’s funeral. I will not give away much else beyond that, but suffice it to say that when Palmer left home, he left behind a string of hurt feelings and broken relationships that have only grown worse in his absence.

At the heart of The Judge, like the parable, is the theme of reconciliation—but in the film the path toward reconciliation is messy, complicated and painful. The characters struggle to shoulder the demands of forgiveness and reconciliation, at times being consumed by their own pain and offended egos, and at other times displaying radical acts of selflessness.  And as we see, the path to peace demands real sacrifice: each character has to adapt to a new reality and take steps toward repairing the damage and pain wrought by the family’s previous life together.

The Judge seems to approach the parable of the prodigal son from a new perspective, one that takes place after the son has already returned home (at least physically).  It attempts to explore what true reconciliation might look like when those seeking it must navigate the hurt egos, the broken hearts and the deep pain caused by long absence and un-resolved conflicts.

This film is a reminder that authentic reconciliation between human beings is a difficult and pain-staking process. It is not automatic, and calls for patience, mercy,  and intentionality. True reconciliation demands time, sacrifice and conversion. It is never a one-way street, regardless of who is to blame for the rupture. Each person involved needs to give something up: forgiveness must be extended, wounds must be given time to heal, and relationships must be re-established.  Reconciliation is a difficult and uncomfortable process, if only because it must navigate the complex, messy and broken relationships that are all too common in a fallen world.

The Judge offers a contemplation on this daunting complexity of authentic reconciliation, and is especially appropriate in the midst of ongoing discussions sparked by the Extraordinary Synod and the upcoming October 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family. While this film might not provide answers to the many difficult questions facing the Church and families today, it certainly gives us much to think about.

Pass It On

Meredith HollandMeredith Holland

Master of Theological Studies Candidate

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry


One of the most difficult yet beautiful ways to approach transition is to reorient one’s vision of that which comes to a close to instead become that which sends forth. This is one of the lessons I learned over and over again during my time at Notre Dame, as we looked ever more earnestly at a future that called us into the world.

My experience serving as a mentor and program assistant for Notre Dame Vision welcomed me into a community of faith and a particular way of seeing the world; yet, at the end of each week long conference, the participants—and even more so the mentors-in-faith—were told bluntly and repeatedly that the experience of Vision, their gifts, and their very lives are not about them. The unceasing mission of self-gift emerged: We have been a part of this community in order that we may offer our lives to make other communities better.

10170880_10154114649930512_3002612544775213836_nThe Notre Dame Folk Choir taught me by unfailing example the wonder of unconditional love, the joy of song in the Christian life, and the gift of receiving the Eucharist in community with those with whom we share so much. The transition from this faith community at a Catholic university to parish life must be an immersive opportunity to offer this joy and life, rather than allowing this past to be simply a personal memory. We have been so that we may now live.

Commencement Weekend in May 2014 was not a nostalgic review of the past four years; it was a celebration not merely of what we had experienced but even more so of that which we had been offered and the gifts that had been cultivated within each of us. Inherent to this coming to a close is a sending forth, a continuing journey through which we are called to “pass it on.” In his Commencement Address, Rev. Ray Hammond demanded that we both remember and live into the Christian vocation of self-gift:

Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame“My fervent prayer is that you will always remember the gift of grace you have received—the grace of parents who love you, the grace of friends who embrace you, the grace of teachers who have taught you, and the grace of opportunities that lay before you. And for your sake and God’s sake I pray that you pass it on.”

This mission to pass it on is one of action, a grace embodied and a love made tangible. Yet, this being sent forth and command to share what we have received is difficult to reconcile with our current states of life; we, as young adults, are still learning, still being formed. We are in graduate school and professional school, transitioning into adulthood, taking ownership of our faith while working in a secular world. The life of the young adult is increasingly a tension between a heart bursting with gratitude and a mind still being cultivated that can too easily become paralyzing.

In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI writes of the necessity of transforming the gift of love received into a capacity to give oneself in love:

“Faith, worship and ethos are interwoven as a single reality which takes shape in our encounter with God’s agape. Here the usual contraposition between worship and ethics simply falls apart. ‘Worship’ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality of both being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented. Conversely, as we shall have to consider in greater detail below, the ‘commandment’ of love is only possibly because it is more than a requirement. Love can be ‘commanded’ because it has first been given” (14).

My own experience in graduate school thus far has been frustrating, too often seeming intangible and leaving me to feel restless, a hoarder of knowledge with no apparent end. books-resources-papersParticipating in the celebration of the Eucharist and being sent forth at the end of a liturgy only to move into the classroom at the other end of the hall can seem futile; after all, how can this classroom be the setting in which the Eucharist can pass over into a concrete practice of love? The hours of reading and writing can seem irrelevant to a life meant to be shared, a love meant to be freely given.

I must remind myself that there must be a balance; just as I have been a part of other communities in order to learn lessons that I am now called to share, this experience is such that I might serve better in the future. And, yet, “passing it on” cannot wait—it must be now. This tension must be lived into, finding concrete ways to embody the love I have been freely given and offer in gratitude the love that the Eucharist capacitates the Christian to share. Continued formation does not preclude present self-gift. This requires the constant reorientation to a vision of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, an ongoing journey that is formed both through the reception of a love that sends forth and the response of self-gift that seeks to fulfill the Eucharistic vocation.

Forever Building and Always Being Restored

May 14, 2012; Duncan Stroik..Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Duncan Stroik

Professor of Architecture, University of Notre Dame

The month of October is filled with feast days of great saints – including the Church’s two newest, Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII. Near the beginning of the month, on October 4, we celebrated St. Francis of Assisi. As I reflected on the question posed for this blog post, “what does or ought the church building do to shape the wider culture?,” St. Francis came to mind as an instructive example of how building churches complements a larger goal of evangelization and culture-shaping.

St. Francis, of course, did not set out to build buildings; he set out to radically live and preach the Gospel. Others were attracted to his life and eventually the Franciscan Order developed. Over the past one thousand years the Franciscans have influenced the Church through the gift of their particular charism and have influenced the culture by their presence in the world. St. Francis received this call to give up everything and follow the Lord directly from Him in prayer. As St. Bonaventure tells us in his Life of St. Francis,

“One day when Francis went out to meditate in the fields he was passing by the church of San Damiano which was threatening to collapse because of extreme age. Inspired by the Spirit, he went inside to pray.

Kneeling before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with great fervor and consolation as he prayed. While his tear-filled eyes were gazing at the Lord’s cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times, ‘Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.’ Trembling with fear, Francis was amazed at the sound of this astonishing voice, since he was alone in the church; and as he received in his heart the power ofThe San Damiano Cross is the large Romanesque rood cross that St. Francis of Assisi was praying before when he received the commission from the Lord to rebuild the Church. The original cross presently hangs in the Basilica of Saint Clare (Basilica di Sant the divine words, he fell into a state of ecstasy. Returning finally to his senses, he prepared to put his whole heart into obeying the command he had received. He began zealously to repair the church materially, although the principle intention of the words referred to that Church which Christ purchased with his own blood, as the Holy Spirit afterward made him realize…”

St. Francis repaired San Damiano in Assisi with his own hands. Today this is often interpreted as almost a mistake by Francis, not the real work that the Lord was calling him to. And yet, St. Francis and the Franciscans continued to build churches. As the Order spread, they needed places for people to gather to listen to their preaching and places for people to receive the Sacraments. And so, they built. The Incarnational and sacramental nature of our faith shows us that the spiritual and the material go together. Indeed, even our human nature shows us this. We are made of body and soul joined together. The body, the material aspect, cannot be excluded. To build and re-build the Church, for St. Francis and for us today, we must build and re-build churches.

A church building is always a sign of the presence of the Church in the world. For some, it is a welcome sign of a home and of the presence of God in our cities. Catching sight of the towers, cross, or doScreen Shot 2014-10-27 at 11.43.19 PMme of a church is a reminder that God dwells with us, and if it is a Catholic
church, that He is dwelling in that particular place. “Did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house?” He asks, and gives us the assurance that we do know exactly where to find Him.

For others, a church building is a sign of contradiction and an unpleasant reminder that the Church is not going anywhere. T
here are some who would prefer to see churches that are indistinguishable from any other building, or hidden away in the outskirts of a city, so they can believe the voice of the Church can be equally suppressed. In his Choruses from ‘The Rock’, T.S. Eliot writes eloquently about this attitude of not wanting the Church:

I journeyed to London, to the timekept City,
Where the River flows, with foreign flotations.
There I was told: we have too many churches,
And too few chop-houses. There I was told:
Let the vicars retire. Men do not need the Church
In the place where they work, but where they spend their       Sundays.
In the City, we need no bells:
Let them waken the suburbs.
I journeyed to the suburbs, and there I was told:
We toil for six days, on the seventh we must motor
To Hindhead, or Maidenhead.
If the weather is foul we stay at home and read the papers.
In industrial districts, there I was told
Of economic laws.
In the pleasant countryside, there it seemed
That the country now is only fit for picnics.
And the Church does not seem to be wanted
In country or in suburbs; and in the town
Only for important weddings.

However, the Church does not stop proclaiming the Gospel just because it seems to be unwanted. And likewise, we should not cease building and restoring churches. We should follow the example of St. Francis and countless others who came before us. We should build large churches full of beauty that are uncompromising in their proclamation of the glory of God. We should build churches in the middle of cities, where they will be seen by all. We should restore and renew the beautiful churches we have, not abandon and close them. St. Francis shows us that our efforts to build can and will be fruitful. As T.S. Eliot says later in Choruses from ‘The Rock’, “The Church must be forever building, and always decaying / and always being restored.” Let us take up this work handed on to us, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the world!

The Comfort of Night Prayer

HopeHope ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy


Hello, Friends. I’m Hope, and I am probably the poster-child for those of us who have tried and failed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours with regularity and discipline in our lives (or those who were too nervous to even start).

“The Angelus”

The Liturgy of the Hours, where we try to better live out the practice of praying without ceasing, “is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 84). In the Liturgy of the Hours, the psalms through the course of the four-week psalter are threaded through our lives as they would have been threaded in and through the life of Jesus and Jewish devotion and the lives of Christians ever since. (I don’t know much more than that; I’m being honest when I say that I’m no expert! But I’m told that Robert Taft’s book here is a great resource if you’re looking for more information. That was also a not-so-subtle hint to my family when Christmas comes closer.)

I like to think about the Liturgy of the Hours as enabling a way of living that St. Ambrose talks about as what happens when our lives are formed by the psalms:

“Day begins to the music of a psalm. Day closes to the echo of a psalm. In a psalm, instruction vies with beauty (From St. Ambrose’s “Commentary on the Psalms”).

The Liturgy of the Hours helps us to form our life in a way that continually turns back to praise God, in the midst of every possible human emotion and experience.

74_92Ever since I learned about the Liturgy of the Hours from the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia who taught me in high school, it has been one of my favorite ways to pray—though I still forget, or sleep through my alarms, or skip days on a very regular basis. Still, each night, even if I haven’t prayed anything else at all, the way that the Dominican sisters sing the antiphons of Night Prayer and the tune to which they sing the Salve (the Hail, Holy Queen in Latin) as they close prayer echoes in my head. I have those wonderful sisters to thank, and myself to blame for still not having figured out a schedule years and years later. Praying something with a schedule as fixed as the Liturgy of the Hours at times seems unfeasible in the reality of college life, in a world where our schedules change on a dime and where some days the distinctions between where our nights end and our mornings begin are tough to find. That being said though, I readily admit that it is do-able to pray the Liturgy of the Hours in the midst of college life if one gets the discipline and practice of it down. But I haven’t quite got it figured out yet.

Regardless of whether I hit my snooze button not at all or twelve times in the morning, though, ending my day with Night Prayer (Compline) is something that I can do. If you are an erratic college student like myself, or a very busy young working person in Chicago like half of young Notre Dame alums, or a married-and-working-with-young-kids person whose greatest daily battle occurs (next to getting your toddler to understand that eating food besides pizza and macaroni really is in her best interest) between you and the alarm clock around 6:12 am, I have news for you. We can all pray Night Prayer. Night Prayer is short; it’s a routine that quickly becomes familiar in a trustworthy-dependable-friend sort of way, and it might be the most comforting way to remind yourself that at the end of the day (literally) all that we do is offered up back to God in praise, and that we are dependent on Him for everything, down to keeping us safe while we sleep. Night Prayer, in its fullness of always expressing contrition, praise, petition, and thanksgiving makes the old classic “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” look like a prayer poser.

Liturgy of the Hours, Catholic Book Publishing Co, 1975 O5H5662

In addition to being a great hour for a course on “Divine Office 101,” the Office of Night Prayer holds a special place in my heart. A few years ago, in the midst of my attempts to develop a habit of praying regularly, there was one point where I made a commitment to praying the office of Compline (Night Prayer) before bed, even if I never looked at any of the other hours or didn’t spend any other time dedicated in prayer the rest of my day. This was during a particularly difficult period in my life, but when I woke up in the middle of the night (which seemed to happen with great frequency), I found an extra blessing in having committed to the office of Compline.

See, in Night Prayer, there isn’t a four-week rotation like there is with the rest of the psalter. Mondays, you can count on Psalm 86- “Turn Your ear, O Lord, and give answer, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am faithful, save the servant who trusts in you.” On Tuesdays, Psalm 143 “a prayer in distress” accompanies us. On Wednesdays, it’s Psalm 31, “the trustful prayer in adversity.” (Solemnities and special feast days sometimes mess this up and take one of the Sunday psalms, but you get the picture. Night Prayer nearly always has one psalm, and it becomes a dependable and near-indelible mark on the way we pray and our instincts in prayer.) Somewhere along the way of praying Night Prayer each night, though I’m not sure how long it took, the psalms won out over the nightmares. Etched in my mind and near-automatic, they beat back the fears and anxieties that clamored for a place in the thoughts of my restless nights.

So I would lay in my bed, with my face turned to the wall, hoping to be able to go back to sleep, praying the rhythm of whichever part of Night Prayer came into my head whenever I awoke suddenly. It might have been the psalm from that night, or one of the other nightly psalms. “Turn your ear, O Lord, and give answer, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am faithful. Save the servant who trusts in you.” Or it might have been the antiphon that is the exact same every night and that is one of my favorite prayers in the whole world: “Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace.”  There is no such thing as having too many Psalms or too much Night Prayer in our lives.

rosarySome people keep a rosary with them during times like this, and many nights I did. But more often, I turned over the various psalms of Night Prayer, or the Salve, or the antiphon over and over and over in my mind like the beads of a rosary.

Although it would be wonderful for me to finally figure out this whole discipline-in-prayer business, I’m (somewhat) content for now to depend on Night Prayer and to hope that the rest of it comes along more dependably later. Because at the end of each day, the entire office of Night Prayer reminds us that no matter what comes in this life, we are called to lives of love and forgiveness and a continual striving Homeward by the Savior who poured it all out, who in loneliness and sorrow and pain in one of the last prayers of His life cried out, “Into Your hands, Lord, I commend my Spirit.” This offering—this sentiment, this reality—is what we echo each night as we pray Night Prayer, whether our hearts are happy or troubled. Especially, I would say, when our hearts are troubled.

For any answer or comfort that we seek in times of hardship, knowing that we are never alone because we can echo the lonely sentiments of a Savior who emptied Himself, to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8) may be the greatest consolation of all.


So we pray together each night, with millions and millions of Christians across the continents,  for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters all over this broken and weary world:

“Protect us Lord, as we stay awake, watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep rest in His peace.”

**NOTE! If you’ve never prayed night prayer or any part of the Liturgy of the Hours before, I highly recommend the (FREE! WONDERFUL! MOST USED ON MY PHONE!) app iBreviary. The hard-copy versions, though absolutely wonderful, get expensive and are not so portable.

Letting Go of “Let It Go”: The Deeper Truths of “Frozen”

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

Contact Author


Confession: I love pop culture, particularly as it’s expressed through the films of Walt Disney Studios. Disney on VHSFilms like Aladdin, characters like the Yzma and Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove, iconic images like the sun piercing the clouds over Pride Rock as a baboon holds aloft the future Lion King—these are some of the greatest expressions of American pop culture ever produced. And the pop continues. With the release of Frozen this past year, Disney has outdone itself in terms of producing a film that not only immediately entered the cultural mainstream, but has also been hailed by many a film critic as “an instant classic.”

Another, more dangerous confession: when I left the theatre after watching Frozen with my sweet little six-year-old niece, I was ambivalent. I was not joyously floored as I had been after seeing Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King or The Princess and the Frog for the first time. Initially, FROZEN-ENGLISH-LOGO-frozen-36881167-1920-856I kept my thoughts to myself, mostly because I didn’t want to upset my niece or my family and friends who loved the movie, but also because it seemed that any ambivalence or (heaven forbid) critique regarding Frozen was met with dismissal, rejection, or just plain outrage. People REALLY love this movie.

Diplomatic armchair film critic that I am, I figured that there might in fact be something wrong with me (wouldn’t be the first time), and that I needed to give the movie another shot. Watching Frozen a second and even third time, I noticed some delightful elements that I had failed to appreciate fully in the first viewing. Example: the clever way that Disney essentially makes fun of its previous films by critiquing the “love at first sight” trope with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Or the beautifully moving depiction of love in its familial, platonic, and yes, romantic forms. Or, most importantly, the affirmation that true love puts others’ needs before its own. This assertion is, in the final analysis, the gift of Frozen, an assertion that, one could argue, find resonances in Scripture. anna-save-elsaAnna’s sacrifice, made in love to save her sister, carries Christian overtones, and perhaps even calls to viewers’ minds the words of Jesus himself: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). Yet, despite this message of self-giving love, and despite the stunning visuals and the breathtaking animation, something still didn’t quite ring true for me, and recently I finally realized what it was: the music.

Anyone who has ever watched a movie, Disney or otherwise, is well aware of the power of music. Music helps to tell the story of the film in a way that enhances the narrative, even transcends the actors’ performances. Without music, we’d never know that a great white shark was lurking just beneath the water’s surface, and Forrest Gump would just be a guy on a nice long run. Movie musicals harness this power on an even higher level as the characters themselves break into song, and Disney movie musicals on a level still higher than that, for in Disney films, there is always that one song that stands out above the rest—that one song that distills the narrative into a singable form, enriches the central message with melody and harmony, and makes a merely memorable story truly unforgettable. In point of fact, that one song serves as a musical icon—it enables us to enter into the film, even without sitting down to watch it. Think for a moment about the great Disney songs from just the past 25 years: “Part of Your World,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” “Colors of the Wind”—all of these songs present the foundational narrative of the film in miniature form. 1121050_1348393100502_fullThese songs convey the essence, the heart of their respective films: when you hear the lyrics of “Circle of Life,” you know that The Lion King is about finding, accepting, and living out who you were created to be. Thus, in the Wonderful World of Disney, as in the world of musicals (and really just the world in general), when there is something really important to say, you never *just* say it. You sing it. And if you’re going to sing it in a Disney film, you have to make sure that it’s a message that rings true by upholding virtues in the hero or heroine and alerting us to the vices of the villain.

Which brings us to the songs of Frozen. While the melodies are unbelievably catchy, the lyrics range from hilariously ironic (“In Summer”) to mildly pedestrian (“For the First Time in Forever”). Most importantly, there is no one song that encapsulates the film’s central message. Put simply, Frozen’s signature song, the now-ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon “Let It Go,” doesn’t bear the moral weight of the powerful theme conveyed in the rest of the film, which is that love sacrifices the self for the good of the other. Let It Go
Rather, “Let It Go” actually contradicts that theme (albeit with an incredibly catchy, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head, sing-it-at-the-top-of-your-lungs melody), with lyrics celebrating self-centeredness (“Turn away and slam the door; / I don’t care what they’re going to say…”), self-preservation (“I’m never going back—the past is in the past”), and even moral relativism (“No right, no wrong, no rules for me—I’m free!”). Most distressingly, it seems that Elsa has decided to embrace the perception others have of her as some sort of monster, belting unapologetically near the song’s climactic moment: “That perfect girl is gone.” Is this message what we really ought to be taking away from the film? If not, then what are we to make of this song?

Early Disney concept art for a villainous Elsa
Early Disney concept art featuring a villainous Elsa

At this point, it may help to remember that, when “Let It Go” was written, Elsa was actually intended to be the villain, so it makes sense for the song to celebrate the good girl gone bad because, well, she originally was the bad guy… girl. Oddly enough, it was this song that inspired the film’s writers to change the trajectory of the story, recasting Elsa as a tortured protagonist instead of the villain. So, instead of the definitive turn from virtue to vice, this song becomes, in the context of the rest of the film, a moment in Elsa’s journey toward conversion. The problem is, we aren’t given another iconic anthem that crystallizes (sorry—couldn’t resist) the rest of the story. After she ostensibly breaks free, Elsa learns that, despite her previous assertions, there is a right and wrong, and that her magic does have consequences (as magic always does), not only for herself but also for her subjects and especially for her sister Anna. In the end, Elsa embraces the rules she was so willing to ‘let go’ of, because she learns from Anna—the true heroine of the film and, one could even argue, a kind of Christ figure—that self-giving love is the only rule by which she ought to live.

Unfortunately, no one sings about this, and without another powerhouse song to serve as a counterweight to “Let it Go” and present the ultimate moral truths of the film, audiences are left with the one breakout musical number that tells only half of the story. This is irresponsible of the writers on one level, and even dangerous to the audience on another, considering that young children are the ones for whom Frozen was intended. These films leave a deep and lasting impression, and it’s critical that children come away from them with an impression that will form their moral imaginations for the good. To quote G.K. Chesterton, “[This] is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child” (What’s Wrong with the World, 254). Or, if you prefer a musical spin on this important lesson, we need only turn to Stephen Sondheim’s classic fairy tale adaptation Into the Woods: “Careful the things you say… children will listen.” These caveats that would have us guard what we say hold all the more true for what we sing, since children—even very young children—remember songs far more easily than they do speech. If you’re going to sing it, make sure you’re singing the truth, especially if you’re going to sing it to little ones.

After several viewings now, I’m less ambivalent about Frozen than I was before. It differs from other fairy tale adaptations in its complexities and temporary ambiguities, but ultimately, its message is one that audiences of all ages can and should strive to emulate in their own relationships. In the end, its only shortcoming happens to be the one thing that everyone remembers about it. Disney-Princess-image-disney-princess-36297531-900-479All I can say is, when my sweet little niece leaves home for college someday, I hope she’s forgotten “No right, no wrong, no rules for me” and remembers instead the ultimate point of Frozen, that, to quote Olaf, “Love is about putting someone else’s needs before your own.” Think of the iconic song that could have been created to body forth such a powerful, formative message. Let’s hope they write it for the forthcoming Broadway adaptation. I’m thinking an epic reconciliation duet for Anna and Elsa. . . .

What We’re Reading Today: Birth, Death, and Car Edition

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

With Notre Dame back from fall break, we’re back to posting our Monday, Wednesday, and Friday links.

1) Artur Rosman offers some thoughts on child-rearing and the spiritual life, taken from Janet Martin Soskice. Perhaps this piece speaks to me after spending half of the night awake with my own son for reasons that he (and the cosmos) are unable to express. Here is the passage from Soskice:

It would be rash to suggest that exaltation of the spiritual life (so fashioned) has always in Christian history meant the denigration of family life. There are many examples of theologians and poets who have praised the daily round and trivial task. But for the most part such things as attending to a squalling baby are seen as honorable duties, consonant with God’s purposes, rather than spiritually edifying in themselves. Most Christian women, for instance, think that what they do around the home is worthy in God’s service–they do not think they have not been taught to think, of it as spiritual. And here monastic figures who, apparently, found God over the washing up or sweeping the floor will be called to mind; but these are not really to the point, since servile tasks were recommended because they left the mind free to contemplate. What we want is a monk who finds God while cooking a meal with one child clamoring for a drink, another who needs a bottom wiped, and a baby throwing up over his shoulder.

2) Jessica Keating, one of our assistant editors (who wrote a piece on Caveny’s ’70s Church last week), offers a theological and cultural assessment of death and dying in light of Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her own life over at Ethika Politika. Letting Keating speak for herself:

Maynard wants her death to be on her terms, as painless and as uncomplicated as possible; she wants to die comfortably in her own bed, surrounded by her family and friends, in control of her body and mind. We all want a death like this; indeed, Catholics petition for this kind of death every night in Compline when they pray, “Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” This certainly includes a death without suffering, but it does not foreclose the possibility that a peaceful death may be a painful one. We need only look to the witness of the martyrs to see such a logic unfold. With the advance of medical technology and utilitarian idealism, however, it seems this may become for many the only kind of acceptable death. Unhinged from a scriptural and ecclesial imagination, the idea of a peaceful death has been reduced merely to the absence of pain, and a painless death has begun to chip away the value of a life with suffering. Likewise, death has begun to chip away at the value of life, and in this configuration death is easily commodified. If we can’t master death, at least we can control it, make it more efficient and convenient, and make it involve less suffering, less anguish. And yet …

Read the rest of the piece. It may be the best that you read on the topic.

3) Lastly, a really excellent piece on the role of cars in shaping the practices of worship among young adults from First Things. The piece is by David T. Koyzis.

Now virtually every family has at least one automobile, and this reality has transformed not only our cities, but also our churches. Here’s Graber:

Cars have made distance less of a factor in our lives. For this reason, church goers can choose from a marketplace of churches. But in order to decide, they have to narrow down the options, and when they do, they (naturally) consider their personal preferences first. They’ll try on different churches and see what “fits.”
Pastors, in reaction, are today forced to account for these new dynamics of affinity. Because church shoppers are exploring their options, area pastors often respond by targeting “felt needs.” For pastors, attracting and retaining church goers often means preaching on the topics people are looking for.

The most important consequence of this trend is that the gathered church—as distinct from the church as corpus Christi, which is all-encompassing—has been reduced to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals who can join and quit, or come and go at their discretion. The church, like any other commodity in the marketplace, exists only to serve the needs of its individual members. In this respect John Locke’s definition, scarcely deemed orthodox in seventeenth-century England, seems uncontroversial today: “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (emphases mine). Note the contrast to the scriptural definition of Church as the covenant community of those called by God into a living relationship with him.

Questions of architecture, of creating churches that are not simply a mirror image of suburbia, is not a left or right issue. It’s a deeply theological one, related to how we understand the Church.



That ’00s Church: What Kaveny Gets Right and Wrong

Jess's Awesome Head ShotJessica Keating
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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The 90th Anniversary edition of Commonweal Magazine, on newsstands today, features a piece by longtime contributor Cathleen Kaveny, cleverly entitled “That ‘70s Church.” As an occasional viewer of That ‘70s Show, I appreciated the pop culture homage. In her article, Kaveny calls attention to a problematic trend that has emerged among some Catholic intellectuals and commentators. For nearly a generation, catechetical programming in years following Vatican II have not only endured sustained and unsympathetic assessment, but also have often been the subject of cantankerous critique. These critiques often indiscriminately judge an entire generation, and whether it is a generation of Catholics specifically, or Americans more generally, such one-dimensional judgment often obfuscates a more complex reality. Indeed, as Kaveny points out, these critiques often also fail to account for the sweeping social change of the late ‘60s and ‘70s—the rise in divorce, the sexual revolution, the entry of middle-class women into the work force (it should be said thatAfrican American women and working class whites had long been members of the work force), the Vietnam War, and political scandals, etc. These changes accompanied upheaval specific to the Church—the loss of parish personnel, relocation from cities to suburbs, the decline in Catholic schools, etc. This was a era of dramatic social change.

51hor0rJ9OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In his 2014 book, Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out Of, and Gone from the Church, sociologist Christian Smith offers a robust analysis of the socio-cultural realities that American Catholics coming of age in the late 1960s and ‘70s inhabited. His remarks are particularly helpful because he seeks not merely to describe the past as a historical phenomenon put to bed, but to appreciate the past in order to understand the ways today’s emerging adults have carried its effects forward. Why, for instance, do young adults in the 21st century leave the Church with so little regret and, contrary to popular wisdom, why do they not return at major milestones (ie marriage and children) (59)? Smith confirms Kaveny’s observation that the ‘60s and ‘70s were far more complex than catechetical critics often acknowledge. In fact, he describes the era in which Catholics of Kaveny’s generation came of age as a “perfect storm” of socio-cultural change (24). Summarizing its impact on American Catholicism, he writes:

[D]uring the very period that America Catholics became “structurally available” (through their entry into the mainstream) and “organizationally vulnerable” (due to the turbulence in the Church after Vatican II) to be highly influenced by the surrounding socio cultural forces, American society itself underwent a series of profound revolutions and movements that were in many ways at odds with received Catholic teachings, morality, and culture. All of this, in fact, “unleash[ed] a traumatic identity crisis for American Catholic by the end of the twentieth century.” (23)

In many ways Smith’s insight confirms Kaveny’s assessment of the cultural climate of American Catholicism in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and in fact helps explain why, according to Kaveny, in learning to “juggle secular and sacred responsibilities […] the former began to crowd out the latter,” and how the two came to occupy two entirely distinct spheres. Far from dismissing an entire generation, his work demonstrates the deep connections between the last three generations of Catholics in America. Noting that Catholics of the generation that came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s merely “rode the breaking wave” of their parents’ upward mobility, Smith observes that Catholics of my generation (millennials) are carrying forward the socio-cultural realities of their parents in new and complex ways (Smith, 24).

comune12The generation Kaveny describes was indeed, according to Smith, “submerged into the new, heady atmosphere of openness, experimentation, uncertainty, hesitation, disagreement, misunderstanding, and growing conflict and polarization that was set into motion unintentionally by the Second Vatican Council and its arguable less-than-ideal translation in the American Church” (24). She is thus right to reject flippant and uncritical assessments of catechesis in the period after the Second Vatican Council, particularly when those critiques fail to take adequate account of the enormity socio-cultural change at the time.

By the time I finished the essay, however, I found myself dissatisfied. I was particularly disappointed with the way her use of narrative foreclosed the possibility of a robust conversation regarding the uneven reality of catechesis in the American Church. Narrative can function in a number of registers. It can entertain. It can draw us more deeply into the poetics of truth. One need only read Brothers Karamazov or the Divine Comedy to experience the profound power of narrative to open new vistas of possibility. Narrative can also be used gloss over complexity and distract from substantive exchange.

Kaveny begins her essay with a descriptive account of her experience of “a demanding two-year [confirmation] program.” Though at first her use of narrative serves as a productive critique to the often-scathing narrative of 1970’s catechetical formation, a narrative that has served to reinforce polarization in the church, the narrative ends up advancing polarization.

It indeed sounds as though Kaveny had a rich and deep formational experience, one which integrated the objective realities of the faith with our affective and contingent lived experience of faith. While she correctly observes that her “generation wasn’t lost because of religious miseducation,” she fails to acknowledge that the inconsistency of religious education worked alongside a host of other socio-cultural changes to unleash an identity crisis among American Catholics. For every experience like the one Kaveny describes, there people who express sincere regret over the thinness of their catechetical experiences and sadness over the fact that they were not exposed to the richness of Church’s tradition in such a way as capacitate them to engage an unstable and changing world as Catholics.

CT_20070209_046Though Kaveny asserts that “the goal of post-Vatican II catechesis was to cultivate responsible men and women who were shaped by the Catholic Christian vision, sensitive to our debt to the Jewish people, and independent enough to stand up to injustice, even if sanctioned by the church or state,” its unclear how successful the American Church was in meeting these goals. According to sociologist Mark Mass, during this era many American Catholics become unrecognizable from non-Catholics by embracing “the liberal mainstream values of the postwar world with a fervor and devotion that were, if anything, far too uncritical and far too celebratory of American culture” (Massa as quoted by Smith, 24).

One can make such observations without condemning the young wives and mothers who took up the task of catechetical formation after the Second Vatican Council. This is precisely what I find most objectionable in Kaveny’s use of narrative: it is employed to back the reader into a corner. By failing to recognize that catechetical programs in the era after the Second Vatican Council were and continue to be uneven, she constructs a false dichotomy. Either the reader uncritically accepts catechesis as has been done for the past 50 years or the reader is afraid of history and desires a return to the Baltimore Catechism and the days of rote recitation.

Facilely critiquing the revised Catechism as presenting “Catholic belief in the manner of a tax code,” Kaveny implies that the hemorrhaging of young Catholics from the Church is due to a return to pre-Vatican II catechetical formation models. She does not substantiate this claim, nor does sociological research bear it out. In fact, Smith reports that “the single most important measurable factor determining the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers and young adults is the religious faith, commitments, and practices of their parents” and like their parents, Smith has found that many of today’s emerging adults are unable to articulate much about the God they pray to (which is usually when we want something), nor are they able, as Kaveny puts it, “to think within the context of a tradition” because many are not encountering the living tradition of the Church (Smith, 27).

In our parishes and dioceses we need to start thinking creatively about catechesis. The goal of catechetical formation is not to produce good citizens (though hopefully it does this); the purpose of catechesis is to invite people into a vital, living relationship with Christ and his Church through an encounter with a knowledge unlike any other, with a knowledge that transforms us. If we hope to stem the tide of young Catholics leaving the faith, the American Church must stop thinking of Kaveny’s generation as the “lost generation” and reach out to them with renewed charity and concern.

The Daily Office and the Village Effect

profileTRANS (1)Jon R. Jordan

Dean of Students

Coram Deo Academy, Dallas, TX

A recent interview on NPR highlighted the universal human need for smaller, intimate community that involves regular “face-to-face contact.” Psychologist Susan Pinker’s new book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter extols the benefits of living “in a community of about 150 people.”

In a world of megachurches, megastadiums, megamalls, and megauniversities, it is difficult for some of us to imagine what it would mean to live in a community no larger than 150 people. In my own ecclesial life here in the “Bible belt,” I have never even been a member of a church or parish that small. While the ideal size for a parish is a fascinating question—and my hunch is that in many ways smaller is better—there is more to the village effect than mere size of one’s community.

“You can create your own village effect. Get out of your car to talk to your neighbors. Talk in person to your colleagues instead of shooting them emails. Build in face-to-face contact with friends the way you would exercise. Look for schools where the emphasis is on teacher-student interaction, not on high-tech bells and whistles.” Susan Pinker

I don’t think I am ready to commit to saying that we must shrink our parishes. There are many benefits of small, but there are also many benefits of large. So for those of us in large cities and large parishes, how can we create our own village effect? One place to start is by not creating our own village effect at all, but by participating in one created long before we came along: the Daily Office.

Pinker reminds us that there is a great difference between the types of relationships we have online, and those which “develop naturally through frequent in-person contact.” Villages have an advantage over Urban centers because this frequent in-person contact happens all the time. Part of our problem is that we simply do not see each other in-person often enough.

The Daily Office does not directly solve this problem; it does not somehow force us into more frequent contact with one another. But it certainly provides an avenue for such contact.

The Office is written in a way that assumes it will be read in community. There is an officiant, there is a reader, and there are the people. There are Versicles and Responses. We are asked at times to listen while others speak, and we are asked at other times to speak in unison. The Office can certainly be prayed alone, but it was meant to be prayed together.

I went on a backpacking trip last Spring with a group of friends, mostly from our small group. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I Complinehad a growing desire to more regularly pray the Office. I brought my Book of Common Prayer, figuring I would have few excuses for not praying while I spent a few days in the middle of Big Bend National Park. During our long hikes and evenings at the campsite, my recent move into the Anglican tradition came up in conversations with a few of my Baptist and Presbyterian friends. Somewhere along the way I mentioned Compline (the final prayer service of the day to be prayed before one falls asleep), and suggested that we try it together that night.

With no campfire (thanks to a burn-ban), and fading headlamp batteries, four of us sat side-by-side passing one Prayer Book back and forth as we tried to figure out what to say next. I imagine this would have been a hilarious scene to watch, as we dropped the book multiple times and often had to practice our responses a time or two before we said them “for real.” Though Compline that night was awkward at times, and impractical at others, I could not help but get the sense that we were not the only group of guys who have tried to pray together in limited light in the middle of the wilderness. Though we could barely see each others faces, this memory sticks in my mind as one of the more intimate face-to-face contacts I have shared with that group of men. Since the trip I have enjoyed hearing how the prayers we shared that evening were being shared by each of us with our own friends, families, and students.

We could have each gone our own separate ways to have individual “quiet times” that evening. But we would have missed out on an opportunity to participate in the village effect—not only with each other—but also with the countless women and men throughout history that have prayed the same prayers before they went off to bed. I may never be part of an intimate community limited to only 150 people. But praying the Office, especially when prayed face-to-face with others, is gradually serving as a catalyst to my own enjoyment of the effect of living in such an intimate community.