Tag Archives: Benedict XVI

The Eucharist: Food for Us Wild Things

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Like many American children, I was well familiar with Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are. The story of a land populated with strangely horrifying yet even more strangely appealing creatures and the darkly thrilling image of Max as their boy-king became firmly lodged in my imagination from an early age; however, there was one facet of the story that I could never quite wrap my head around, even as I grew up and began sharing the story with younger siblings and eventually nephews and nieces. After the “wild rumpus” (quite possibly one of the greatest phrases in children’s literature), something surprising happens:

And Max, the king of all the wild things, was lonely, and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. . . . So he gave up being king of where the wild things are. But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

Dear Wild Things: Saying you're going to eat me up because you love me is not making me want to hang around longer. Love, Max
Dear Wild Things: Saying you’re going to eat me up because you love me is not making me want to hang around longer. Love, Max

Initially, it was surprising to me that Max would give up being king of where the wild things are, but more than that, it was the response of the wild things that utterly bewildered me. Last time I checked, in the world of kid-dom, “We’ll eat you up” was a death threat! And yet it’s followed up with “We love you so”? How could eating Max possibly be an expression of the wild things’ love for him? In the child’s imagination (or at least in my own), the prospect of being eaten by a monster with terrible roars and terrible teeth and terrible eyes and terrible claws is something, well, utterly terrifying. Yet here, in Sendak’s world of wild things, eating is somehow an expression of their love.

Turning from the wild things of Sendak’s world to the adorably wild things of my own world, I began thinking about something my younger brother said once of his two small children (now 5 and 3), who are inseparable besties. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for these kiddos to give each other hugs that more accurately resemble full-body tackles in their joyous exuberance. As my bemused brother described these endearing expressions of sibling love, “It’s almost like they’re trying to eat each other.”   “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

There is often a strong connection between an intense love for something and the desire to consume it—to break down any barriers of separation so that there is nothing between us and the object of our affections, and this desire is often understood from an alimentary point of view, a desire which has deep resonances with the Eucharist. Love—in its myriad forms—is, ultimately, a desire for knowledge of and union with the beloved, as Philippe Rouillard points out in his essay “From Human Meal to Christian Eucharist”: “The words ‘hunger’ and ‘thirst’ are often employed in a figurative sense to express the desires of all human beings” (see Living Bread, Saving Cup, ed. Seasoltz, 127). Indeed, there is often an intense longing to have the object of our affections become a part of us, and here we can establish a connection to eating and drinking. When we eat and drink, we interact with various substances and take them into our bodies, and in so doing, we reach a new level of experiential knowledge of those substances, even as we transform them into ourselves. Angel F. Méndez-Montoya points out this relationship in his book The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist:

In tasting through eating and drinking, the world enters us, but we also enter the world. We are made by that which we eat and drink, but we also “make” the world. We are what we eat, but we also eat what we are. To know is, then, to savor, and thus enter into an intimate relationship with another that shapes us while it is being shaped by us. . . . Knowledge is active collaboration and participation. (64)

This desire for such deep, participatory knowledge is why we sometimes look at a baby and think, “She’s so cute! I just want to eat those chubby cheeks!” It’s why effusive young sibling affection often looks more like toddlers trying to hurt each other. Or why the wild things want to show their love for Max by eating him up. And yet it is the realization that knowledge is not only participatory but also collaborative that prevents authentic love from becoming a relationship in which one being utterly subsumes the other, thereby destroying the other in the process (as would happen if the wild things had actually eaten Max out of love, and as ultimately happens with the food that we eat).

The wild things and Max, my niece and nephew—these memories and images have resurfaced in my mind as I’ve listened to sixth chapter of John’s Gospel proclaimed during the Sunday Mass these past few weeks. Christ_feedingIn this passage known as the Bread of Life discourse, we learn anew that in his love for us, Jesus comes to us—his beautiful creatures who have become wild things, rebellious in our sinfulness yet hungering for we know not what—and in him, we recognize our King, the One whom we love. Moreover, Jesus doesn’t come to us only to leave us again; he comes to us as the One who ‘loves us best of all,’ the One who desires to be with us forever, who demonstrates his love by laying down his life on the Cross and offering us the gift of himself in the Eucharist: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:51, 54–55). Or, to put it in Sendak-ian terms, “Please eat me up, I love you so!”

Unlike the food we wild things consume and transform into ourselves, the Eucharist is the food by which we are transformed. As we savor Christ in the Eucharist, we become Christ (as St. Augustine reminds us in Sermon 272), and through Christ, we participate in the life of God. It is in the Eucharist that loving and eating are one and the same thing: in his love for us, Jesus Christ gives himself to be eaten under the forms of bread and wine, and in our love for Jesus, we eat of his flesh and drink of his blood not only so that we might come to know him more fully, even as we are fully known (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), but also so that we might become the One whom we receive.

"Christ Feeding the People" by Fyffe Christie (Iona) Photo: Eleanor Christie (2012); CC BY-SA 3.0
“Christ Feeding the People” by Fyffe Christie (Iona)
Photo: Eleanor Christie (2012); CC BY-SA 3.0

This relationship of transforming love is not one in which we are subsumed into Christ; rather, it brings us more fully unto ourselves, as Benedict XVI affirms: “This union is no mere fusion, a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine; it is a unity which creates love, a unity in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become fully one” (Deus Caritas Est, §10).

For the next two Sundays, we will continue to receive nourishment from the Bread of Life discourse, where Jesus insists, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (Jn 6:56–57), and yet we are also invited to receive nourishment by not merely by listening to the words of the Bread of Life, but by eating the Bread of Life. It is out of sheer love for us that Jesus gives himself as food and drink for our souls, inviting us to eat and drink of his flesh and blood so that we might share in the divine life. Let us love wildly, responding to the one who says, “Take and eat” by exclaiming, “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”


Seven Last Words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46)

Ordinary people and extraordinary intellectuals alike have long pondered need for Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Surely, the Son of God does not need baptism for the remission of sins. Yet, there he stood in the waters of the Jordan and instructed his cousin John, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). In his act of submitting to baptism and descending into the waters of the Jordan, Jesus accepts without exception the will of the Father as his will. This act discloses not the necessity (as we in modernity construe necessity) of Jesus’ baptism; rather, it discloses the love of the triune God. This love reveals itself perfectly in the person of Christ whose submission to baptism is an act of prayer, in which he proleptically accepts all that it means to be human, “even death, death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

In his masterpiece, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI describes the baptism of Christ as his “Yes to the entire will of God,” a Yes which at one and the same time “expresses solidarity with men, who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness” (vol. 1, 17). Jesus’ baptism anticipates his Cross.

I have the very bad habit of establishing boundaries around the stages in Jesus’ life. First, there is Christ’s infancy. Next, his public ministry. Finally, his death and resurrection. While these distinctions can be incredibly helpful, I find that when these boundaries become impenetrable, it is all too easy to forget the unity of the person of Christ. The child who lies wrapped in swaddling bands in the manger is the same person who plunges into the depths of the Jordan, who teaches in parables, and who announces the Kingdom of God. And it is this same one hangs broken on the Cross, praying the Psalms, the same Psalms the people of Israel prayed for centuries, the same Psalms Jews and Christians alike continue to pray daily. From infancy to death, Jesus’ life is “the perfect prayer the Psalms are meant to form” (Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ, 61). His entire life presses toward the event of the Cross. Here, the inner meaning of the Incarnation, that is, the event of God’s love, is revealed. Here, the parables are explicated. Here, the depth of God’s solidarity with humanity is enacted, and perhaps none of the seven final words of Christ make this more evident than his cry of abandonment. In the words of Simone Weil, Christ’s lament expresses “infinite distance between God and God,” the “supreme tearing apart,” the “agony beyond all others,” the “marvel of love” which penetrates the crucifixion (Waiting for God, 123–4).

The words of Psalm 22, which find explicit expression in the final hour, are inscribed in the entire Passion narrative. “The public humiliation,” writes Benedict XVI, “the mockery and shaking of heads by the scoffers, the pain, the terrible thirst, the piercing of Jesus’ hands and feet, the casting of lots for his garments—the whole Passion is . . . anticipated in the Psalm” (vol. 2, 214). At the ninth hour, the Word of God made flesh cries out in a loud voice, the words of Psalm 22 in his mouth. The Son of God dies speaking not a word of his own, but the word of Scripture, the words that become the event of love nailed to the Cross. He dies misunderstood and reviled. Misinterpreting his cry of lament, bystanders in the crowd call out, “This one is calling for Elijah” (Mt 27:47).

Christ dies in prayer. Even in his hour of affliction when God withdraws, his cry of abandonment already contains within it “the gift of an answer to prayer, the gift of transformation” for his is no ordinary cry of abandonment (vol. 2, 215). Benedict XVI explains the uniqueness of Christ’s lament. Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulation, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with suffering Israel, with all who suffer under “God’s darkness”; he takes their cry, their anguish, all their helplessness upon himself—and in doing so he transforms it. (214)

The Passion and Crucifixion is the event of Psalm 22, wherein Christ takes to himself the depths of human affliction and separation from God. Yet, as the enactment of the Word of God, even as these most profound words of despair pierce the darkened sky, they anticipate the glory of God revealed in the resurrection. Psalm 22 begins in the depths of lament, in a grief that cannot be glossed over, but neither can we ignore its conclusion which consists of the psalmist’s praise and profound joy of life in God:

“You who fear the LORD, give praise!
All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
show reverence, all descendants of Israel!
For he has not spurned or disdained

the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away* from me,

but heard me when I cried out.
I will offer praise in the great assembly;

my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.
The poor will eat their fill;
those who seek the LORD will offer praise.
May your hearts enjoy life forever!” (Ps 22:24–27)

Christ’s suffering, his supreme expression of God’s love and solidarity with us, already contains within it the inner reality of redemption.

“It Is Good That You Exist”

Hope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

About a week and a half ago, I journeyed to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. with nearly 700 fellow students from the Notre Dame, St. Mary’s, and Holy Cross community. I tried on the way there to write a “Why We March” piece. And then I tried on the way back to turn the bits and pieces of thoughts into a “Why We Marched” reflection. This may come as a shocker, but bumpy, overnight, cross-country bus rides are not the most conducive writing environments.

March_for_Life_2015_Addie_CNABus rides may not be good for writing, but they are good for pondering, and I pondered one thought all along the way. The thought was  the quote: “It is good that you exist,” and it tied my whole March for Life 2015 experience together from beginning to end. I remembered reading a line of Pope Benedict XVI’s talking about how it is important for people to know: “It is good that you exist.” (To give fair credit where it’s due, the quote was probably in my mind because of this recent post from Elizabeth Scalia over at the Patheos blog network.) I wondered about using the quote as a sort of posture in which to march and to carry the spirit of the March forward into the rest of the year—expressing that to be pro-life is to say: “It is good that you exist” to all of humanity, from conception to natural death.

This “It is good that you exist” reflection comes from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 Christmas address to the Roman Curia. During the address, Pope Benedict reflected on the joy that he had experienced at World Youth Day. The full quote is a gift, and so you’ll find it here:

“Where does it [joy] come from? How is it to be explained? Certainly, there are many factors at work here. But in my view, the crucial one is this certainty, based on faith: I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted, I am loved. Josef Pieper, in his book on love, has shown that man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another. He needs the other’s presence, saying to him, with more than words: it is good that you exist. Only from the You can the I come into itself. Only if it is accepted, can it accept itself. Those who are unloved cannot even love themselves. This sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings. But all human acceptance is fragile. Ultimately we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally. Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being.”

In fact, that idea of peoples’ necessity to know, “It is good that you exist” must have been a theme for Pope Benedict XVI, because years earlier, (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) he had written,

“If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist” – must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love” (Principles of Catholic Theology, 74).

Every-Life-is-a-Gift-2The ‘theme’ this year for the March was “Every Life is a Gift.” But I think that we can only say and mean, “Every Life is a Gift” if we affirm to the most vulnerable in our world the goodness of existence.

cute-down-syndrome-baby-boy-pictures-6-640x426So to be pro-life in this line of thought means to say, by act, in prayer, by attention, with tenderness, with “the act of the entire being that we call love” the following: It is wonderfully good that you exist, young mothers, isolated and scared of facing the realities of an unintended pregnancy. It is so, so good that you exist, beautiful little ones with Downs Syndrome. It is very good that you exist, men who have no idea how or if you’re going to be a father. We are so grateful that you exist, grandmothers and grandfathers who are tired, and sick, and aren’t sure how much time you have. You are loved for who you are, not what you can do or will do or will never do. You are loved because you exist.*

gileadThere are some other beautiful examples of how this kind of love can come about. One of my favorite examples comes from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. In it, John Ames writes to his young son, saying: “But it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”

That image of John Ames loving his young son simply for his existence in a way that aligns with the thought of Pope Benedict XVI is just about the most pro-life posture I can imagine, if we have the courage to extend it to those we encounter. What if we loved each person in our world in the same way? Each woman, man, and child on this earth—especially those whom, by all appearances, the world is willing to throw away—needs to know they are dearly loved and supported and treasured. They are loved by God and also by us, even if they never felt that or knew that until now. They need to know it with more than just words; they need to know with tangible support and time and love. We need to reach out, to tell them: “It is good that you exist.”

We know that we can only love, as 1 John 4 says, because “[God] first loved us.” In and through the mystery of faith, we are invited to love people with God’s love so that they may know that God loves them. Our human love may only be a shadow and a tiny foretaste of our heavenly Father’s tendetour12r love for His children, but we need each other in order to know that it is good that we exist. We need each other, so that ultimately we may all turn together in adoration, with our whole hearts and lives to the ultimate love, who poured Himself out for us on the Cross.

This is why the posture of “It is good that you exist” can help extend the witness of the March. It means taking the experience of the solidarity of the hundreds of thousands of people on the March for Life, joyously shouting the slogans like, “We love babies!” and “Pro-Woman, Pro-Life!” and turning that passion and joy into a tangible part of the daily Christian life. The Notre Dame Right to Life Club already does this in very admirable ways, by supporting the pregnancy resource center near campus, organizing visits to nursing homes and having game nights with the elderly, and working with the Hannah Project, spending time with children and adults with a variety of disabilities. All of these pro-life activities state by their collective actions, by their decisions and their time, and by their attention to the individual that it is good that people exist.

This is idealistic, I know, and one post cannot engage all of the arguments and intricacies surrounding those who have suffered because of abortion or other hurts and sins against human dignity all over the world. But I hope that this post can serve as encouragement, as a suggestion for a way of “moving on” from the March for Life. This way proclaims by word, by deed, by attention to the most vulnerable a very simple message: you are loved for your very existence. That is good that we exist. It is good that you, beloved child of God, exist, and it always will be.


*(We could go on to refer to immigrants and refugees, the homeless, the mentally ill . . . obviously, the pro-life movement doesn’t get the monopoly on calling existence “good”: God beat us all to it in the first days of creation. See Gn 1.)

Searching for Christ

Jessica KeatingJessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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T.S. Eliot writes in the third of his Four Quartets, “The Dry Salvages,” “We had the experience but missed the meaning” (lI.44). In a single line, Eliot illuminates the affliction of fallen humanity: we are, in the words of St. Peter Chrysologus, “enshrouded always in darkness” (Sermon 160). We look, but the cataracts of sin cloud our perception. We listen, but we do not hear. We have the experience, but we miss the meaning.

In a mere lifetime, we can amass a breathtaking array of exotic experiences. smartphoneaddiction-520x245We casually refer to twitter feeds, bucket lists, and upgrades. We inhabit a world awash in information, where the same scraps of news are looped on a 24-hour cycle until a new story dislodges it, casting it into the abyss of forgetfulness, where one might know more about celebrities than about one’s neighbor; where poetry, according to some literary critics, has become increasingly didactic; where in-depth analysis often means little more than getting the facts right.

So ubiquitous is the constant exchange of information that we’ve developed special terms to describe people who partially or fully opt-out: going off the grid and living under a rock. But concomitant with ease of travel and exchange of information, of technological advances and the fact that in terms of sheer quantity of information we know more now than at any other point in history, I wonder if we haven’t also become collectors, accumulating experiences and acquiring bits of information, all the while missing the meaning.

St. Peter Chrysologus observed that “in choosing to be born for us, God chose to be known by us” (Sermon 160). In becoming human, God risks becoming a collector’s item, one more piece of information among all the others in our mental display case, just something else to Google. Yet, it is only by taking this risk—the risk of being reduced to data, the risk of being disowned as mere history—that his love can be made manifest. In becoming the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, God makes himself available to us. To gaze at him is to look upon his infant hands and perceive, to listen to his infant cries and hear. To gaze upon him, to listen to him is to risk entering into the mystery and meaning of divine love because in Christ, God does not merely provide a list attributes, qualifications, or a divine résumé. He does not merely disclose information. Indeed, in the Gospels, those who assiduously cling to what they think they know of Christ (including the disciples!) time and again reveal that they have missed the meaning. In Christ, God discloses knowledge that transforms, the experience that is meaning.

In both the East and West, the events traditionally associated with Epiphany (which has only more recently been transferred to Sunday in many Western dioceses, but is still celebrated today in the East)—the adoration of the Magi and the Baptism of Christ—each disclose something of the identity of Christ, directing our gaze to his pierced hands and side and inclining our ears to his final cry of abandonment.

In the West, the Epiphany tends to lay emphasis on the universal salvation offered through this particular Child as shown through the visitation of the magi in Matthew’s Gospel. These astronomers from the East had been following the “star since his rising” and arrive at Herod’s palace in search of the “newborn king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2). Not coincidentally, Matthew invokes the Gentile title, “King of the Jews,” which will appear again on the lips of Roman soldiers (Mt 27:29) and be inscribed over the Cross of Christ (Mt 27:37). Certainly others noticed this bright star in the heavens, both astronomers in the East and people of Jerusalem, yet the magi appear to be the only ones to perceive meaning of the star. Perceiving it, they set off on the long, treacherous journey westward, where they find, “crying in a manger, the one they have followed as he shone in the sky,” where they “see clearly, in swaddling clothes, the one they have long awaited as he lay hidden among the stars” (Chrysologus, Sermon 150). They come seeking in faith, says St. Augustine, the “King, so small and so mighty, not yet speaking on earth and already issuing commands in heaven” (Sermon 199). And finding the king for whom they seek, they do not simply find more informational data, but the condition of the possibility of all knowledge—the light himself, who has been illuminating the magi this whole time, drawing them to himself from the moment they “saw his star at its rising” (Mt 2:2). Ethiopian Magi, Patrick ComerfordTheir joy upon entering the house of Mary and the Child is the joy of Gospel. It is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, “the joy of one whose heart has received a ray of God’s light and who can now see that his hope has been realized—the joy of one who has found what he sought, and has himself been found” (106). It is the joy extended to all creation, all the nations through the newborn king of the Jews. Indeed, the late Scripture scholar Raymond Brown in his slim volume An Adult Christ at Christmas, describes the magi as forerunners “of all those who would come to worship the risen Jesus proclaimed by the apostles” (14).

In the East, the Epiphany is deeply linked to Christ’s Baptism. Indeed, in the East, Epiphany remains a day for Baptism. In the waters of the Jordan, Christ takes up in his humanity the sins of Israel. There is no deeper sign of his solidarity with us than this. The one who is without sin bridges the unbridgeable gap between humanity and God. He “blends in with the great mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan,” taking up all of history, all our wounds and suffering in order to transform them (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 16). It is here that Jesus is revealed as the beloved Son of God who comes not on his own behalf but so that we might see the Word and perceive, listen to his voice and be transformed. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes, “the only-begotten Son receives the Spirit, but not for his own advantage, for the Spirit is his, and is given in him and through him . . . He receives it to renew our nature in its entirety and to make it whole again” (Commentary on the Gospel of John). His unreserved yes to the Father and his unreserved yes to humanity is consummated on the Cross, where the waters of Baptism flow from his pierced side. Bathing in this water of Baptism, “the water that irrigates Paradise” (St. Hippolytus), illumines our vision so that we might perceive more than just information and opens our ears so that we might listen and understand. We are enfolded into the One who gives meaning to all experience, who is the meaning of all experience—who is love and whose love is capable of generating the light of the stars, of clothing the river in his glory, of healing the “withering of withered flowers” (Eliot, II:31).

Three Things We’re Reading: Mary and Benedict XVI

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1) Nicholas Denysenko reflects on Mary during the season of Advent at PrayTell:

God’s blessing of Joachim and Anna and their conception of Mary directs the Christian to a series of events that confirm this hope: Mary’s faithfulness, her birth of Jesus in homelessness and poverty, and her maternal advocacy which Christians experience and remember with devotion throughout the globe, and of course, the birth of the Lord Jesus himself. The Conception of Mary by Anna makes the anticipation and thankful celebration of these other events and people possible.

The celebration of Anna’s conception of Mary is a cause for joy because it begins a series of messages that establish our faith that we belong to God’s communion. So despite the differences between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox commemorations of this solemnity, which demand ongoing dialogue, I am grateful that my daughter’s school is inviting us to celebrate this feast, because it reminds us that Mary is mother of all of her children, and she directs them to Christ, even if they squabble on the journey.

2) Another story on Mary in Christian art at Crux (written by Cathy Lynn Grossman at Religion News Service):

Mary, possibly the most frequently imagined woman in all of Western art, takes center stage in a landmark Washington exhibition of sculptures, portraits, prints, and other works by acclaimed Renaissance and Baroque artists.

“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” opens Friday and runs through April 12 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, just in time for Christmas and stretching past Easter.

The theme of the show is Mary’s symbolic power, expressed in the arts. She touches people’s hearts “not only in a religious dimension, but in a human dimension,” a way of seeing the human experiences of love, devotion and suffering, said Marian scholar Monsignor Timothy Verdon.

3) A piece by C.C. Pecknold on how Benedict XVI’s scholarship is influencing the Synod on the family. An interesting suggestion (liturgically) by the Pope Emeritus (quoting Benedict XVI, quoted by Pecknold):

I would like to add another practical suggestion. In many countries it has become customary for persons who are not able to receive communion (for example, the members of other confessions) to approach the altar with their hands folded over their chests, making it clear that they are not receiving the sacrament but are asking for a blessing, which is given to them as a sign of the love of Christ and of the Church. This form could certainly be chosen also by persons who are living in a second marriage and therefore are not admitted to the Lord’s table. The fact that this would make possible an intense spiritual communion with the Lord, with his whole Body, with the Church, could be a spiritual experience that would strengthen and help them.

Baseball, Love, and the Liturgy

Chris LabadieChris Labadie

MA Candidate, Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary

Director of Liturgy, Saint John’s University Campus Ministry

I love baseball. I love the precision, I love the numbers crunching, I love the way a ball sounds off a bat or smacking into a glove. What I love the most about baseball though is the brotherhood that builds up in a clubhouse and spills over onto the field. There is no wonder why players are referred to as “the boys” of summer.

As the Major League season was coming to a close last week with the seven game World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals, the game took somewhat of a back seat. Last Sunday, Oscar Taveras, a 22-year-old outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, died in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. Oscar-Taveras-St.-Louis-Cardinals-John-Jay-The outpouring of grief from fans and players around the league was immediate and heartfelt. It was not until the next afternoon that a statement came from Mike Matheny, the manager of the Cardinals and a man who has been very open about his Christian faith throughout his career. As I read the statement, I became more and more convinced of my love for the game, especially as I read the final heart-wrenching words:

In my opinion, the word ‘love’ is the most misused and misunderstood word in the English language. It is not popular for men to use this word, and even less popular for athletes. But, there is not a more accurate word for how a group of men share a deep and genuine concern for each other. We loved Oscar, and he loved us. That is what a team does, that is what a family does.

Matheny did not mean that the team loved Taveras because he could catch a ball or hit home runs, he meant that they loved each other because there is a bond that extends beyond the game.

Love often is the “most misused and misunderstood word in the English language.” The world tells us that love is something temporary, something fleeting. We can choose to love someone today, but if they make us angry tomorrow then we just shut off the love. We are conditioned by the media to “love” celebrities or products, but only insofar as they give us pleasure or make us feel good about ourselves. How quickly does our society move from one fad to the next? From one failed celebrity marriage to the next? Love has become synonymous with instant gratification and pleasure.

When Christians think about love, our first place to look is in the First Letter of John: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 Jn 4:16, NRSV). God is not temporary or fleeting. God does not love us one day and turn away from us the next, because He is love! His love is offered to us freely, for all of eternity, and without any conditions attached—even if we choose not to love God, God will still love us because we were created by the One who is pure love. god-is-love-2Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, reminded us that this love can be expressed in so many different ways, but all of them require us to be actively responsive to the love given to us first by God. This is what sets Christian love apart from the transient “love” that our modern world enjoys spreading around to anyone who will pay attention. For Mike Matheny and the St. Louis Cardinals, this Christian love meant sharing “a deep and genuine concern for each other,” for the people who had become teammates, friends, and brothers. In a time of loss they are able to rely on that concern for one another in order to move forward.

I was greatly struck by Matheny’s comment that it is not popular for men, especially athletes, to use the word “love.” As a Catholic man, I find it necessary that I love something—my family, my friends, my God, my Church. All of these are worthy of my love and, if I do not express that love, I am not fulfilling my duty to God or to those people. There is an excellent blog that I read fairly regularly called “The Catholic Gentleman” (www.catholicgentleman.net). In a post on the true meaning of St. Valentine’s Day, the author expressed his understanding of why love is so important for the Catholic man:

If we really love others, we will care about their salvation. If we care about their salvation, we will share the Catholic faith with them. St. Valentine had the courage to share the Gospel with the man who had the power of life or death over him—and yet most of us won’t broach the topic of faith with our friends out of fear of disapproval. Let’s choose to courageously share the faith we have received with others as God provides opportunity.

The author of the blog knows that in order for us to be good Catholic men we must not be afraid to love and be loved, we must not be not afraid to express that love to God and to those around us.

How do we express our love of God? As a liturgist I admit that I am a little biased here, but I truly believe that the liturgy is the ultimate expression of love. Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred HeartWe can see the love given to us when we witness the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist. God loves us so much that He suffered and died for us on the Cross, but also left us a “memorial of his death and resurrection,” so that we can continue to see that love on a daily basis. At the same time, the liturgy is our ultimate act of giving our love to God. Sometimes that love is imperfect and we are not as fully invested in the words and actions taking place before us. Sometimes our love is hiding underneath anger or pain or a need for reconciliation. Sometimes we are fully invested in what is happening and we are singing, with full heart and voice, the praises of our God. The Lord loves it all and accepts whatever we bring that day. So in a world where the media tells us that men are not supposed to show our feelings, especially love, the liturgy is once again a counter-cultural movement that says: Love. Love with everything you’ve got. Love through your pain and your joys. Love when your young friend and teammate has been killed in a car accident. Love with a genuineness that no one will be able to deny. That is how we abide in God and God abides in us.

Hope in Action: Devotional Prayer and the Marathon

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor 

House of Brigid

Wexford, Ireland

As my feet pounded against the pavement and wound through Dublin’s narrow streets earlier this week, my thoughts wandered amidst the surrounding cacophony of the marathon—the rumble of footsteps fromMarathon Pic 1 the tens of thousands of runners around me, the exuberant cheers from spectators along the race route, the shouted words of encouragement and motivation passed from one runner to the next; the deep, controlled breaths of the seasoned runners, and the short, shallow gasps of the neophytes. My interior self was thrown into turmoil, too, with thoughts of proper pacing, constant checks for the slightest indicators of injury, perhaps too-regular calculations of the remaining distance—not to mention all the everyday doubts, fears, uncertainties, and expectations fighting for their place in the mix as well.

The monotony of running 26.2 miles became particularly apparent at mile 14. As the prospect of running another 12 miles sank in, the first twinges of exhaustion coursed through my body. At mile 16, I noticed some of the faster runners begin to walk. At mile 19, increasingly more competitors appeared to have suddenly stepped into a mire of molasses; the 20-mile marker poster seemed to mock us, stretching farther and farther away. My muscles protested at the continued exertion, the heat of the sun blazed down, the road began to incline, and the discomfort of it all became nearly unbearable. Insidious thoughts of ending the pain altogether and quitting the race clashed against my halting determination, and threatened to become too convincing to fight for much longer. As a first-time marathoner, I naïvely expected my months of training would be enough to get me to the finish line—but they weren’t. Something far deeper, though, would.

My thoughts turned back towards my graduate school courses on liturgical asceticism and the ancient desert monastics of Egypt and Palestine. If those courageous—though somewhat disconcerting—men and women could endure the scorching desert heat, meals of stone-hard bread and locusts, sleepless night vigils, coarse animal-hair shirts, and wage spiritual battles against the anthropomorphized passions and emerge victorious, then surely I could endure the self-inflicted pain of running a marathon—High5 EnergyGels© notwithstanding (I wouldn’t wish those on any enemy!).

Inexplicably, the words of the Ave Maria slowly, languorously laced their way through the mêlée to reach the core of my innermost self. What I most needed in this moment was hope—the kind that comes not from within, but from above. How in the world did I think I could ever accomplish this Herculean effort on my own? In that interminable 19th mile, I decided to draw strength from the tradition of the Church during my own hour of need—the very prayers that sustained saints and martyrs in their times of distress. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, I would be “guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints” (Spe Salvi, §34). Too delirious to formulate a proper theological interpretation of this internal struggle, praying the Rosary on my fingers while running became a vehicle of active hope.

Rosary Pic 1Despite my ragged breathing, the ancient words flowed freely with each step. In those last few miles, I journeyed with Christ and the Blessed Virgin by reflecting on the five Glorious Mysteries, the splendor of the Gospel message made real and present in my very human search for strength. In the most unlikely of times and places, I somehow felt more a part of the Church than ever before. I meditated on the hope and endurance of the great saints and martyrs who came before me and experienced all manner of suffering and persecution:

“In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown ‘thing’ is the true ‘hope’ which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity” (Spe salvi, §12).

Pope Benedict XVI says the Rosary duringWhile I was only praying for the strength to finish the marathon, Benedict XVI’s words resonate on a deeper level. My self-inflicted suffering could be considered a stand-in for the very real and heartbreaking suffering that occurs every day in this world. Fortunately for all of us, “the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise” (Spe salvi, §37).

Through praying the Rosary, my pain and exhaustion were thus transformed into a hymn of praise and thanksgiving. I completed the marathon running strong, the opening words of the Salve Regina echoing at the edges of consciousness:

“Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.”

Marathon Pic 2

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

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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!”

“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation From the Outside Looking In

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor
Master of Theological Studies Candidate,
University of Notre Dame

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Previous posts in this series:
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Notre Dame, Liturgical Formation, and the New Evangelization


“I throw myself at the foot of the Tabernacle
like a dog at the foot of his Master.”

“We must visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament
a hundred thousand times a day.”

“Do you want many graces? Go and visit the Blessed Sacrament often.
Do you want few graces? Visit the Blessed Sacrament rarely.
Do you want none at all? Then never pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.”

I’ve begun this monthly column in earnest with a selection of brief quotes respectively attributed to St. John Vianney, St. Francis de Sales, and St. John Bosco that may be quite unsettling to millennial Catholics. Who among us throws themselves at the feet of tabernacles these days, or goes to Adoration that much? Barring religious orders devoted to Perpetual Adoration or the few-and-far-between parishes with Blessed Sacrament chapels, hardly anyone—and if someone does, the rest of us would most likely cringe at such a melodramatic display of piety. Yet, countless great saints before us have prostrated themselves in front of the tabernacle, penned achingly beautiful odes to the Blessed Sacrament (see especially St. Thomas Aquinas’ Adoro te devote and St. Teresa of Ávila’s writings on the Eucharist), wept tears of ecstasy and grief at contemplating the Last Supper and Christ’s Passion, and witnessed marvelous Eucharistic miracles. Where are these displays today? Are we missing something completely obvious about the divine mysteries of our faith concerning the Eucharist? Indeed, we have stumbled along blindly far enough—this post addresses how we might reconsider our perception of the Mass before even entering a church, from something boring and habitual, or “community-building,” into a transformative celebration of astonishing beauty and magnificence that reflects a New Heaven and New Earth, the heavenly Jerusalem as a bride gloriously adorned for her husband (Rev 21:1-5).

“The Eucharist is an entry into the liturgy of heaven,” wrote Benedict XVI in The Spirit of the Liturgy (70). I surmise that if we pause for just a brief moment outside our churches and remember that for the next hour we will be transported into a heavenly reality, then our senses will adjust and more acutely perceive the wonders enacted in our midst. We will see with fresh, new eyes that “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:16-18). Although we may not physically be able to see what has been hidden to us as the priest consecrates bread and wine and incense billows to the rafters, our interior gaze focused on Christ witnesses that what transpires on the altar is truly a reflection of heaven on earth.

The unsettling, zealous quotes I began with provoke a couple of hard-hitting questions that we should be asking on our pilgrimages of faith into and throughout adulthood. Have we considered what about the Mass caused such an all-consuming devotion to the liturgy for these saints, and most especially to the Eucharist? Have we thought to explore what the Church offers us? Hopefully questions like this might serve in some small capacity to chip away the hardness of heart that habitually develops over time, however innocently, and leads us to take our faith for granted. They can initiate a steadily growing anticipation of what is to come during the liturgy, and instill the kind of reverence that comes from a profound movement within the self—a transformation just beginning to stir, like a flame flickering into existence. There’s a mystical element here that goes far beyond human comprehension; our entrance into a church commences our very union with the entire cosmos in euphoric praise and thanksgiving. Luckily, our pope-emeritus can expound upon this much more eloquently than I.

In the words of Benedict XVI, the cosmos prays with us because, like us, it ardently desires redemption. The cosmic dimension of the liturgy is fundamental to the Catholic faith, because “it is never performed solely in the self-made world of man” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 70)—which is why we are obligated to consciously depart from our lives in the world before entering a church. In a way, recognizing the cosmic dimension of the liturgy can save us from ourselves—for the Blessed Sacrament “contains a dynamism, which has the goal of transforming mankind and the world into the New Heaven and New Earth, into the unity of the risen Body” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 87). I think, if there’s a reason for lapsing faith or taking advantage of the Mass, it’s because we have succumbed to a mindset that receiving Communion is eating a ‘thing-like’ gift, another task to complete on our ever-expanding to-do lists. “No,” Benedict XVI counters: “there is a person-to-person exchange, a coming of the one into the other. The living Lord gives himself to me, enters into me, and invites me to surrender myself to him, so that the Apostle’s words come true: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal 2:20)” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 88-89).

In the end, liturgical formation occurs long before we cross the threshold of a church. Only when we come to realize why our steps are drawn inexplicably toward the altar, toward our Creator and Redeemer, can we hope to delve deeper into the mysteries of our faith. We cannot expect to come to love the liturgy unless we know what it’s about and what it actually means for us and for the world. Of course this moment of comprehension will occur uniquely to each one of us in its own time, but that is one of the many glorious things about being on a life-long pilgrimage of faith! Our purpose for worship, therefore, manifests itself into a burning desire to encounter Him face-to-face. This enigmatic tugging of our hearts to approach the Lord draws us closer to Him in the liturgy. Indeed, this is why these saints have professed such gripping declarations of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

I’ll leave you with one last quotation—not intended to unsettle, but to encourage and hopefully enkindle an excitement and profound love for the liturgy. May we keep in mind the words of St. Damien of Molokai, the ‘Apostle of the Lepers’:

“Were it not for the constant presence of our divine Master in our humble chapel, I would not have found it possible to persevere in sharing the lot of the lepers in Molokai… The Eucharist is the bread that gives us strength… It is at once the most eloquent proof of His love and the most powerful means of fostering His love in us. He gives Himself every day so that our hearts as burning coals may set afire the hearts of the faithful.”

From the outside looking in, liturgy contains much, much more than it appears.

Songs for a New Papacy (part 3)

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Some might think it odd to find a selection of purely instrumental pieces in our playlist for the papal conclave. However, there is a great tradition of instrumental music in the liturgical life of the Church, and while these pieces are probably not going to be heard in the context of a liturgy anytime soon (apart from the hymn “Simple Gifts” which was featured in Copland’s Appalachian Spring), it’s important to recognize that music written for settings other than worship still possesses an incredible potential to lift the heart and the soul to God. OrchestraPope Emeritus Benedict XVI refers to the entire realm of creation as a “symphony,” and the presence of God is discernible even in the production of orchestral sounds, as “wood and brass turn into tone; the unconscious and the unsolved become ordered and meaningful sound” (A New Song to the Lord, 122). However, whether or not instrumental music is truly capable of inspiring prayer depends as much on how it is received by the listener as it does on the music itself. To hear a piece of orchestral or instrumental music merely for its compositional ingenuity or technical prowess is certainly natural; however, to hear within this music the reflection of divine order and beauty opens the listener up to something deeper, something more real than just a pleasant aural experience. Instrumental music can become a means through which a person might encounter God. Granted, some forms of instrumental music lend themselves to this encounter more readily than others—for instance, it might be difficult to find any semblance of order or beauty in an overly-dissonant, atonal piece (although not necessarily impossible depending on the listener). Nevertheless, the instrumental pieces on the papal playlist were selected not only for their musical genius, but also because each one carries within it different musical manifestations of the theme of renewal, so appropriate for the Church in this time of transition. Additionally, each piece in its own way manifests joy—whether in the exuberant rhythmic energy of Appalachian Spring, the evocative harmonic structure of The Lark Ascending, the noble melody of Nimrod, or the triumphant brilliance of instrumental color of The Firebird Suite, each of these pieces has the potential to draw listeners in to the realm of beauty, and within that realm lies the opportunity to encounter the Source of all beauty. The comments that follow are an attempt to explain the reasons for including these pieces in particular, in the hopes that they might awaken a new imagination and inspire a new way of listening to instrumental music with an ear open to the voice of the Divine.

Appalachian Spring (Aaron Copland)
Throughout this piece, each theme is unfolded, first one by one, and in turn, they are often brought into relationship with others at various points. While the title suggests images of snow melting on mountains and the gradual awakening of nature in springtime, this piece actually brings to my mind the Genesis story. With the introduction of each musical theme, I imagine God bringing the different elements of creation into existence for the first time, from the wind sweeping over the waters, to first rays of light, to the crowning of creation with humanity. Sistine Chapel - Hands of God and AdamHeard in this mindset especially brings a new layer of meaning to the hymn “Simple Gifts,” which for me becomes a commentary on the relationship of creature and Creator: “’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free.” A childlike, simple trust in God is the source of true freedom, and as the Church strives to find her way in moments of transition, we hear Jesus call us back to that childlike simplicity in order to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.

The Lark Ascending (Ralph Vaughan Williams)
In the world of art and literature, the lark is an incredibly symbolic bird: singing at daybreak, it announces the coming of the dawn, understood by many Christians as the coming of the Son. Lark AscendingThe lark sings as it flies, unlike most other birds, who only sing when perched. Its song symbolizes hope and good fortune, and for this reason, the lark has also come to symbolize Christ, who announced that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and in whose Passion, Death, and Resurrection, the dark night of sin ended at last.

Ralph Vaughan Williams embodies the voice of the lark with the solo violin, which soars to the heights of its range on a melody that sounds like a bird soaring and gliding on air currents. The melodic shape of the solo violin reminds me of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). In this way, The Lark Ascending also carries pneumatological images as well: Baptism of the Lordwhile the lark itself symbolizes Christ in some contexts, the simple image of bird in flight undoubtedly also conjures parallels with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove alighting on Jesus at His baptism. The multivalent symbolism and imagery of this extraordinary piece invite contemplation on the part of listeners; we “lift up our hearts” so that they may soar on the beautiful melody, ascending with the lark to the heights of heaven in a spirit of prayer. We remember that it is “the spirit that gives life” (Jn 6:63), and we pray that this life may be given in abundance to the next pope.

The Firebird Suite, 1919 Version (Igor Stravinsky)
Like Appalachian Spring, The Firebird Suite is a piece full of musical contrasts, no doubt owing to the fact that both works were originally written as ballets. The Firebird Suite tells a definite story. Those familiar with the ballet know that it was based on a Russian folk tale about a magical bird who helps a prince rescue a fair maiden from the clutches of an evil sorcerer; those familiar with Walt Disney’s Fantasia 2000 will recall the beautiful images of a sprite who renews nature after it is destroyed by a volcano. When I listen to this piece through theological headphones, I hear something different. Bernini Holy Spirit window, St Peter's Basilica, RomeEven the title The Firebird suggests the image of the Holy Spirit descending at Pentecost in tongues of flame, and for me, this music embodies the entirety of the Paschal Mystery.

The Firebird Suite opens with a lyrical melody shared by various winds and the cello, accompanied by the harp. I imagine this as the moment of Annunciation and Incarnation—the quiet, almost-unnoticed entry of salvation into the world. Suddenly, the music shifts into an aggressive, angry section, which brings to my mind the opposition facing Jesus even from His birth—Crucifixion, Barnaby Perkins, 1913from King Herod, to the Pharisees plotting against Him, to the high priests holding Him trial and calling for His execution. As the intensity builds in this section, the music swirls in ever-increasing chaos, until suddenly the section ends, culminating with the seeming triumph of darkness. This is the moment of Crucifixion and Death. In what follows, I hear the mourning of those who were with Jesus at the Cross; I hear the cold silence of the tomb. Then, a distant horn sounds the theme of the finale—a melody filled with hope and expectation. For me, this presents the image of the sun breaking the horizon on Easter Sunday morning. Gradually, the theme grows as various instruments take up the song, joining their voices in harmony, until the full orchestra resounds with a triumphant fanfare based around the original horn melody. PentecostIn these glorious final moments, I hear Christ ascending to His Father; I hear the Spirit descending upon the faithful, and as the piece draws to a close, I see the Apostles leaving the upper room to announce the Good News to the world. This piece is a musical embodiment of the story of the bridegroom, Christ, and His bride, the Church. In it, I hear the triumph of love and the promise of hope, and it becomes a prayer for the Church to continue the work of Christ in every age.

Nimrod, from Enigma Variations (Edward Elgar)
This orchestral piece is one that was included simply for its loveliness, without any theological subtext or symbolic intent. The melody, said by Elgar to resemble that of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, is one of nobility and strength. There is even a hint of solemn resignation in its almost melancholy beauty, and when I hear this piece, I hear a quiet dignity befitting of a pope stepping down from a position of power and prestige to assume a life of prayer and study, far from the public eye. This music invites contemplation and reflection; one could almost hear it as an underscore to a retrospective montage of images from Benedict XVI’s papacy. Benedict XVI Sede VacanteThis piece serves as a musical farewell—an expression of gratitude to Benedict XVI for his life of service to the Church, and a prayer for God’s continued blessings on him, on his successor, and on the Church itself.