Sunday, December 30, 2012

Dominus Vobiscum, Part II: the Mass of the Faithful

Padre Pio begins the Canon of the Mass

Having considered the body language and its latent ideas in the Fore-Mass—or "Mass of the Catechumens" or "Liturgy of the Word"—in the two rites, let us briefly recap. The traditional rite has a distinct focus on the altar and the crucifix at its center throughout. The readings are sacramentals, read or sung as devotions and as grand proclamations toward God and not directly related to the assembled congregation. In the newer rite, celebrated Oratory-style or American-suburban, the focal point is not the altar, but it is not any other particular point either. The orientation of the priest and lectors and deacons is undoubtedly to the people, or "assembly" as the 1969 General Instruction calls those at Mass. Ceremonies constantly move the focus from the priest at some enormous chair, to the ambo, to the cantor, to the Gospel procession, back to the ambo. The new rite's first half is quite discombobulated.

Part I: The Credo

Deacon processes with burse in the Sarum rite
At this point in both rites the priest begins the Creed, a fitting start to the Mass of the Faithful. In the old rite this goes the same way as the Gloria. The priest intones the Creed with "Credo in unum Deum" and recited the rest of it quietly with his ministers. When finished they genuflect and disappear to their chairs on the side. Near the end of the Creed the deacon brings the burse to the altar with great reverence and unfolds the corporal on the altar. He then returns to the chair and escorts the priest and subdeacon to the altar to begin the Offertory.

How to receive this? The Creed, like the Gloria, is quickly recited and then the ministers leave, so to avoid any distraction that they may cause at the focal point, the altar. There is another element of reverence, not for the altar, but for the Blessed Sacrament Itself. The Roman rite, and more so in other medieval usages like the Dominican rite, avoids any unnecessary obstruction of the tabernacle or He Who dwells within it. The reverence for the altar remains in this stage and anticipation of the Offertory and the Consecration builds as the deacon lays down the corporal, a linen cloth which symbolizes the linen sheet on which Christ laid after His death on the Cross. At this point we learn something: the Mass is one continuous action, with every functional sacramental in its nature and anticipating the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Again, orientation and the lack of focus of the ceremonies creates confusion and the impression of disparate parts in the new rite. The Creed is, curiously, recited again with the priest and faithful facing each other. This could give the impression of a mutual confession of faith, but to each other? Why? The priest, from his chair, and the standing people confess God, but without any general congruity in how they do so. There is no procession, nor any other ceremony before the Offertory which anticipates the Eucharist-centered purpose of the Mass in the new form.

In some of the Eastern rites, particularly the Byzantine tradition, the Creed is preceded by a procession of clergy with the bread and chalices to be consecrated. During the Creed the priests and deacons prepare the altar and then exchange the kiss of peace. It is an action singularly focused on the Eucharistic "action," as Gregory Dix called the liturgy. The procession of the deacon with the burse in the old Roman rite is certainly a variation of this, but the focus on the Eucharistic action is quite unapparent in the Pauline rite.

Part II: the Offertory

The physical ceremony of the old Roman rite is remarkably unremarkable. The subdeacon and deacon assist the priest in preparing the host and chalice, the latter of which the deacon offers with the priest, the subdeacon takes his place at the center of the floor, and the altar is incensed, followed by the clergy in order of importance. The priest quickly turns towards the people, saying "Orate fratres" ("pray brethren"...) in a subdued voice, finishing it in silence. After reading a private prayer, called the Secret, he begins the Preface aloud, first a dialogue with the congregation, and then a monosyllabic chant. At the end, he and his ministers recite the Sanctus and begin the Canon of the Mass.

Offertory of the old Mass is quite straight forward
The new rite exemplifies liturgical deregulation. In most places, even the Papal Masses and Oratories, the option for a procession of the gifts is exercised. This entails some coterie of laity walking a ciborium of hosts (which they should not actually be touching) and a container of wine, to the priest, who then offers them, sometimes aloud and sometimes in silence. Then the gifts might be incensed. Options galore.

I do not get it....
The priest, after making some quiet prayers, says the "Orate fratres" in its entirety aloud and then says the Prayer Over the Gifts, a modernized version of the Secret, aloud, before beginning the Preface as normal. At the end the celebrant must recite the Sanctus with his congregants, unlike in the old rite where he may quickly recite it with his ministers and begin the Canon.

Here we have two insights, one new and one revisited, into the theology of the old Mass versus the new. In the older rite it is the duty and role of the priest to make the offering, which he begins at the offertory. In short, he says the Mass; the Mass is his prayer. The procession in the new rite, although in principle optional, gives the impression that the laity have more than a passive role in the offering of the sacrifice. The laity offer bread and wine toward an ambiguous end. One of the oddities of this procession is that it does not seem to have any purpose. Many of the processions in the Eastern liturgies are part of one continuous segment of the liturgy. As mentioned earlier, the offering begins immediately after the procession, which is made by those who do the offering. In the Pauline rite the people process, the priest offers, and then they dialogue. The line between priest and laity is especially blurred at this point in the new rite as now the priest has left his chair and, in practice, is likely facing the laity. Rather than the priest and congregation conversing with God, an uninformed or unformed person may be impressed that the priest and people are, again, talking to each other.

And he is still talking to me!

Part III: the Canon

At this point most analysis would be of the texts of the two rites, but there is still plenty to learn from the posturing in the Canon of the old Mass and in the various Eucharistic prayers of the new.

The elevation in the old rite
In the traditional rite the priest opens his arms and then bows under the crucifix to begin the Canon with the words "Te igitur, Clementissime Pater...." ("Therefore we humbly beseech Thee, most merciful Father...."). Whenever speaking of the gifts he blesses them by making the sign of the cross. At the remembrances of the living and of the dead the deacon walks away so that the priest may have a quiet moment. Before the consecration, the priest extends his flat palms over the oblations, a sign of sacrifice retained from the Hebrew temple sacrifices and ceremonies. At the moments of consecration the priest bows over the altar, with his elbows and forearems actually resting on the surface, so that he might speak the words of institution. After consecrating the bread and chalice, the celebrant immediately falls to his knees, with all the other ministers, in adoration, then rises, elevates the sacred species for public adoration, replaces the Host or Chalice on the altar, and genuflects again. The other ministers rise again. In contrast to the ministers, the laity have been kneeling since the Sanctus and will until the Pater Noster.
Minor elevation

At various points the priest asks that God might deign to send His angel to take this sacrifice to his sublime altar in heaven, a sacrifice prefigured by the Old Testament priest Melchisedeck. At this point the priest kisses the altar, a reverence for what has just occurred upon it. At the end of the Canon, the priest elevates the Host and Chalice ever so slightly as a formal offering of them to God. The Canon is hence complete. Christ is made present and offered to the Father.

Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington suggests that these are actually very charismatic, enthusiastic gestures. Bows of extreme humility, demonstrative signs of the cross, kisses on the altar, and raising the Host and Chalice in adoration and offering all indicate a very physical and joyful expression of prayer. It is a shame to think that many assume these gestures are strange excesses or mechanical actions that crept into the Mass over the years through some manner of legalism. Truth be told, if we followed one American priest's "Do the red, say the black" philosophy these gestures would never have existed; indeed, had priests over the centuries followed this mindset we might still be gathering around a supper table, eating some herbs, saying a few psalms in Hebrew, and having the priest say "this is my body" and "this is my blood" over bread and wine, then departing. This old Roman Mass is the opposite of legalistic structure. It is the expression of Holy joy!

I should also like to note that while these sanguine gestures are not always visible to the congregation, they benefit the priests and ministers in their prayers because they, somewhat like Sacraments themselves, are outward expressions of an internal truth.

The new rite, on the other hand, is somewhat lacking in this organic development, but then again it was written by a committee in 1967, not by thousands of priests over 1,500 years.

The minor elevation in a conventionally celebrated Mass according to the
Missal of Paul VI
The Canon, or any of three other "Eucharistic prayers" composed in 1967-8, begins with either the open-palms sacrificial gesture previously mentioned or with one large sign of the cross over the gifts. No other gestures are made until the consecration. During the consecration, when Mass is said facing the congregated people, priests often appear to extend the bread and wine to the people at the words "take this all of you and eat/drink it." Some priests will bend over the bread and wine while pronouncing the changing words of Christ's. The species are elevated, not reverenced, immediately and are then followed by a reverential genuflection. If using the Roman Canon the priest will cross himself at the words "every grace and blessing." At the end of the Eucharistic prayer, at the words "through Him and with Him and in Him" (per Ipsum et cum Ipso et in Ipso, the minor elevation in the old rite) the priest and deacon together raise the Host and Chalice.

The loss of enthusiasm and physical prayer in the ceremonies prescribed in the new rite are quite tragic. One gets the impression that the priest is simply reciting a narrative or reading some text aloud rather than performing an action delegated to him; in fact, I think many priests have unfortunately adopted this attitude themselves. The reduction in the number of signs of the cross made muddles the significance of the sign of the cross. Rather than being used as a gesture many think it is a blessing, as though the Eucharist could be blessed any further than It already is. Eastward rather than versus populum celebration of the new rite curtails these points of obfuscation but the priest is still talking to me! In the old rite is was normal that at high Mass the choir would sing the Sanctus before the consecration and the Benedictus or some other motet afterwards. In the Byzantine rites there may be singing or, as is the case in the Melkite Church, the consecration is sung in the same tone as other prayers, at least giving people some sense of continuity with the rest of the liturgy.

Eucharistic consecration ("anaphora") in the Byzantine rite
source: wikipedia

Part IV: Pater Noster to Communion

Kiss of Peace in the old rite
Now the priest begins the Pater Noster ("Our Father...."). After he sings this prayer he fractures the Host and places a particle of It into the Chalice. The choir begins to sing the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God....") while the priest, crouched over the altar, makes three prayers for a worthy partaking of Holy Communion. After the first of these prayers the celebrant and deacon kiss the altar and then, symbolically, each other in the "kiss of peace." The deacon then passes the peace to the other sacred ministers. The priest strikes his breast three times before the Eucharistic Lord saying Domine non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur anima mea ("Lord I am not worthy that Thou should enterest beneath my roof, but only speak the word and my soul shall be healed"). Making the sign of the Cross with both the Host and Chalice, the priest communicates.

Padre Pio communicates during Mass
The deacon sings the Confiteor ("I confess to almighty God" etc) and the priest prays for absolution for the communicants. The priest then reveals the Sacrament to the people with the words Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce Qui tollit peccata mundi ("Behold the Lamb of God, Behold He Who takes away the sins of the world") to which the people respond three times with the Domine non sum dignus.... said by the priest a few minutes earlier. People kneel at the altar rail, where ever there is space, and receive the Sacrament, Which is placed on each communicant's tongue, with a prayer by the priest that this communion may benefit the recipient unto eternal life. After communion the priest cleanses the sacred vessels and reposes the Sacrament in the tabernacle.

Byzantine communion
For some reason I do not see much room for analysis here, as the communion of the faithful is simply a separate even from the priest's. The priest, as the one saying the Mass, must make communion, but the faithful receive Him based upon the state of their souls. The priest dispenses communion, there is no mutual interaction. The focus is the Eucharist, so the priest simply says a prayer rather than speaking with the communicant. This is, again, quite similar to the Byzantine rite where the people, although standing, come to the priest or deacon, receive communion on the mouth, and the minister says "The servant/handmaiden of God [Name] receives the precious Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the remission of his/her sins and for eternal life."

The modern rite, in practice, is a time of the Mass I find most confuses or discomforts non-Catholic visitors to Mass and must frustrates those of a traditional persuasion.

The priest recites the Pater Noster with the congregation, normal in the East but quite a novelty in the West (it had not been done since at least the papacy of St. Gregory of the Great, which started in 590AD). The priest then concludes by wishing peace to all present and the deacon invites them to "share a sign of Christ's peace." The people, or choir, sing the Agnus Dei while the priest fractures the Host, places a particle into the Chalice, says one quick prayer, and shows the Host and Chalice to the people. The people recite the Domine non sum dignus once, not three times, the priest makes communion, with no private prayers or ceremonies, and proceeds to administer communion to the faithful, who, according to the General Instruction, "as a rule, approach in a procession." Although section 160 of the General Instruction seems to forbid communion in the hand, the United States, and basically the entire world, has an "indult" for this practice. The Body and Blood of the Lord are to be "reverenced," usually with a bow or, less commonly, a genuflection, and received either on the hand or the tongue. The priest raises the Host or Chalice, says "the Body/Blood of Christ" to which the communicant responds "Amen."

Children saying the Pater Noster in the diocese of
Greensburg. One wonders if they have been taught what
this posture means

In practice the new rite is not always this simple. In nine out of ten parishes a large chunk of people hold hands or raise them up during the Pater Noster, a posture novel to the laity in the Roman rite. The "sign of peace," which replaces the kiss of peace, is usually a handshake from some slightly disturbed neighbor, regardless of whether one is at the local parish or St. Peter's in Rome. I remember one friend of mine had attended Mass for the first time, in the old rite, the previous night at the FSSP church in Rome and the next day attended the new Mass for the first time at St. John Lateran. During the sign of peace my friend, who was sitting behind me, gave a disturbed "ummm, hello" to the man sitting next to him.

The Pope gives communion during a Mass
Communion is almost always in the hand, except in a few very pious diocese in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, where the "indult" was either never requested or never implemented. One will also find certain "high" churches in major cities where communion is given while kneeling at the altar rail rather than in procession, in contradiction of the General Instruction. The Holy Father gives communion on the tongue while kneeling, but people must go up to a kneeler to receive from him. One wonders if this is to follow the General Instruction or because of practical considerations focused on his person.

The reaction most non-Catholics or non-Roman Catholics give to me at this part of Mass is "why oh why?" Why must I shake hands with my neighbor after the most important part of Mass? Surely a hello and a firm grip with a stranger or occasional acquaintance does little to improve one's preparation for communion. In the old rite the kiss of peace symbolized Christ's peace descending from His altar in heaven to His altar on earth and to His people on earth. The egalitarian and disorganized nature of this rite in the Pauline Mass obscures this meaning.

Another point of confusion is why the priest, whose role in the Mass and before God is quite distinct from that of the congregation, must communicate at the same time as everyone else and why his preparatory prayers are so limited. Even in terms of ceremony, if the priest celebrates Mass eastward rather than towards the congregation, he must turn, expose the Eucharist, say a prayer with the people, turn again, communicate, and turn to the people yet again to give communion. Madness.

Moreover, there is the un-ending concern over communion in the hand. It is true that communion was not received in the tongue in Rome until the eighth or ninth century, but communion was not put directly on the hand either. A cloth would be laid over the communicant's hand, he would receive the Host onto the cloth, and bend his body down to the Host. Too many particles of Our Lord's Body were lost and this one-by-one process was time consuming, so the practice evolved into what the old rite does. One would be hard pressed to find substantial evidence that the Eucharist was ever seen as something one had the right to touch and even manipulate with one's fingers, aside from a dubious letter attributed to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, since the earliest Christian days. Moreover there is just something odd about people walking around a church, putting a Host into their mouths, without the slightest attention to what has just happened. One associate of mine likened the traditional rite for communion akin to begging to table scraps from heaven. What can we say of the newer rite?

Communion at the annual congress in Los Angeles

I will not delve into Eucharistic ministers, since that belongs beyond the realm of body language and human interaction. It is a theological issue.

Part V: Concluding Rites

Fr Gilles Wach of the Institute of Christ the King reads the
Last Gospel at the end of a Solemn Mass in Chicago
In the older form of the Roman Mass, the priest, after cleaning the vessels with great care and reposing the Sacrament in the tabernacle, reads the communion antiphon and the post-communion prayers, which are akin to the collects mentioned in the part of this series on the Fore-Mass. The priest does this from the right side of the altar. He and his deacons again form a straight line, by their rank with respect to their service at the altar, go to the center, the priest says "Dominus vobiscum," the deacon sings the dismissal (Ite, missa est—"Go, this is the dismissal," Benedicamus Domino—"Let us bless the Lord, or Requiescant in pace—"May they rest in peace" depending on the day). The priest turns back to the altar and, in a deep bow, says a short prayer that the Holy Trinity may accept the sacrifice here offered, kisses the altar, and blesses the people whilst turning to them. He and the subdeacon then go to the left corner of the altar and recite the Last Gospel, a private prayer, while the procession lines up. The procession leaves either in a short path to the sacristy or down the aisle to the door of the church, depending on whether or not the clergy want to greet people as they leave.

The new rite does many of these things, but not in the same order or place. We return again to the "presider's chair" next to the altar for the concluding rites. There is no greeting to begin the post-communion prayer. The blessing is given before the dismissal. One oddity I find is that if the rubrics are followed and the presider and deacon's chairs are away from the altar, will the people be able to see the deacon give the dismissal? It would depend on how visible the clergy wish to be. At the Oxford Oratory the clergy kept quite out of line sight of the altar, and the dismissal seemed to resonate throughout the church without a voice attached to it (not an unpleasant sensation). There is no Last Gospel.

Blessing at the end of Mass

There is very little to say here that has not been said in the segment on the early parts of the Mass. The orientation and place at the altar in the older rite indicates a continuous action which is now drawing to its conclusion while the new primarily suggests an exchange between the priest and his deacons and the people gathered. The place of the clergy aside of, in back of, or near the altar creates a diagonal rather than direct line of sight and one becomes conscientiously aware one is talking to another human being, but hopefully still knows one is making responses to prayers.

A Succinct Conclusion

The traditional Roman rite of Mass emphasizes the altar as a space for an action, which the priest completes with the congregation doing their part behind him. Every gesture focuses on or is done in anticipation of the Eucharist or the presence of God. The priest and people face one direction and particular parts of the altar and sanctuary are used for their own purposes. The center of the altar is vacated though, until the consecration itself, when Christ takes physical presence. All parts of this Mass, including the ones one would consider didactic, like the readings, are done with this orientation and focus.

The newer rite, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969, is in principle awkward and clumsy in its ceremonies and, as we have seen in the segment on the Canon, not always clear on its focus. In practice this rite is much more difficult than in principle, as most all Masses done according to this rite are done in vernacular, facing the people, and with obfuscating dialogue between the priest and laity, and the laity among themselves. This means that relations between participants is obscured and that the Mass itself becomes an agglomeration of rituals rather than one complete action.

I hope our focus on body language, the use of space, gestures, and postures has shed some new light on the importance of ritual and action in the Roman liturgy. While a cardinal, Benedict XVI suggested that the practice of Mass facing the people creates a "closed circle" between priest and laity, one which does not necessarily include God in the tabernacle or Christ's image on the Cross. To improve the general practice of liturgy in the future we must be aware of not only the short comings of certain ceremonies in their gracefulness and their theological implications, but also of the organic brilliance and piety of ceremonies that do work. May God grant my little insight may catch the attention of some others who wish to share in this effort.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Movie Review: The Island

This Christmas I received the usual gifts: clothing, some electronics, books, chocolate, and some films. One gift, a film called Island, particularly caught my attention this year. The Island, or "Ostrov" in Russian, is a Russian-language film, mercifully subtitled in English, about a monk on an obscure, small Russian island in the year 1975.

During the Second World War a coal stoker name Anatoly who worked the boilers of a Russian freighter found himself confronted with German boarders who gave him a choice: shoot your captain, Tikhon, and have a chance to live after your freighter is scuttled, or die now. Anatoly takes the first option, shooting Captain Tikhon, whose body falls overboard, and finds himself washed ashore near a Russian Orthodox monastery after the scuttle charges fire.

Three decades later brother Anatholy continues to live at the monastery, leading a life more ascetic than that found at the most severe Carthusian Charterhouses. He lives in the monastery's boiler room, wheeling coal to and fro throughout the day and sleeping on heaps of the mineral by night. Throughout the day he walks the island, and a small neighboring island, reciting the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner) and asking for Tikhon to prayer for his soul. In the morning Anatoly awakes from the coal piles, veers to a side room, and, before an icon of Christ, praises the Holy Trinity, the Virgin, and asks for the repose of the "warrior Tikhon."

Fr Anatoly with child!
Very quickly, we get the impression that Anatoly is a fool, a "fool for God," much in the vein or St. Francis, St. Philip Neri, and many others helplessly in love with God. Anatoly's reputation for holiness abounds mainland Russia and everyday many come to seek his counsel, although Anatoly often deflects attention by pretending "Fr Anatoly" is unavailable and that he, a menial coal stoker, might provide a word or two. Our first sighting of Anatoly after the War comes in 1975, when a pregnant Russian girl comes to ask Anatoly what she should do about her delicate condition. She prepares for her visit by bringing a wad of cash in hopes that the monk will give an apodictic blessing for an abortion. Fr Anatoly was unavailable to talk with her, but the stoker, who has stuffed a pillow under his shirt to give a pregnant appearance, scolds her and accuses her of attempting to bribe a monk into condoning murder. She rebukes Anatoly by asking what he would know about her state. He replies that he knows what it is like to kill another person and tells her to "get off [his] island!"

Like many other "fools for Christ" Anatoly is something of a blissfully ignorant rebel. During the Divine Liturgy and the Divine Office he often prays facing some direction other than the altar, on one occasion towards the house of the prior of the monastery, which Anatoly has secretly set aflame in hopes of teaching the worldly prior detachment.

Anatoly sees the spiritual reality of things where others might only hope for glimpses. The prior, without a house now, moves into the boiler room with Anatoly, boasting that he might live as a hermit!—although with a luxurious blanket and leather boots lined with wool from the Patriarch. Anatoly "exorcises" the prior's demons by burning his boots and coat, and filling the room with so much smoke that they comes within a breath of death. The prior later thanks him, realizing that he has not led a penitential life focused on God, but one of earthly attachments.

The climax of the film comes when a prominent admiral comes to the island monastery with his sick daughter. Anatoly learns that the admiral is "Admiral Tikhon Petrovich, his old captain. Anatoly, withholding his own identity, tells the admiral that the angels are rejoicing in the admiral's visit. Anatholy tells the admiral his daughter is not sick, but demonically possessed by a devil familiar to him. He takes the admiral's daughter to an island where he implores God to exorcise the girl, which He eventually does. Upon returning to the island Anatoly reveals to Tikhon his identity and implores forgiveness, which Tikhon concedes he granted many years ago, presuming Anatoly dead.

Anatoly, whose purpose in life was sanctification and penance, no longer has cause to live and, vested in pure and angelic white, climbs into a wooden box and dies. Our last sight in the film is one of monks, including one who could never quite take a liking to Anatoly, bringing the deceased's coffin to land for burial under the sign of the Cross.

The main theme of this movie is not forgiveness or miracles, but penance. Anatoly is often invited to live with the prior and recover his failing health, but he prefers to sleep on coals and pass his time praying the Jesus Prayer. Moreover, he reproaches those unwilling to live a penitential or God-centered life, even his own prior.

Would God exorcise a demon or tell of the survival in France of a would-be-widow's husband for any old priest? Probably not. Anatoly's forgiveness and satisfaction, and presumable entrance into heaven, only come as consequence of his penance, a penance which takes his entire life.

No penance, no peace. No suffering, no real love. No Cross, no heaven.

It is a great film and, despite its length, never really drags, as there are few enough characters that the movie can change focus several times in the course of two hours without veering away from its main point.

If you want to get some idea of what a "fool for God" might look like. get the movie or watch it. It is on Youtube.

The trailer:

First part of the whole movie here:

Happy St. Stephen's day!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christ Is Born! Glorify Him!

From the first Christmas Day sermon of Pope St. Leo the Great:

Dearly beloved brethren, Unto us is born this day a Saviour, Luke ii. 11. Let us rejoice. It would be unlawful to be sad to-day, for today is Life's Birthday; the Birthday of that Life, Which, for us dying creatures, taketh away the sting of death, and bringeth the bright promise of the eternal gladness hereafter. It would be unlawful for any man to refuse to partake in our rejoicing. All men have an equal share in the great cause of our joy, for, since our Lord, Who is the destroyer of sin and of death, findeth that all are bound under the condemnation, He is come to make all free. Rejoice, O thou that art holy, thou drawest nearer to thy crown! Rejoice, O thou that art sinful, thy Saviour offereth thee pardon! Rejoice also, O thou Gentile, God calleth thee to life! For the Son of God, when the fulness of the time was come, which had been fixed by the unsearchable counsel of God, took upon Him the nature of man, that He might reconcile that nature to Him Who made it, and so the devil, the inventor of death, is met and beaten in that very flesh which hath been the field of his victory.
When our Lord entered the field of battle against the devil, He did so with a great and wonderful fairness. Being Himself the Almighty, He laid aside His uncreated Majesty to fight with our cruel enemy in our weak flesh. He brought against him the very shape, the very nature of our mortality, yet without sin. Heb. iv. 15. His birth however was not a birth like other births for no other is born pure, nay, not the little child whose life endureth but a day on the earth. To His birth alone the throes of human passion had not contributed, in His alone no consequence of sin had had -part. For His Mother was chosen a Virgin of the kingly lineage of David, and when she was to grow heavy with the sacred Child, her soul had already conceived Him before her body. She knew the counsel of God announced to her by the Angel, lest the unwonted events should alarm her. The future Mother of God knew what was to be wrought in her by the Holy Ghost, and that her modesty was absolutely safe.
Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Ghost: Who, for His great love wherewith He loved us, hath had mercy on us and, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, Eph. ii. 4, 5, that in Him we might be a new creature, and a new workmanship. Let us then put off the old man with his deeds (Col. iii. 9); and, having obtained a share in the Sonship of Christ, let us renounce the deeds of the flesh. Learn, O Christian, how great thou art, who hast been made partaker of the Divine nature, 2 Pet. i. 4, and fall not again by corrupt conversation into the beggarly elements above which thou art lifted. Remember Whose Body it is Whereof thou art made a member, and Who is its Head, (1 Cor. vi. 15.) Remember that it is He That hath delivered thee from the power of darkness and hath translated thee into God's light, and God's kingdom.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Episcopal Visit

The Roman Bishop of Manchester, Monsignor Peter Libasci, visited my Melkite parish for the Sunday of the Ancestors of Christ. Bishop Nicholas Samra, the Melkite ordinary for the United States, sent his warm wishes and his desire to have been present at such a liturgy.

His Excellency gave a marvellous sermon on the gospel, Luke's account of Christ's parable of a man inviting people off the street to his banquet after the regular invitees turned him down, and related it to those accepting God's invitation to the Divine Life after the Sandy Hook shooting.

Particularly moving was the end of the liturgy, when we praised God and asked Him to grant His high priest, Bishop Libasci, many years.

Below the Bishop administers the blessing with the cross after Liturgy and poses with our parish priest.

Friday, December 14, 2012


Students evacuating Sandy Hook Elementary School.
For the souls of those who died and for the welfare of those who survived a school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, near where I once lived, which happened this morning.

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

Venting on Violence

A thing of the Dark Ages?

There is a view popular today among the likes of Steven Pinker and optimists in left-wing coffee houses which asserts that we live in a far more enlightened, less violent time than those past eras, which were fraught with hatred, superstition, animal instincts, and more basic compulsions. By contrast, today we are aided by the "light of science," which guides us towards a new and luminous Elysium, one often populated by artificial intelligences and humans who move from fleeting sensation to fleeting sensation without every considering the possibility of violence. What crap!

Let us consider some very basic data. According to the Population Reference Bureau about 108 billion people have lived on this planet since the commencement of the human populace. About 6 billion people were alive at the end of the twentieth century. Roughly 7-7.5 billion live now, 6.5% of the historical total. By combining the "births between benchmarks" for 1950 and 1995 we can discover a [very] high-end estimate for the total number of people who lived in the twentieth century, about 8,817,503,215, or about 8.2% of the people who have every lived. For generosity, I will even include those born between 1850 and 1900, many of whom may have lived to see the twentieth century, some 2,900,237,856 people, upping the total to 11,717,741,071, or 10.8% of people to have every lived.

An excellent resource for historical deaths is, which documents its sources in the left hand column. In a chart given for the "Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other" the site lists about 390.5 million violent deaths, which comprise the 20 or so most brutal phenomena in human history. Of those, 157 million occurred in the twentieth century, or 40.2% of the total. Moreover, the top two are of the twentieth century, and three of the top ten are of the twentieth century. Indeed, six of the twenty entries either reside in or touch the last century. Additionally, the nineteenth century, another era of materialism, anti-clericalism, nationalism, "reason," "science," and enlightenment also rings in not a few times on that list. Another interesting feature of the list is that violence seems sporadic outside of these two centuries. The thirteenth century pops up here, the seventeenth appears there etc.

These statistics do not account for smaller scale violence, such or mugging-murders so prevalent in Renaissance Rome or name-your-Middle-Eastern-city back street, which has certainly declined with the advent of better law enforcement and more excess wealth, which allows certain groups of would-be criminals to enjoy a degree of abundance and succor which dissuades them from the need for desperate crimes.

Nothing violent about this. Besides, it's not that common, either.
Still, the previous set of statistics is astounding. About a tenth of the historical population lived last decade, yet of the most brutal instances in human history, 40% of them, including the two worst, happened during this period. I am also being generous with these statistics in another way: as a Catholic I am quite tempted to add 500 million abortions to the twentieth century statistic, but for the sake of argument I will not. So why the optimism about our era of commonality, brotherhood, enlightenment, and [what purports to be] science?

Perhaps some odd blend of secular humanism and university culture. Modernity, or post-modernity, needs results, as those who push it claim to be empirical people. For instance, Pinker often cites the lower death rates in wars now as opposed to several centuries ago. This misses certain vital points:
  • Technology has made war safer for the better equipped side, and also more remote.
  • In previous eras the size of an army mattered more than its equipment, which only occasionally varied from army to army. This meant that large scale deaths were a certainty for combatants on either side.
  • Wars in the last few decades have been fought on a smaller scale and act as satellite venues of combat between political adversaries who, in my opinion, are delaying rather than avoiding inevitable direct conflict.
Notice, none of these have to do with greater inner-knowledge, "reason," or university-driven notions of "progress." They are technological and political circumstances that may or may not last. Consider how many times the empire, the nation, and the city-state have gone in and out of fashion since the era of Moses.

I would also posit that, as violence has clearly not decreased, violence has become more remote. We see violence in the Middle East and in Africa on television or newspapers with regularity without every encountering it ourselves. When violence does hit our segment of the world we often do not know how to react, as we have been dulled by viewing imitation violence for years.

This does not mean violence has vanished in the West and only exists in third world dictatorships. The Holocaust is still in living memory for many in Europe, who would rightly smack you with their canes and walkers for suggesting that we have progressed away from past eras of un-civility and embraced a humanist paradise.

Moreover, the phenomenon of abortion, crushing a fetus's head and vacuuming it out of the mother's uterus, is a striking example of violence remaining in our midst although remote and unrecognized to us. Few in the era of the Roman Empire or of Genghis Khan could have conceived or a more brutal way to eventuating death.

No, modern culture has not eliminated, or even slackened, brutality and violence, but modern circumstances have managed to improve a few statistics which some will use giddily. One only needs to watch two brawling children to know that the violent instinct will never rest, it will merely express itself with more discretion.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Church Built Before Vatican II

Many believe that before the Second Vatican Council churches were baroque, decked with statuary, and quite beautiful. Today I visited a church that seems to pop a hole in the bubble of that theory.

This church, as you can see, was clearly constructed with a [neglected] high altar and [now removed] side altars. The walls are brick, the back walls 1960s plywood, the chairs a cheap 1950s/60s velvet, and the place generally without any inspiration. Some statues were gathered haphazardly into a chapel-turned-baptistery. Clearly the liturgy and sacred architecture were in murky swamp water well before many assumed it to be so.

Monday, December 10, 2012

If You Love the Bible

.... then get on your knees and thank God for the Catholic Church and her Popes.

A thirteenth century "pocket" edition of the Latin Vulgate Bible.
Tomorrow is the feast of Pope St. Damasus, the fourth century pontiff who formally published the first canon of Scripture.

Prior to St. Damasus a great many Church Fathers proposed various canons of Scripture, but none until the late fourth century even had the same new testament that we have received today. Controversy usually centered around the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine, but also over some Catholic Epistles, some Greek books in the old testament, and a now-lost "Book of the Hebrews." No one of the Fathers had formally listed the current new testament canon until St. Athanasius did so in 367 A.D., much less make an attempt at enforcing a canon of the old testament, a bugaboo to most protestants.

But in 382 A.D., at a local synod in Rome, St. Damasus I issued the following decree (good part is at the bottom):
Pope St. Damasus
It is likewise decreed: Now, indeed, we must treat of the divine Scriptures: what the universal Catholic Church accepts and what she must shun. The list of the Old Testament begins: Genesis, one book; Exodus, one book: Leviticus, one book; Numbers, one book; Deuteronomy, one book; Jesus Nave, one book; of Judges, one book; Ruth, one book; of Kings, four books [First and Second Books of Kings, Third and Fourth Books of Kings]; Paralipomenon, two books; One Hundred and Fifty Psalms, one book; of Solomon, three books: Proverbs, one book; Ecclesiastes, one book; Canticle of Canticles, one book; likewise, Wisdom, one book; Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), one book;  Likewise, the list of the Prophets: Isaiah, one book; Jeremias, one book; along with Cinoth, that is, his Lamentations; Ezechiel, one book; Daniel, one book; Osee, one book; Amos, one book; Micheas, one book; Joel, one book; Abdias, one book; Jonas, one book; Nahum, one book; Habacuc, one book; Sophonias, one book; Aggeus, one book; Zacharias, one book; Malachias, one book.  Likewise, the list of histories: Job, one book; Tobias, one book; Esdras, two books; Esther, one book; Judith, one book; of Maccabees, two books.
Likewise, the list of the Scriptures of the New and Eternal Testament, which the holy and Catholic Churchreceives: of the Gospels, one book according to Matthew, one book according to Mark, one book according to Luke, one book according to John. The Epistles of the Apostle Paul, fourteen in number: one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians [First Epistle to the Corinthians and Second Epistle to the Corinthians], one to the Ephesians, two to the Thessalonians [First Epistle to the Thessalonians and Second Epistle to the Thessalonians], one to the Galatians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy [First Epistle to Timothy and Second Epistle to Timothy], one to Titus, one to Philemon, one to the Hebrews.
Likewise, one book of the Apocalypse of John. And the Acts of the Apostles, one book.Likewise, the canonical Epistles, seven in number: of the Apostle Peter, two Epistles [First Epistle of Peter and Second Epistle of Peter]; of the Apostle James, one Epistle; of the Apostle John, one Epistle; of the other John, a Presbyter, two Epistles [Second Epistle of John and Third Epistle of John]; of the Apostle Jude the Zealot, one Epistle.
Thus concludes the canon of the New Testament. Likewise it is decreed: After the announcement of all of these prophetic and evangelic or as well as apostolic writings which we have listed above as Scriptures, on which, by the grace of God, the Catholic Church is founded, we have considered that it ought to be announced that although all the Catholic Churches spread abroad through the world comprise but one bridal chamber of Christ, nevertheless, the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other Churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
The Pope later commissioned St. Jerome, a noted linguist, to do a fresh translation into common, vulgar Latin, setting in motion the creation of a text that would dramatically shape the spiritual, literary, liturgical, and academic direction of Western culture.

St. Jerome by Caravaggio

Learning from Mary

Just a quick little reflection which comes from the Rosary:

We find little trouble in taking satisfaction, especially after some struggle or degree of difficulty in doing a task or surviving some hardship. This is natural. We tend to enjoy any opportunity to luxuriate, and if we get to do this after some period of unpleasantness then we are all the happier [and more smug] for it!

This seems to be neither the way nor the will of God though. Our Lady's hardships never seemed to end. First she was given a pregnancy to bear, while unmarried and around age 14 or 15. After finally marrying she was made to undertake a trip, while in a delicate condition, from her home to Bethlehem, the land of her husband's fathers. After childbirth, painless in her case, Our Lady had to contend with another physical and another spiritual dolor: the threat to her divine Son's life and the subsequent passage to Egypt, which is full of rich symbolism in itself. Perhaps finally believing the threats to her and her Son had subsided, she engaged in the Mosaic purification ritual in the temple and presented her divine Son, again according to the law, only to learn from Simeon that her Son would be the subject of the "fall and the resurrection of many in Israel" (Luke 2:34). We could continue this exercise in tracing the Virgin's struggles, but I see no point in doing so.

In short, whenever Our Lady was doing God's Will she never had it easy, nor did she find sufficient opportunity to relax or luxuriate. Whenever some place for peace or relaxation presented itself to her, it was quelled by some new cross, as happened in the temple.

Doing God's Will requires some struggle, some suffering, some hardship for many reasons, not the least of which is that doing His Will is quite demanding and difficult in and of itself. He's God, for goodness sake. His standards are high. Once in a while He will grant us consolations to our pains or moments of inspiration to notify us that we are following the proper path. The most famous of these was when Our Lady sang the Magnificat for the first time to her cousin, St. Elizabeth. The work of God may be difficult, but it certainly should not be considered miserable!

Monday, December 3, 2012

About Advent

Advent, which comes from the Latin "ad venire"—to come to—or "adventus"—the coming, is a period of the year in which we mystically relive the thousands of dry years endured by the children of Israel, and by all mankind, in anticipation of the coming of the Messias. However, we have a consolation that they did not, that we know He has come and will come again. Advent is then a unique time of the year. It is a time of penance and fasting, but also a time of great joy and eagerness. It would be highly unusual to be singing Alleluia while fasting on bread and water, or perhaps it would just contest instinct. Many a saint have found joy and heard the voice of God only after fasting and penance.

His Rotundity, the Vice President!
First and foremost, Advent is a time of penance and preparation. A time of vigil, which derives from the Latin "vigilare," to keep watch. One keeps vigil by fasting, an act of purging temporal concerns and earthly frivolities from one's conversation with God. The normal fast is dietary, abstaining from meat or dairy products and decreasing the overall intake of food. This is particularly difficult for we chubby Americans, myself included. It seems throughout our history, we Americans have been noted for our weight. Vice President John Adams, himself pleasantly plump, proposed President Washington be given the title of "His Majesty" so that the prestige of the Presidency might increase. The Senate responded by proposing the Vice President be called "His Rotundity."

According to St. Gregory of Tours, writer of the "History of the Franks," St. Perpetuus decreed a fasting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas Day in the year 480. Dom Prosper Gueranger wisely asks whether St. Perpetuus established or codified an existing custom. This was a period of 40, or 43, days, similar in length to the Lent before Easter. In the Byzantine tradition, the fast until Christmas is called the Lent of St. Philip and the Lent until Easter is called Great Lent!

Dom Prosper Gueranger, founder of Solemnes
and writer of the "Liturgical Year"
Dom Gueranger points out other parallels to Lent. A local synod in Macon, held in 582, decreed use of the penitential liturgy of Lent during the aforementioned weekdays of Advent. For those unaware, the Lenten liturgy is quite sparse in its nature, almost ascetic. Rabanus Maurus, again according to the founder of Solemnes, testified that there would be great celebrations throughout the Holy Roman Empire on the feast of St. Martin, as a period of penance was about to unfold.

Observation of the fast varied throughout Europe. Salsibury only expected monks to fast while in Rome the entire city fasted every day. So much for Christmas eve parties.

Fasting does two two very important things. First it brings us discomfort and second it draws our attention to God. This was the spiritual state of the world before the life of Jesus Christ. The world, like our world today, was mired in sin, but unlike our world, could not do anything about it. Human nature was fallen, sin was near-unavoidable, man did not have God's grace, and man could not do anything about it. Man can still not do anything about it. All grace and forgiveness of sin comes from God, which is what the Nativity of Christ began. It therefore seems of paramount importance that we who relish in the coming of Christ and in His Cross and in His Resurrection have reasonable appreciation for the spiritual aridity which Christ satiated.

A Russian friend of mine, who grew up in the Russian Orthodox Church, once asked me why Eastern priests are so round. I could not answer the question well, since they fast for about forty per cent of the year. Then again, they live so ascetically in preparation for the feasts of Christ and the saints, they must over-appreciate those days when they come!—if one can do such a thing.

Advent in the Roman rite is four Sundays. In the Ambrosian rite it is six! In the Byzantine tradition it remains forty days, but the Melkite Catholic Church only observes a fast from December 10th to the 24th.

Pope Benedict XVI presides at Vespers for the First
Sunday of Advent, 2008
Still, we cannot forget Advent is supposed to have some joy, as we know Jesus did in fact come to earth and He will come again. As one old English poem says "the dread Lord with stripes of red will come to judge the quick and the dead...." For the damned, this will not be the most bucolic of moments, as they are about to be cooked beyond well-done in the eternal deep fry. But those who followed the Lord's commandments will enjoy a satisfaction and consolation similar to those joys enumerated in Sunday Vespers yesterday.

For the first psalm, 109, the antiphon was: "In that day the mountains shall drop down sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk and honey. Alleluia."

For the second, 110, it was: "Sing, O daughter of Zion, and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. Alleluia."

For the third, 111, it was: "Behold, the Lord shall come, and all His saints with Him; and it shall come to pass in that day that the light shall be great. Alleluia."

For the fourth, 112, it was: "Lo, every one that thirsteth come ye to the waters: seek ye the Lord while He may be found. Alleluia."

And for the last, 113, it was: "Behold, a great Prophet shall arise, and He shall build up a new Jerusalem. Alleluia."

But let us heed St. John of the Cross's warning, that we should live for the God of mercies, not the mercies of God. Advent is an opportunity to love God for Who He is and what He has done for us, rather than for feelings and sentiments He occasionally grants us. Alleluia, which follows every one of these antiphons, is odd for a penitential time, but quite reasonable given the impending coming of Christ, mystically.

We should ask ourselves a few certain questions during Advent:
  • Do I love God?
  • Do I need God?
  • How do I need God? What does He do for me?
  • How would I have reacted if I saw Christ's birth?
  • Why did I, or anyone, need Christ's birth?
  • How does Christ bring me joy?
  • Do I anticipate seeing Christ again some day?
  • When I see Him, and I shall, will I elate or cower?
I will leave you with the hymn for the season from vespers, with a translation from the Baronius Missal below.

Creator of the stars of night,
Thy people's everlasting light,
Jesu, Redeemer, save us all,
And hear Thy servants voice when they call.

Thou, lest the demon's ancient curse
Should doom to death a universe,
In love wast made, Thyself alone,
The means to save a world undone.

Towards the Cross Thou wentest forth,
That Thou might'st heal the crimes of earth:
Proceeding from a virgin shrine,
The spotless Victim all divine.

At whose dread Name, majestic now,
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
And all things celestial Thee shall own,
And things terrestrial, Lord alone.

O Thou, whose coming is with dread,
To judge and doom the quick and dead.
Thy heavenly grace on us bestow,
To shield us from our ghostly foe.

To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Ghost, Three in One,
Laud, honor, might and glory be
From age to age eternally.