Saturday, March 28, 2020

An Accurate Prediction

"Did you drop my CDF insert?" "No, Father, I don't see it."

I don't know. That is the only honest answer anyone can give about our current health situation. Imperical College predicted 500,000 deaths in the UK and now predict 20,000. Oxford thinks half of the UK has already had the dreaded virus and in America we are experiencing two pandemics, the virus and uncertainty. Our economy is melting down as New York, the West Coast, and New Orleans become disease epicenters with an unknown number of fatalities to come. Will a million die? A few thousand? We will return to work by May? Will it go on for months? I don't know, and no one else does either.

So rather than labor under fear and uncertainty hear my entirely accurate prediction about the other major news this week: the optional insertion of post-1960 saints into the "EF" Mass as third class saints and the optional use of some prefaces from the Pauline Mass, most of which come from ancient sacramentaries.

Who will eagerly take advantage of the opportunity to use these new texts and novel saints in the older form of Mass? My prediction: six Benedictine monastic communities and one young curate.

On one hand this little bit of optionitis, one of the principle symptoms of the Novus Ordo Mass, is somewhat welcomed, if only because it means the old Mass is here to stay and that these items will not be used anyway.

On the other hand the movement is clearly in favor of pre-1955, and occasionally pre-Pacellian, rites of Holy Week, the first week of May, and in some other rubrics. Old rite Holy Weeks, with or without the consent of Ecclesia Dei, have multiplied many fold in the last four years. There are one off instances of churches skipping the assigned 1962 Mass on May 1 in favor of either the Paschaltide day or even the old feast of Pip 'n' Jim; I know of priests in America, England, and Italy who sing the Gaudeamus omnes Mass on August 15. A church in Australia did the old Holy Innocents Mass and Office last year. Even the ICRSS and FSSP, who have less cover that the diocesan clergy to deviate from 1962, are adding the odd commemoration and using Benedicamus Domino as the penitential dismissal.

If the Traddie fraternities are unlikely to use these optional integrations from the Pauline Mass, and they are unlikely to use them, does that mean diocesan priests who celebrate the old Mass will use them instead? No.

Allow me to explain. Diocesan clergy fall into two categories here: those who do the old Mass because someone asks for it and those who do it because they themselves want to do it. The former category relies on some layman MC to organize the Mass, guide him through the text, coordinate with the music director, and pick out the Mass for the Sunday or Holy Day—which is generally the only time when diocesan old rite Masses are offered. The latter category are attracted to the integrity of the old rite, Mass and Office, and look at it as a respite from what they do the rest of the time.

Moreover, diocesan priests more often than not celebrate the old Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, not every day of the week. There are no third class feasts for Sunday or Christmas, and unless they are simultaneously observing the pre-Pius X ranking system and integrating the new kalendar saints as Doubles, there will be no feast of "Saint" Paul VI on any Sunday.

Where will that one young diocesan curate come from? He will be an eager young priest from a quiet diocese. He will have grown up optimistically under Benedict XVI, perhaps attended a "Reform of the Reform" parish (one of the six in the world), gone through seminary during the Bergoglian years with a tightly grinning smile, and have an odd day of the week in which he is not celebrating the daily Mass in his parish. He will get out his old Missal and his new insert, congratulate himself on providing some mutual enrichment, and celebrate the third class feast of Saint John Paul II. After two years of doing this sort of thing one day a month, combined with saying the old breviary and dealing with Eucharistic ministers, disillusionment will hit and he will toss the inserts, go straight to the real thing, and await the end of "this wicked generation."

And the monks? Traditionalist monks never seem to follow the entire old rite, Roman or Monastic. Nor do they seem to follow each other, although the descendant houses of Fontgombault seem to follow some general principles: new prefaces, a sparser kalendar, odd bits of the new lectionary and in the vernacular, occasional concelebration, and the omission of the Iudica me and In principio at the conventual Mass. These imports from the Novus Ordo are meant to accentuate the communitarian aspect of monastic life. They also underscore a sort of tinkering among Traditionalist monks who spend considerable time studying the liturgy and must find some manner to change or improve it without repeating wholesale what happened half a century ago. Other than following their own kalendar and psalter, I am unaware of monks having such widespread textual deviation in the Mass from the Roman books published from 1568-1964 as they do now. I could see some of the Fontgomabult abbeys and priories using some of these saints in private Masses and the prefaces, if they do not already.

It is worth noting that many of the options provided by Summorum Pontificum and Universae ecclesiae have not been followed except in places where they practices were already in place, such as proclaiming the readings solely in vernacular as is done in Germany and in France (UE 26).

Now you have some accurate predictions. Go back to your hovel and quarantine yourself. Have a new drink I invented, the Quarantini. It is a Martini, you just drink it alone.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Missa Sicca for the Sick and the Well


We do not live in unprecedented times. The Great War, the Depression of 1929, the Second World War and similar periods were far worse. We do, however, live in the least sure times since the '50s, when people assumed half the world would nuke the other half.

Although we lack the unfulfilled prospect of death of that prior generation we do share in their uncertainty. We are into a recession that no one can fix until a vaccine for Coronavirus (COVID-19) is available. Until then, our consumer-driven economy will continue to decline athwart bailouts for businesses, unilateral payments to taxpayers, and stupid requirements that companies—bereft of revenue indefinitely—pay workers leave during this time.

Worst of all, those of us who are unlikely to perish from the disease are generally confined to our homes, bereft of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, the Miracle of the Mass, and of the community, the people of the new Israel with whom we are saved or damned. Last Sunday was the final Divine Liturgy at my Byzantine rite parish for a while. The coffee hour was suspended, leaving the hundred of us who normally spend hours in fellowship together alone and with a clear path to our cars.

In these uncertain, lonely times we the faithful must cling to what we have, the public prayers of the Universal Church. If anyone is reading this blog, then he or she has the internet. Go to DivinumOfficium.com, select either the 1570 or 1910 Office, and pray as much of it as time permits daily. I have my Pius IX breviary and have said its full contents daily in between episodes of staring at a small screen while writing code for my job. You cannot Communicate or Confess, even in good health, but the Church's prayer still belongs to you and may sanctify you.

Perhaps the strangest day of the week will be Sunday. Other than for reasons of illness, I have not missed Mass in quite some time and I imagine the same is true of you, dear reader. What follows is my suggestion for how to sanctify Sunday, which remains a precept of the Decalogue of Moses and a Divine commandment irrespective of the Church's suspension of our obligation to attend Mass.

There is a small tradition in the Roman rite, confined in modern times to one day a year, called the Missa sicca, the "dry Mass." It is what is sounds like, a "Mass" sans any texture: no bread, no wine, no water. In short, the public, non-sacerdotal texts of the Roman Mass are read without consecration of the sacred elements. Even the Mass of the Presanctified, celebrated on Good Friday, is in some sense a Mass, with the ritual of the Fore-Mass and Communion being observed. The Missa sicca, borne out of medieval devotion to the Mass by priests who wished to observe the texts of impeded Masses, exists only in the pre-Pius XII, traditional texts of Palm Sunday, wherein the consecration is replaced by the blessing of the palms.

Here is my suggestion for the Missa sicca.

Setting

Lauda Sion Salvatorem, begins the Angelic Doctor. While we consider ourselves solitary individuals, especially in these days, in the traditional view we are saved and damned as a community just as Christ died for the sake of a new Creation, the Church. So pray the Missa sicca, or whatever Sunday devotion you observe, with friends and family. I will be using Skype with a group of friends to observe the texts of the Mass.

Decide Who Will Lead

These days we are all Old Believers. The priesthood exists and offers sacrifice for us and for our sins, but it is no longer in our midst. Although I will recommend against the sacerdotal parts below, it helps for the sake of simplicity and direction to have one person in charge of the affair who is familiar with the rites and texts of the Church's official worship.

Begin with Terce

Sunday Mass is sung, without exception, after the Office of Terce, that is, the third hour of the Divine Office. If you have internet access and are reading this blog, go to DivinumOfficium.com, pick a year, and say the Office of Terce on Sundays and Holy Days before observing the Missa sicca. Terce is a minor hour involving the recitation of a hymn, three fragments of psalm 118, and a collect. If the Mass is de tempore then it will involve additional prayers said while kneeling. This adds some depth to the day beyond the readings of Mass, which are variable by nature. One benefit of the pre-Pian, traditional Office is that the psalms of the lesser hours are stationary and constant.

Say the Public Parts of the Assigned Mass

If you have a hand Missal or access to the propers of the Mass, turn to the variable parts for the Mass appointed for the day. This coming Sunday appoints Laetare Sunday, the fourth Lenten Sunday. The leader, or anyone competent to sing, can do the Introit Laetare Ierusalem followed by Kyrie eleison.

In place of the Dominus vobiscum, a priestly greeting, use Domine, exaudi orationem meam (O Lord, hear my prayer) with the reply Et clamor meus ad te veniat (And let my cry come unto You). The leader reads the collect and any applicable commemorations of lesser feasts, of any impeded Lenten feriae, or the assigned daily prayers for the intercession of the Saints (A cunctis nos) and for the Living and Dead (Omnipotens sempiterne Deus).

To keep things balanced, I would recommend letting different people read the Lesson/Epistle and the Gospel of the day. If a good singer if among you, let him or her sing the Gradual and Tract. Otherwise, let the leader read the text and keep going. 

In place of a sermon, a teaching function brought on by the Church and the permission of the local ordinary, read some applicable exegesis from the Church Fathers on the texts of the day. Some resources are available at New Advent. Many of the Fathers' commentaries are available online. Priests, East and West, usually preach on the Gospel of the day, but for a change of pace why not pull up some explication of Saint Paul's wise, inspired words? 

After a few short minutes of commentary in place of a sermon, say the Nicene Symbol, or Creed, do the Domine exaudi greeting, and say the Offertory verse.

In Place of the Canon

In a proper Mass here would come the Canon and Communion, wherein bread and wine become the precious Body and Blood of Christ and are given to we the faithful for our greater union with God and for our salvation. There is no substitution for this moment. None. Still, as the Palm Sunday Missa sicca blesses branches at this moment, the time without the consecration need not be wasted.

This would be the proper time to observe some more reflective form of devotion, the didactic elements of the Missa sicca now observed. If the people involved are amenable, pray a group rosary for each other's intentions, for the fading of the virus, and for the departed souls of those already claimed by the disease. If you are alone and praying the Missa sicca without others you may wish to enter into a spiritual Communion with Our Lord.

For those who believe they are deprived of the presence of Christ I ask are you really? We are all deprived of the Real Presence and of the "Miracle of the Mass", the re-presentation of the salvific act of Christ. That said you are not deprived of Christ's presence per se. Most churches remain open worldwide for private devotion, although lockdowns will curtail this. There remains still one more place of Christ's presence: you. You were baptized—that is, "plunged into"—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If you are free of serious sin then the presence of Almighty God, in Whose image you were made, dwells in you. John Henry Newman wrote in Loss and Gain that he was certain of a presence within him, a friend alongside him that the mechanical thoughts of Protestantism could not explain. Christ is among us, He is and always will be.

Fellowship

One benefit of attending a smaller parish is that everyone knows each other. If you are praying the Missa sicca with others then you probably know them, too. Have a coffee or tea together, catch up on the week, vent over your cabin fever, and share the intention to do more together in Christ in the days to come.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Placing the Divine Liturgy


For those keeping count, I now personally know two cases of COVID-19 in my own life, but do not be jealous, it's headed your way, too!

If you, like me, are feeling fatalistic about COVID-19 and are resigned to whatever may come then work instead on your spiritual life. Take yourself back some centuries to Constantinople, to the "Great Church" as the Eastern Romans used to call their cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom.

The old Basilica of Saint Peter's in Rome remains a personal interest, but not so much the Hagia Sophia. There are plenty of images of it as it stands today, but few of the Hagia Sophia other than this video few reconstructions of the grand edifice as it stood in Christian days.

NPR recently drew attention to a Stanford recreation of the Great Church's music that was accomplished by popping a balloon. The resonance allowed researchers to "map" the patterns of sound and apply Byzantine chant to those patterns. The resonance is over ten seconds, which makes one wonder whether or not the Greek musical style of droning was meant to carry the note the note further and more distinctly (in key) throughout the cathedral rather than just a stylistic choice as it is today.

But what of its appearance in Greek times?

The Roman rite was essentially the liturgy of Saint Peter's Basilica, ceremonially distilled through monasteries, through the Franciscans and the Roman Curia, and through the local cathedrals which adopted its use. To celebrate the Roman rite is a very catholic, simple thing that does not beckon to any place other than Calvary.

O how different is the Greek rite! The Divine Liturgy, especially in its more unique and special parts, draws very much on the architecture and place of the Hagia Sophia. A Byzantine historian named Bob Atchison offers these stunning images of the Great Church with specific commentary on the use of the ambo, the chancel screen, and the waves in the floor's marbling.


The chancel screen and ciborium, features common to the Roman and Byzantine traditions at this time and lost to both, were made of marble and plated in silver. Over the altar of God stood a gold cross encrusted in jewels. Unlike the iconostasis of today, one could see through the chancel screen; indeed, it was meant to be seen through in the moments when the curtain is open today during the Liturgy. Its principle purpose was not to present icons, but rather to delineate heaven and earth. The deacons' doors were off to the side, not directly visible as they are today. Icons were typically hung on columns and at a height that made it possible to venerate them. They were not yet architectural features.

Perhaps most startling different from any nearly Byzantine church today is the presence of an ambo. The Gospel is brought in procession from the north door of the iconostastis through the Royal Doors and is read from the Royal Doors. The Great Procession with the gifts to be offered as the Body and Blood of Christ follow a similar pattern. At the end of the Divine Liturgy the priest exclaims "Let us go forth in peace" and reads the "Prayer before the ambo." And yet there is never an ambo, just occasionally a movable lectern.


Formerly the ambo was the de facto center of the Hagia Sophia, the place where the most important actions for the congregated faithful took place. Separate from the sanctuary yet connected by a railing from the Royal Doors, the ambo was where the deacon read the Gospel in the midst of the people, making the singing of the words of Christ something of an act of revelation, with the deacon coming from Christ's Holy Place to proclaim the Word.

The cantors used the western, door-facing steps of the ambo to lead the lesser singers—some of them castrati—in the singing of the hymns, psalms, antiphons, troparia, and responses.

The only two times the celebrant would leave the sanctuary, other than for special ceremonies, would be to use the ambo. First, after the Cherubikon the priests in the sacristy would bring the prepared gifts into the Great Church, for the sacristy was another building, and they would be received by the celebrant or the Archbishop at the ambo. Then, at the end of the Divine Liturgy, the celebrant or a concelebrant would approach the faithful  by standing in front of the ambo and read a prayer with them. Foregoing the ambo proper, this is the only time during the Divine Liturgy, fully celebrated with all ranks of clergy, that a priest prays with the congregation rather than on their behalf, popular prayers being consigned to the deacon.


With the ceremonies intact, it would not be difficult to construct new churches that follow the old architecture and use the rites for their intended purpose, but as with the post-Tridentine Roman Mass, the people have become acclimated to something a bit different.


Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Modest Improvements to the Celebration of the Old Mass

The number of pre-Conciliar Masses, at least in these United States, has increased many fold since Summorum Pontificum. Most of these new Masses have comes from diocesan clergy and as such are only available once a week to the faithful. The Ecclesia Dei priestly communities like the FSSP and ICRSS have broadened their presence in America, extending, perhaps not for the better, into areas like New England, where regular clergy formerly supplied the old rites.

Given the greater issues of importance, namely reviving Catholic culture and proliferating the old(er) Mass, this blog post touches on a subject of comparative luxury, how to celebrate the old Mass better.

Here in Dallas we have three parishes of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter spaced about fifty miles from each other East to West. The FSSP follows the Rite of Econe, an extraordinary form of the 1962 Missal. Diocesan priests celebrating the old Mass usually begin with said Mass and graduate to Missa cantata, picking up habits along the way.

What follows are some modest proposals, not involving the resurrection of glorious medieval customs or additional churchwares, to improve the celebration of the old Mass.

Variety is the Spice of Life

The traditional liturgy, at least at the time of the Tridentine Missal, possessed an elegant balance of the temporal and sanctoral cycles, each with a fair balance in itself between minor and major celebrations. The degree was manifested in the obvious elements, like psalmnody and vestment colors, but also in subtler elements, like the tones used at Mass and the admission of additional prayers at the Major Hours and the Holy Mass.


Post-Tridentine canonizations and the bloating of the kalendar, in conjunction with Pius XII and John XXIII's flattening of the kalendar, have left us with something in the 1962 rites more akin to the Byzantine liturgy: nearly a saint every day, almost all of the same rank, with Sundays and a few feasts able to break the cycle. 

Some semblance of seasonality or festivity could still be accomplished through music. "Back in the day" there was a monotonous fidelity to the Missa de angelis, a fad which has generally subsided. Most traditional Masses will loosely follow the post-Solesmes editions of the Liber Usualis in singing Mass XVIII during Lent and Advent, Mass XI on "green" Sundays, Mass I during Paschaltide, and maybe Mass IX on Marian days. While the assignment of these Masses to certain seasons was more or less arbitrary on the part of the Solesmes congregation, people have become accustomed to hearing them at certain times of year.

What of the clergy's parts? Before "the Council" one heard almost nothing save for the ferial tone. It may have derived from the ubiquity of the said Mass. Today, at least among FSSP clergy in the Anglosphere, one rarely hears anything except the solemn tone for the priest's parts, the orations, and the Gospel. Without fail on All Souls' Day we hear the priest start on C for Dom and climb to D and descend for inus vobiscum

The ancient, solemn tone is always an option during Masses, but could not some alternation be useful here? The solemn tone would be better allocated to Sundays, feasts, and anything which in better days had "double" in the name. Among practical parish celebrations, would the ferial tone every show up? At the Oxford Oratory the old Mass normally only became sung on days special to the locals, but less significant to the universal Church. We had a votive Mass of the Angels for the Newman Society, the odd Missa cantata on a Marian Saturday, and the feast of the English martyrs. Most traditionally minded churches will also celebrate a sung Mass on Ash Wednesday and All Souls. Either due to the penitential nature of the day or the lesser quality of the feast, the ferial tone marks a different stature to the day which is useful for the faithful.

One underused option, which requires practice, but not special singing talent, is the collection of ad libitum prefaces in a more solemn tone at the back of the Missal. These accentuate the words of Thanksgiving and on greater feasts add solemnity to the occasion.

Perhaps Not Too Much Variety

Variety is the spice of life, but seasoning cannot be willy nilly, it requires some thought and direction.

One such opportunity for regularity is in the celebration of Masses on what are in the 1962 Missal call "IV Class feasts" aka a day of nothing where there was once something. On these days and on true feriae outside of Lent priests of the Fraternity will typically celebrate one of the newer votive Masses permitted on the day (St Joseph on Wednesday, Christ the High Priest Thursday, Sacred Heart on Friday). I knew one priest who, without fail, would say no Mass other than that of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on anything below a III Class day, even on Saturdays of Our Lady; in the Middle Ages he would have been a "Massing priest".

What is a shame is that the Mass of the Sunday is almost never repeated. Before John XXIII, whenever the Sunday Mass was impeded—if Ss. Peter & Paul fell on a Sunday after Pentecost—the Sunday Mass would be repeated without the Gloria and Credo, without the Alleluia, and with additional commemorations on the first available day of the succeeding week.

The loss of this practice means that the Abomination of Desolation narrative from the XXIV Sunday after Pentecost is typically only read once a year while the parable the talents is reading dozens of times a year, perhaps even several times a week outside of Lent, because of the volume of post-Tridentine feasts taken from the Commons.

Instead of turning to a devotional votive Mass on IV Class and ferial days, repeat the Sunday Mass and re-immerse the faithful in its thoughtful collation of lessons.

As an aside, in the pre-Pius XII system a votive Mass could be said on nearly any day with a semi-Double feast or less if the season was not Lent or Advent. An adventurous priest, courageous enough to crack open his older Missale Romanum, might turn to the feast of Saint Alexius this year, notice it is merely a semi-Double, and say the [greatly underused] Mass of the Passion instead.

Additionally, the older old rite also had many proper Masses for saint popes, meaning not only no Si diligis, but perhaps even fewer Commons.

Liturgical Inspiration for Sermons

I remember it well. It was the second Sunday of Lent. The Gospel was the Transfiguration. The saint of the day was Pope Gregory the Great. The sermon? Why women need to dress more modestly.

One often hears that whereas in the new rite one must give a "homily", in the old rite the priest delivers a sermon. Semantics aside, diocesan clergy celebrating the old Mass almost always follow their seminary training and give a lesson either on the feast or the Gospel of the day. Traditionalist clergy tend to give either a sermon on the Gospel of the day or whatever has been on their mind that week, such as ladies' skirts not quite hitting the floor in the Mormon Trad manner.

Something is lost here. Thus far I have never heard a sermon or homily, whatever the real difference may be between them, on the Epistle of the day. Unlike in the Pauline and Byzantine rites, which generally go through blocks of Scripture during a season or month, the old Roman lectionary is very deliberate in pairing New Testament Epistles and Old Testament lessons with the Gospel percipes, either because they explicate on the virtues displayed by Christ or because they display typology of fulfillment of Christ's life. Understandably, talk during Advent normally focuses on preparation for Christmas, anticipating the coming of Christ, or the Gospel text about the End. Are these words, read at that Mass and by Saint Augustine in a Milanese garden, not worthy of their own sermon?
"And that knowing the season; that it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy: But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences."
There is also the question of saints, especially among those celebrating the 1962 rite rather than the older forms. Saints, even Apostles, hardly ever supersede a Sunday. Ss Peter & Paul, John the Baptist, the Immaculate Conception, All Souls, and the Assumption are generally it. The odds are only one of those will pass in a given year. Large swatches of saints vital to the Roman patrimony go unnoticed. The virgin martyrs of the Roman Canon, the saintly Latin and Greek Doctors of the Church, the medieval reformers, and the Counter-Reformers all go unnoticed on their own feast days if they fall on a Sunday. While doing this weekly would be inappropriate, it would be fitting, if when a saint of Biblical or patrimonial significance falls on a Sunday and the saint's feast does not replace the Sunday, to give a sermon on the life, inspiration, and deeds of the saint of the day.

Gregory the Great was the most significant Bishop of Rome after Peter himself. Does he not deserve more attention than Mrs. Johnson's ankles?

Friday, February 28, 2020

Divining Obedience


A few years ago I wrote a short piece about the comparison of disobedience to idolatry and divination in the context where lay parishioners were chaffing at the authoritative imposition of a strict dress code. While the sermon linked in that post has since been taken offline, I did think it worthwhile to transcribe a bit of it for posterity:

To consciously and willingly disobey legitimate commands from legitimate authority cannot be without some sin. I promise, when you’re toasting away your time in Purgatory or worse for deliberate disobedience, for stealing from God what is rightfully his, you’ll have nothing but regret and remorse for how good you decided to look that day back when you were so young and beautiful.

The thin line between legitimate authority and its abuse is impossible for most laymen to discern. One cannot remain a Catholic in good standing while rejecting the right of the Church’s bishops and priests to stand, in some fashion and form, in the place of God. Dominic Prümmer, O.P. makes distinctions between servile and proper obedience in his popular moral theology handbook, and says that obedience to men is limited “by the limited competency of superiors” (sec. 459; likewise St. Thomas: “a subject is not bound to obey his superior if the latter command him to do something wherein he is not subject to him” (ST II-II.104.5)), but few moral theologians have ever bothered to explore the precise limitations of the parish pastor or of the confessor. St. Alphonsus Liguori makes the authority of the confessor near-limitless:

Obedience to a confessor is the most acceptable offering which we can make to God, and the most secure way of doing the divine will. Blessed Henry Suson says that God does not demand an account of what we do through obedience. Obey, says the Apostle, your spiritual fathers; and fear not anything which you do through obedience; for they, and not you, shall have to render an account of your conduct. (Sermon XXV)

To be sure, Alphonsus adjures his audience to obey “in everything which is not manifestly sinful,” but for the scrupulous or ignorant penitent it is not a simple matter to discern what is manifestly sinful. Indeed, sexual predators within the priesthood can easily identify those with tender consciences as potential victims. Under the pretense of a holy submission of the will, they manipulate the penitent into participating in perverse sins and utterly devastate their ability to discern good from evil. Consider this slightly abbreviated extract from a recent testimony against Jean Vanier and a related priest:

Each time, I was frozen, I was unable to distinguish what was right and what was wrong. He told me that this was part of the accompaniment. He said, “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.” I decided to go and see Father Thomas to seek his advice. He told me to come and see him. There was a curtain, and he sat on the bed. He was not tender like Jean Vanier. Same words to say that I am special and all this is about Jesus and Mary.

When King Saul refused to slay the best of the flocks of Amalec it was not due to a scruple about utterly destroying the sinners and their goods (as one might find in a modern biblical commentator), but because he found them beautiful and wished to dispense them according to his own will. He understood the will of God and chose to do otherwise. That is why St. Samuel likened his disobedience to idolatry and divination, for it was a way of seeking his own will apart from the will of the God of Jacob, while attempting to soothe his conscience with the promise of a future sacrifice.

I have known good lay Catholics who were threatened with canonical censures for demanding the pastor baptize their new child when it had the misfortune of being born in Lent. Two years ago an American bishop made noises about imposing canonical penalties against any Catholic who supported President Trump’s immigration policies. In earlier ages of the Church it was common for popes to place entire nations under interdict for the sins or inconvenient political moves of kings, thus depriving uncounted innocents of sacramental grace.

There are reasons why medieval artists thought bishops to be fine subjects of satirical attack. It is a pity the Counter-Reformation ruined all that fun.

But this is Lent, and we are supposed to use this time to make our wills more submissive, not less. The counsel of voluntary obedience is a north star for the soul embarking into the deep, and it may be a fruitful topic of meditation in these times when obedience is used as a club for bullies or as a snare by seducers. It many ways it is easier to be submissive to the moral law considered abstractly than it is to be submissive to our pastors, confessors, and bishops. Perhaps there is something to be gained in obeying where it is not strictly necessary, some kind of moral clarity to be found by going above and beyond the mere rules and perhaps by finally seeing the invisible order of virtue and goodness intended when we were created in God’s image… but I cannot deny that it is hard to move past the variety of abuse and find what is great about obedience.
Obey those who have charge of you, and yield to their will; they are keeping unwearied watch over your souls, because they know they will have an account to give. Make it a grateful task for them: it is your own loss if they find it a laborious effort. (Heb. 13)

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Lent: The Jewel of the East

The prior night, "fat Tuesday", was indeed quite fat here in Dallas. Beef tartare, seared Wagyu, chocolate tartlet, and something resembling a salad for decoration. Mardi gras has become a tradition to indulge prior to a strife that never really comes in the Western Church anymore.

Just a century ago all of Lent aside from Sundays, included fasting every day and the addition of abstinence on Fridays. "Fat Tuesday" originates in the Middle Ages, when animal fats were used up before a purely vegan Lent began on Ash Wednesday. Today, at least in these United States, fasting is mandated only for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Meat is theoretically banished one day a week, but the American bishops always grant a dispensation if Saint Patrick's feast falls on a Friday.

Had I followed the prescriptions of the Byzantine Church I attend, meat would have been off the menu for two weeks and I would have last tasted cheese or milk on Sunday. While liturgically the Sundays of Great Lent are a bit dull in the East, with the readings pre-dating their ill-related feasts, the weekdays are the most unique and beautiful of the year.

The Liturgy of the Presanctified, celebrated at no other time during the year, is all that is right about the Byzantine rite: drama, great moments, and didactic gestures. At no other time of the year does the priest circle the altar counter-clockwise while we sing "Let my prayer arise like incense before you and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice."

The faithful sing may of the hymns greeting the Eucharist while kneeling, as the priest passes by during the Great Entrance holding the precious Body of Christ under a veil, much as we expect to see Him now but not in eternity. The entire service is one great lesson in penance for those who have been conditioned by the gradual elimination of luxuries and disposed by the Church's lessons toward penance.

By contrast, our Latin tradition, yes, even the old rite, seems a bit barren by contrast. The Mass of the Presanctified is celebrated on Good Friday. The weekday Masses of Lent were presumably Presanctified Masses during the middle part of the first millennium, as evidenced by some of the orations, but gradually became penitential Masses. If the Good Friday Mass is any indication of post-antiquity, they were not so very different from actual Masses to begin with.

We have Stations of the Cross on Fridays and the odd parish fish fry, the Lenten mission, but no solid liturgical basis of Lent outside the Masses anymore. Once upon a time the Station Masses of Lent were observed in most major European cities, not just Rome, in which the bishop's appointed representative would lead a procession to the chosen church with the Litanies sung, the minor hours, the Mass, and then Vespers with the preces, psalm 50, and the suffrages of the Saints. The demolition of Catholic culture, the gutting of the Divine Office, and the atomization of society has robbed us of these treasures which even traditional parishes have displayed little interest in restoring.

We Latins have Advent, Christmas season, the Pentecost octave, and the great feasts as our boasts, but in this season of humility the East has found a precious pearl and given all it has to acquire it and show it to the rest of the Church.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Devotionalism and Private Revelation


The problems of epistemology are never so deep as when one is arguing with a fellow Catholic about his favorite devotion or pet doctrinal theory. In such moments one enters the bleak cloud of unknowing, its murky haze made all the more opaque by your opponent’s statements of certainty and your own opposing certainty of his ignorance. By faith we have an actual certainty of those doctrines revealed by God through Christ and the Apostles, that public revelation which is preserved, curated, and crystalized by the Church throughout this age. Those with itching feet who wish to roam beyond the clear-lit space of orthodoxy without first fully understanding what has been illuminated often resort to mystical visions and so-called private revelations to defend their doctrinal theories.

Far be it from me to speak ill of Catholic mysticism. It is a particular ladder that some may climb to seek union with God ever more closely in this life, but there is no doubt that this state of life can have its perilous excesses. Visions and ecstasies are common enough, but their origins or sources of inspiration are not always clear. Often a mystic will form visions from a combination of theology, sacred history (traditional or popular), and his own imagination; there is not necessarily any divine intervention involved. Many spiritual teachers have recommended against seeking visions or any sensible consolations if one desires perfection, and the greatest mystics are doubtless those who never received a single vision in this life.

Nonetheless, Catholic history is dense with mystical visionaries of wildly varying legitimacy. Dante’s poetic masterwork is framed as a vision-tour of the afterlife, which was a popular form of moral instruction in the high Middle Ages; monks would sometimes speak of the great grace granted to them to see the terrors of Hell and Purgatory so that they might thereby avoid such punishments themselves. In England, Margery Kempe was a married woman who bullied her husband into a celibate marriage and wrote about her many visions and dialogues with Christ in between her heresy trials. Anne Catherine Emmerich on the other hand was a proper nun but had her visions recorded by a novelist and collector of fairy tales. Even the book of St. John’s Apocalypse was considered ambiguously canonical for centuries because of its bizarre content and debated authorship.

If the accounts of visionaries are not to be considered as divine revelations demanding assent by the rest of the faithful, but also not to be considered outright as false when approved by ecclesiastical authorities, they must necessarily fall into an odd middle-place in the body of spiritual writings. They may be read for edification by the faithful much in the way that the visions were intended originally for the edification of the visionary, but they may never be treated as sources of doctrine. Rather, they are judged by the standard of doctrine already given to the Church.

John of the Cross observes that “despite the many occasions on which Saint Paul preached the Gospel, which he said that he had heard, not of men, but of God, he could not be satisfied until he had gone to consult with Saint Peter and the Apostles, saying: Ne forte in vacuum currerem, aut cucurrissem” (Ascent of Mt. Carmel II.xxii.12). If even the Apostle Paul, who had been brought up to the third heaven and seen secrets not shown to other men, should be concerned about leaning too heavily on his own private revelation, how much more ought the rest of us to fear straying from the solid ground of public revelation!