Tag Archives: vespers

On Martyrs and Marchers

Ann AstellSr. Ann Astell

Professor, Notre Dame Department of Theology

Contact Author

Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, January 20. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

Brothers and sisters, in your relations with one another,
clothe yourselves with humility,
because God “is stern with the arrogant
but to the humble he shows kindness.”
Bow humbly before God’s mighty hand,
so that in due time he may lift you high.

Cast all your cares on him because he cares for you.

Stay sober and alert.
Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour.
Resist him, solid in your faith,
realizing that the brotherhood of believers
is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.

The God of all grace,
who called you to his everlasting glory in Christ,
will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish
those who have suffered a little while.
Dominion be his throughout the ages! Amen.
(1 Peter 5:5b–11)

Today is the feast of a martyr, St. Sebastian, who gave his life for Christ in the third century, under the emperor Diocletian. Christian art depicts Sebastian as an alter Christus, muscular, young, bound naked to a post, his body shot full of arrows, as Jesus was nailed to his Cross. The epistle of Peter speaks to Sebastian and to all the martyrs. It rings in their ears: “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:–9). A prowling lion! During the reigns of Nero and Diocletian, Christians were literally fed to lions.

Throughout the centuries, however, the epistle’s exhortation sounds in the present tense. When has the age of martyrs ever ended? To Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., who died on January 20, 1873, and whose feast we also observe today—to him too came the call to martyrdom! A martyrdom suffered not with a pagan emperor’s arrows and not through violent death, but through the suppression of the Church in a fiercely laical France. Facing that hostility and the countless challenges that were his as a founder, he looked to the Cross as his—and our—only hope.

We celebrate these Vespers on the eve of the departure of Notre Dame students and faculty who will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to bear witness to the sanctity of human life in the midst of a culture of death. They will end their march at the steps leading up to the Supreme Court Building, where the Roe v. Wade decision was made in 1973, and where an important case with regard to religious liberty and health care is currently being considered. To the Little Sisters of the Poor, their legal defenders, and their co-litigants, the call to martyrdom has also come. Staying “sober and alert,” they have “cast all their care” on the Lord who cares for them, trusting that he “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish those who have suffered a little while” (1 Pet 5:7–8, 10).

According to the epistle we have just heard, Christians undergoing persecution and trial can draw strength from the knowledge that they do not suffer alone, that “the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:9). In our day, “throughout the world” brings to mind a litany of place names: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, China, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burundi, Mexico, Brazil, refugee camps in Europe. Everywhere the lion prowls. And everywhere brave souls continue to love, to hope, to confess Christ, to bow humbly beneath the cross, terrible and triumphant, that conforms the Christian to Christ. Ave Crux, Spes Unica!

On this day, January 20, in 1942, Servant of God Joseph Kentenich (1885–1968), a Pallottine priest and the founder of Schoenstatt, celebrated Holy Mass in his prison cell. Soon to be sent to Dachau, where he was to suffer for three and a half years, Fr. Kentenich freely laid down his life in union with Christ during that Eucharist, celebrated alone and in secret, but in spiritual union with his followers, some of whom were already prisoners in the concentration camp. “The brotherhood of believers” (1 Pet 5:9)! Fr. Kentenich’s risk-taking, his trusting “yes” to the Cross, expressed his deep faith in Christ, but also in the mystical body of Christ, the communion of saints. “What I do, what I suffer, how I love, affects others,” he wrote.

Let us live our lives, day by day, in a greater consciousness of our responsibility for one another, in solidarity with the martyrs who suffer not only for Christ but, in Christ, for us.

St. Sebastian, Blessed Basil Moreau, pray for us.

“Stop Passing Judgment”

Colleen Moore

Director, Echo

Contact Author

Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, December 2. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

Brothers and sisters,
Stop passing judgment before the time of the Lord’s return.
He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness
and manifest the intentions of hearts.
At that time, everyone will receive his praise from God.
(1 Corinthians 4:5)

My father, whose death anniversary is tomorrow, gathered often with friends and colleagues to discuss University politics and national and international goings-on. I was privy to many such sessions and noticed that while the topics often changed, the script often didn’t. Routinely the conversation would identify a potential antagonist about whom one of my dad’s friends would say, “He’s a complete jerk” (or perhaps he’d employ a more colorful term), to which my dad would typically respond, “Not complete.”

It wasn’t as if my dad didn’t agree with the judgment being passed, but his habitual response for which he became known among his friends recognized the difference between his own limited judgment and God’s ultimate judgment.

Elsewhere in Paul’s letters we hear of the importance of making prudent judgments, especially of those within our own Christian community, and of ourselves and our own behavior. But in this passage, Paul reminds us that there is much we cannot see and know, not only about others but also about ourselves and the intentions of our own hearts. Paul says of himself, “I will not even be the judge of my own self. It’s true that my conscience does not reproach me but that is not enough to justify me: it is the Lord who is my judge” (1 Cor 4:3–4).

The final judgment, then, does not belong to us. Instead, as Paul says in the lines preceding the passage we read this evening, “We belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” Not only are our premature and final judgments not ours to make but our need to calculate our worthiness against the worthiness of others is dissolved by our belonging to Christ, through whom we have already inherited everything. Our task then, it seems, is much more than just avoiding passing judgment before the Lord’s return; it is to practice belonging to Christ.

There is much said in Advent of waiting in hopeful anticipation for the first coming of Jesus and of the second coming of Christ. We carefully ready our homes, our altars, our hearts to take in God who in his mercy has come to be with us.

Preparation is not foreign to us. As students and professionals we prepare for class, conferences, and important meetings weekly. But it strikes me that in Advent we should not so much be preparing for things to go smoothly or as planned, as we have grown accustomed to doing. In welcoming the gift of the Incarnation and the second coming of Christ, we are preparing ourselves to be overcome, overtaken, utterly overwhelmed by God. We are preparing to be completely undone in a way and to be given ourselves in a truer form than we have previously known.

If St. Joseph County was anticipating being overwhelmed by a wind storm, we would no doubt be alerted by text, phone, and email by ND Alert, and would prepare for its coming as I prepare for my young nieces to visit: by putting everything away, securing our belongings, battening down the hatches so that as much would remain in place and intact as possible. In contrast, preparing for the coming of Christ looks more like taking everything out of storage and laying it out to be exposed, dismantled, and reordered; preparing ourselves to be taken in, taken up, moved, perhaps even to fly.

I recently saw a story about a man who parasail skis, meaning he alternately parasails and skis depending on the terrain as he flies down the mountain. Then he releases his parasail to ski off a cliff, and then releases his skis as he free-falls in a winged suit for several minutes before hopefully pulling a parachute to land. The interviewer asked him, “How do you physically prepare for something like this?” He said, “Your whole life really, not just your physical training, has to be about replacing the instinct to cling to your chute and skis with the instinct to release them.”

As we prepare our homes and hearts to receive Christ and our family and friends this Advent, let our waiting and preparation be marked by release . . . release of passing premature judgment on ourselves and others, release of the need to keep everything intact, release of the desire to stay the same, and if not these, than release of whatever it is that we give ourselves to, to avoid giving ourselves to God, who once again gives himself to us and waits to see how he will be received.

The Memory of God

Jenny Martin
Assistant Professor, Program of Liberal Studies; Concurrent Assistant Professor, Department of Theology University of Notre Dame

Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, October 28, the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

For the past several years, I have led a freshman seminar on ancient Greek literature, which includes reading both the Iliad and Odyssey in full. In this context, my students and I talk a great deal about the nature of memory, and these Homeric epics in particular as books of memory. Not only was the oral recitation of these enormously long and detailed poems an impressive feat of memory in itself, but also the explicit themes of memory and forgetting are to the fore in terms of their content. It is most interesting to me in these discussions that for Homer, the relative merits and demerits of remembering or forgetting seem ambiguous.

Tsugumi Ota, Lotus Eaters
Tsugumi Ota, Lotus Eaters

Odysseus and his crew are constantly fighting against natural and supernatural forces that would have them forget themselves. His men eat Lotus Flowers and no longer remember their desire to go home, and the witch Circe detains the crew for a year with feasts and enchantments, moments of forgetting that are obviously problematic. But Helen puts nepenthe in the wine of Menelaus and Telemachus in order to dull the memory of their grief, which seems in some sense to be a mercy. The remembrance of family genealogies is crucial to establishing identity and friendship, yet many of Odysseus’ apparent memories of himself and his personal history turn out to be wholly contrived, works of fiction within a fiction constructed simply for strategy or effect. Furthermore, in a text that may ostensibly be about the virtue of remembering, it is perhaps doubly ironic that the Odyssey ends with Athena blotting out totally the community’s memory of Penelope’s numerous suitors whom Odysseus slays.

In both epics, but especially the Iliad, the heroes are all the time preoccupied with accumulating honor and glory for their heroic deeds, for bravado and courage in war, for acts of loyalty and patriotism, and so on: this drive for fame and personal honor motivates nearly every act, even or especially the most foolhardy, so again, it is difficult to tell if Homer is supporting or critiquing his culture’s preoccupation with being remembered as honorable.

Odysseus blinds the Cyclops
Odysseus blinds the Cyclops

Certainly, Odysseus’ rashest act and greatest mistake was his insistence on revealing his true name to the Cyclops Polyphemus: had he remained nameless, it is arguable that the god Poseidon would not have harried him so relentlessly. On his homeward journey in the Odyssey, Odysseus clings to a rock in the sea after shipwreck and laments that he should have died gloriously at Troy rather than have his deeds be forgotten with such an undistinguished death as drowning. It was not enough for the ancients that honorable deeds be performed; they must be witnessed and acclaimed by others or they could not, so to speak, be credited in the ledger books. In the Iliad, we see Achilles making the choice for an early, violent death in war with great honor and external praise over a long and happy life that is unremarked and unremarkable. And yet, when we come upon the shade of Achilles in the underworld in the Odyssey, he tells Odysseus that it would have been better in life had he been a poor, land-less peasant working in someone else’s fields. Mixed messages, to be sure.

Sts Simon and JudeOn this feast of the Apostles St. Simon and St. Jude, about which very little is known, I would like to praise not their glorious deeds, but rather draw out the virtue of letting oneself go unremarked: how honorable it is to engage in quiet, everyday work that is neither broadcast nor publicized, thanked nor recognized, remembered neither in the annals of history nor the vocalizations of the epic poet. What is recorded in the Scriptures about Simon the Zealot and Jude, also called Thaddeus, is actually rather spare: they are listed by name alongside the other apostles in the synoptic Gospels and in Acts, and Jude is given a single line in the Gospel of John and a short epistle of only 24 verses. Their names are inscribed and recalled, yes, but the many particulars of their daily work on behalf of the kingdom of God are not known to us, or to anyone. Furthermore, even their names can be misremembered if not sometimes outright forgotten, overshadowed in Simon’s case by the far more prominent Simon Peter, and in Jude’s, by the far more infamous Judas Iscariot. Indeed, the tradition of Jude being the patron saint of lost or impossible causes could possibly be traced to this very confusion: because few would pray to Judas called Thaddeus, horrified that they might inadvertently be praying to Judas Iscariot, when he was called upon, Jude would be willing to intervene in even the most desperate of circumstances.

Tradition holds that Simon and Jude suffered a martyr’s death together while preaching as missionaries in Persia, with their bones buried together in the same tomb. Psalm 116:15 tells us that in the sight of the Lord, the death of the faithful is not simply remembered, but is precious, even if anonymous or unremarked. Though the days of mortals may indeed be like grass that withers and fades, “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps 103:15–16). That our lives and our deaths are gathered up, recollected in the deep memory of God the Father, who is all love and all gift, is everything. So Christian believers in the security of the steadfast love of God and the gift of the Church can afford more than the ancient Greeks to be anonymous, can afford to work—even heroically—without always seeking out the praise or recognition of others. As the letter to the Ephesians teaches, our Christian community is a body, and of a body, and works on behalf of the body of Christ, all without insisting that our individual accomplishments, gifts, reputations, or names be recognized and recorded as preeminent.

With God, there is a mysterious calculus at work, an impossible calculus not of the order of this world—whether ancient or modern—in which what is erased from or torn out of the ledger books endures all the same, and is in fact written more indelibly the less we contend for its recognition. The Psalmist also witnesses to this mysterious phenomenon of God’s peculiar book-keeping (what French poet Charles Péguy calls with gorgeous lucidity a “strange arithmetic”) where tears and weeping are sown, but shouts of joy reaped (Ps 126), where what is sown in darkness is gathered up, re-collected, recollected, in a light not weakly contrived or invented by human beings as a measure of worth, but in the true and brilliant light which is the glory of God and its lamp the Lamb (Rev 21:23).

In both our going forth and our coming homeward, let us endeavor to remember that the lives of the saints are luminous not on their own merit and an insistence upon being remembered, but only insofar as they allow themselves to be more and more deeply transparent to Christ, which, perhaps paradoxically, allows them in this surrender of visibility to be more genuinely themselves.

The doxology that ends St. Jude’s brief letter recollects this source of strength we have that is not our own but is all gift, and we will allow him the benediction this evening: “Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25).

St. Simon and St. Jude, pray for us.

Metrics and Mercy

Stacey Noem, M.Div.

Director of Human and Spiritual Formation for Lay Students, 
Notre Dame Master of Divinity Program

Contact Author

Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, October 14, the memorial of St. Callistus. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

O God, you search me and you know me, / you know my resting and my rising, / you discern my purpose from afar. / You mark when I walk or lie down, / all my ways lie open to you.

Before ever a word is on my tongue / you know it, O LORD, through and through. / Behind and before you besiege me, / your hand ever laid upon me. / Too wonderful for me, this knowledge, / too high, beyond my reach.

O where can I go from your spirit, / or where can I flee from your face? / If I climb the heavens, you are there. / If I lie in the grave, you are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn / and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, / even there your hand would lead me, / your right hand would hold me fast.

If I say, “Let the darkness hide me / and the light around me be night,” / even darkness is not darkness for you / and the night is as clear as the day.

For it was you who created my being, / knit me together in my mother’s womb. / I thank you for the wonder of my being, / for the wonders of all your creation.

Already you knew my soul, / my body held no secret from you / when I was being fashioned in secret / and molded in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw all my actions, / they were all of them written in your book; / everyone of my days was decreed / before one of them came into being.

To me, how mysterious your thoughts, / the sum of them not to be numbered! / If I count them, they are more than the sand; / to finish, I must be eternal, like you.

O search me, God, and know my heart. / O test me and know my thoughts. / See that I follow not the wrong path / and lead me in the path of life eternal. (Ps 139)

The way we can be sure of our knowledge of Christ
is to keep his commandments.
The man who claims, “I have known him,”
without keeping his commandments is a liar;
in such a one there is no truth.
But whoever keeps his word, truly has the love of God
been made perfect in him.
The way we can be sure we are in union with him
is for the man who claims to abide in him
to conduct himself just as he did. (1 Jn 2:3–6)


Our psalm and our reading tell us that we are being measured.

I think we must be used to it here, at an institution like Notre Dame: We are measured by scores and resumes to get in; we are measured by exams and papers and grades while we’re students; we are measured by Endeavor goals and objectives as staff; we are measured by publication and tenure as faculty . . . currently there is even a wellness exam station in the library to measure our biometrics.

We are used to being measured . . . at least we are used to being measured for our doing: for our activity or for our output. Perhaps, though, we are not as used to being measured for our being. For our inmost thoughts and for our orientation either toward or away from God. But that is exactly what our psalm and our reading point to. We are being measured, and notably, only God can take our full measure.

CrucifixionHelpfully, we know the metric. Our reading is clear that there are two criteria for which we are accountable: keeping Jesus’ commandments, and conducting ourselves as Jesus did. Essentially, conforming ourselves to Christ. We know the metric and we don’t want to be found wanting.

The psalmist, in an effort not to be found wanting hedges her bets proclaiming, “How wonderful your wisdom…so far beyond my understanding” and “How mysterious your thoughts…”; if I tried to count them I would need to be eternal like you just to finish. It’s almost as though she is saying, I can’t possibly measure up.

Psalm 139 is unique as psalms go. It doesn’t exactly fit in any traditional categories (lament, praise, etc.). It has beautiful imagery that composers have set to equally beautiful music. But as a whole it is somewhat haunting: the psalmist has full confidence that God knows her intimately and completely, but this is not exactly a comfort. There is no escape from God . . . not in resting or rising; she can’t even hide from God in the darkest darkness.

We are being measured . . . and there is no escape from God.

But, there is also no escape from the boundless abundance of God’s grace. Only God’s love and mercy are without measure.

St. Callistus knew this. He knew about the boundlessness of God’s mercy. Not only did he experience it in his life—he made more than one misstep that cost him and the local community dearly. He also proclaimed this boundless mercy as Pope—by establishing absolution for all sins, including the most grievous sins of adultery and murder, an act for which he was demonized by his contemporaries. But Callistus knew that he could not put a human limit on God’s immeasurable grace.

ConfessionWe have access to God’s immeasurable grace as well. In the Sacraments—especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the Sacraments, we encounter Jesus and we receive from God’s boundless abundance of love and mercy. This is how we are capacitated—as our reading requires—to keep his commandments and to conduct ourselves as Jesus did.

On our own, we may be measured and found wanting. It is only through the immeasurable grace of God’s love that we may know God and hope to perfectly conform ourselves to Christ.

“Undeservedly Justified”: The Gift of God’s Justice

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


Contact Author

Editorial Note: This reflection was originally delivered as a sermon for Vespers on Tuesday, January 20. We are grateful for the author’s permission to post it here.

The justice of God has been manifested apart from the law, even though both law and prophets bear witness to it—
that justice of God which works through faith in Jesus Christ
for all who believe. All men have sinned and are deprived
of the glory of God. All men are now undeservedly justified
by the gift of God, through the redemption wrought
in Christ Jesus.
Through his blood, God made him the means
of expiation for all who believe. He did so to manifest
his own justice, for the sake of remitting sins committed
in the past—
to manifest his justice in the present,
by way of forbearance,
so that he might be just
and might justify those who believe in Jesus. (Rom 3:21–26)

To prepare for this reflection, I’ve done all of things you’re supposed to do to give a reflection on Scripture. I’ve read and re-read this text for over a week. I’ve waded through the syntax and even mentally diagrammed the sentences to try to make sense of the translation. I’ve compared multiple translations, consulted commentaries and old class notes, and given each word my attention in turn.

Fortunately, I also remembered to pray with this text, and when I did, most of it seemed to fall away. Only two words stood out to my consciousness, two words which summarize not only this reading but nearly the whole of Christian life: undeservedly justified.

Now I, for one, am not very comfortable with the idea of receiving something I don’t deserve. When I was in high school, I would sometimes hear my mom talk to her friends about how much she had done to get me to where I was. My internal reaction, although usually politely disguised, was always something like, “What the heck, Mom?” I felt that I had done the work to get whatever honors came my way, and I felt that at that point in my life there really wasn’t that much Mom was doing for me any more.

I suspect that many of us are the same way. In this academic setting, we are well trained not to take credit that is not ours. We scrupulously cite our sources, and we strive for originality. Outside the academy, too, justice is thought of as something ultra-rational. The word “justice” makes us think of legal responsibilities, of the limits on our behavior that make peaceful living possible. Even in the ancient world, Lady Justice balanced scales. She personified this view of justice as related to some sort of equation. When something is taken from here, something has to be given over there. It’s very simple math.

In spiritual life, this is dangerous, because the logic of it can become an idol. It would be comforting to believe that we can earn the love of God. It would be nice to receive a set of minimum guidelines that would guarantee our salvation. But this is not the sort of justice by which God operates. We could never deserve to be created, to be beloved, to be redeemed. We could never earn the incredible superabundance of life and love that God offers us. God’s justice is a language of utter and absolute gift. God’s justice would absolutely shatter any scales on which we tried to weigh it.

Our role in our salvation is only ever response to God’s initiative. God has already saved us, and this can be a heavy gift. The realization of our powerlessness can be paralyzing. But we are called to respond. We are called to respond with gratitude; we are called to respond with generosity. We are called to grow in our awareness of how undeservedly beloved we are. And we are called to pass on that same love to others who in our eyes don’t seem to deserve it.

This task of realizing and responding to our undeserved belovedness takes more than a lifetime to achieve. It can seem overwhelming, but I take some comfort in noticing that the late-twenties me can see much more clearly than sassy teenaged me that I do owe an incredible amount to my parents. How much more do we owe to God. How blessed we are to be given the capacity to respond with our own self-gift.

Make of Your Bodies a Living Sacrifice: A Vespers Homily

Tim-OMalley-e1375811311325-137x150Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

This homily was preached at the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy Vespers (September 9, 2014):

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:9-18).

TrinityI have a tendency to delight in my own theological musings. I revel in contemplating the processions of the Son and the Spirit from the Father, aware that this Trinitarian grammar requires us to re-conceive of everything that we thought about the world. I often find
myself considering with serene enjoyment how in the liturgical rites of the Church, women and men return to our original vocation as those made to praise and adore God. In my prayer, I discover myself charmed by the spiritual insights that come to me as I let the words of the Psalms marinate in my mouth and imagination alike.

Of course, early in my career as a theologian, I discovered the profound gap between insight and action, between the intellect and the will, between delight and duty. My intellectual musings upon the mystery of divine love in the Trinity often does not lead me to a deeper capacity to love concrete human beings, who I too often see as obstacles to my own very important labor. My discourse on the liturgical vocation of the Christian is interrupted by very real desire to have my own way in both my work and personal life, no matter the costs. My best intention to let the psalms become my daily bread is intruded upon by that demonic gift of rationalizing intellectual and administrative work above prayer.

I was reminded of this gap between the desire to love God and neighbor and the will to love in word and deed as I read over today’s reading from Saint Paul to the Romans. Beginning just a bit earlier than we read, Romans 12:1-2 states:

I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (logike latreia). Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul’s exhortation for us to present our very bodies, the fullness of ourselves, as a kind of liturgical offering is a passage we’re all familiar with. The Apostle promises the very renewal of our minds, a transformation that moves us away from the reign of death and violence that characterizes the “the reign of the world” to that of the new creation.

If you are like me, you read this passage, and you delight in the image of a spiritual worship that is to take over our entire being. The thought alone of the victory of the new creation over that reign of sin and death undoubtedly pleases you. Yet, the Apostle interrupts our pleasant, secure, musings.

  • If you want to make of your bodies a spiritual offering, “love one another with mutual affection…Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer.”
  • If you want to participate in the new creation, don’t simply think about it, but instead “bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
  • If you desire the renewal of your minds, moving beyond the reign of sin and death, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.”

StPaulDear friends, the spiritual worship that the Apostle is talking about, the transformation of our whole selves as we enter ever more deeply into the reign of the peaceable kingdom, is not merely an idea to be pondered. For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Our spiritual worship is not an intellectual endeavor alone, a decision to follow Christ made possible through the exercise of our minds or our good intentions or pious musings. Instead, we learn this spiritual worship, we learn to dwell in the new creation when we enter into the concrete, mundane, and messy world of love. When we learn to greet the neighbor with love, to let the practice of prayer become inscribed upon our body, to enter into solidarity with all those who hunger and thirst for the Word made flesh, to love one another as I have loved you.

As we continue this academic semester together, dear friends, it is the Apostle who speaks to each of us. Let this year be an occasion not simply to delight in our own intellectual musings or administrative accomplishments or prayerful recollections. Instead, enter into the very heart of the Church, to those concrete bodily, practices of love that form us to offer that spiritual worship that will renew creation itself.

The Cathedral of Reims: Tourism or Pilgrimage?

Joris Geldhof, STD

Assistant Professor, Faculty of Theology and Head of Liturgical Studies Institute

Catholic University Leuven

Contact Author

During the summer I was in France for the international congress of the Societas Liturgica, the largest international association of liturgical scholars. The famous city of Reims had been chosen as location, which must certainly be seen in a close connection with the theme of the congress, baptism.  In the late sixth century, Clovis, king of the Franks, was baptized there – an event which is believed to have marked a decisive turn in the Christianization of Western Europe. At the conference, we were repeatedly reminded of the importance and significance of this event.  And there we were…in the very spot that this event occurred.

It happened in the cathedral.  That is to say, there is a special stone on the floor which says: here you stand exactly on the spot where Clovis was baptized. However, Clovis was not baptized under the roof of a Gothic cathedral. What is the explanation for this confusing state of affairs?  The cathedral of the city of Reims was not at its full size in the early Middle Ages. It was a lot smaller and right before its entrance gates there was a small baptistery. Like in so many ancient (and medieval) churches, the baptistery was not architecturally integrated into the church itself, where the Eucharist was celebrated and the office prayed. As the cathedral church of Reims was later rebuilt and extended, it now included the spot where once the baptistery had stood.

One of the highpoints of the congress was the solemn celebration of the Vespers on one of the evenings. We (i.e. those who participated to the congress and some other people) were greeted outside of the cathedral by the Roman-Catholic archbishop and the others who presided over the prayer service. We entered the building with a long entrance procession. Each one of us was invited to make a sign of the cross with baptismal water upon approaching the choir stalls. The font with the water was placed precisely where Clovis was baptized.  This action was without any doubt a strong symbol, as it connected us not only to the past but also expressed the unity of all Christians in and through baptism. For Societas Liturgica has members of many Christian churches.


The vespers service itself was beautiful. So beautiful that I felt fortunate to be present, but at the same time I had one hesitation.  Simply, not every Christian community, is able to worship as we did that day. It is very rare, in most gatherings, that over 150 people (who want to be present) sing with full heart and voice and pray with their whole selves during Vespers on a ordinary week day.

After the celebration there were several people who asked for my thoughts and impressions. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that what I said made a lot of sense.  The truth is that the experience of the prayer was still fresh in my mind. It was as if I was not able to detach myself from what we had done; it was as if I remained in the time and space filled with our hymns and psalms and prayers. I couldn’t really make the mental shift to the reception which immediately followed the vespers. (We were invited for a glass of champagne in the famous Palais du Tau just next to the cathedral.)

This experience made me think further. Where did my inability to speak come from? And it is here (as in every moment that we think and reflect) that I have found the use of schemas helpful to interpret what my discomfort was.

Years ago I had also been in Reims. It was the final destination of an adventurous bike tour which I had undertaken with a few friends of mine. That was also in the summer and I still have lively memories about the beauty of the northern French countryside and the kindness of the people living there. We put our tents in the gardens of local habitants, could use their bathrooms and grills, and had many interesting talks with locals. One night we were even invited into a small village to join in a ‘bal populaire’ or town dance. It was a remarkable time.

However, when we arrived in Reims we were simply tourists, no matter how special we thought we were on our journey. When we visited the champagne houses (renowned in this area of France), when we did the tours through the cellars where the bottles are kept, and when we tasted the famous sparkling wines, we were simply tourists. And when we visited the cathedral, the Saint Remi, and other places of interest, we were tourists. I remember that the cathedral and the Saint Remi were impressive, but there are other impressive churches elsewhere (simply, visit any town in Europe). I cannot say, moreover, that I really prayed in these churches. But this failure to pray wasn’t simply about my own spiritual life. There was no community of which I was apart during these visits.

This was the fundamental difference between my previous visit to Reims and my more recent summer conference. Time and place, context and community were distinct. The stones were the same but the building was different. Something happened and the event had a “then-and-thereness” different from the experience of the tourist.  I was not a documentarian traversing the city.  What I experienced this summer was a remarkably different experience, one shaped by my lived involvement in the liturgical and theological life of a community.  To use an analogy drawn from the life of the tourist, I didn’t simply take a picture but was involved in a movie.

The difference between my two experiences – the touristic and the liturgical one, so to speak – made me more curious about the phenomenon of pilgrimages. What makes a pilgrimage a kind of tour?  What makes it a liturgical experience? And is it always possible to distinguish between these dimensions so easily? To what degree are the experiences of pilgrims attached to times, places, and to what happened in the past and happens now?  Perhaps, you too will consider this question as you visit churches in whatever town or city that you attend.  And even further, consider transforming your trip to a church into a kind of pilgrimage by not simply gazing at the stained glass, taking pictures of the architecture but participating in the liturgical community that enlivens the building in the first place.