Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pride and Duty

Today marks an historic day for us as Americans. The inauguration of a new president of the United States is more than a testament to the great nation in which we live and the forefathers who founded it. It also reminds us of the importance of a peaceful continuance of governance: that power can be transferred from group to group, person to person, with respect and a commitment to peace that trumps partisan differences. It is a blessing and a witness that many around the world are not so fortunate to share.

Certainly the election of (now) President Obama was a contentious one, and there is no doubt that some of his policies will likely run directly contrary to social and moral teachings of the Catholic Church, including some teachings that are to be obligatorily held by all Catholics (e.g. abortion cannot be supported in any way, nor can embryonic stem cell research). This conflict of beliefs is not likely to be resolved soon, and it may not be long before Catholics must publicly protest, even defy, legislation that the new administration has promised to support.

And yet today is a chance to suspend political disputes and, for the moment, to look beyond the moral challenges that are sure to come. One hopes that on this day at least such concerns can recede and give way to a sense of pride that, despite our differences, our nation has yet again completed a peaceful transfer to a new presidency and a new era. The longest-standing republic in history continues. This inauguration is of particular note, of course, as it marks another step forward from that dark era of our history, marred first by slavery and later by discrimination and prejudice, from which we continue to emerge. Yesterday's remembrance of a man who did so much to start us down the path which leads out of that moral wilderness culminates today in the celebration of a nation which has, 40 years later, elected a black president to its highest office. Regardless of our opinions of him personally or politically, this is something in which we can take pride as a nation.

His election though comes at a difficult time in American history. Perhaps never before has a new administration had as many difficult issues to deal with as does the incoming one, and yet it's undeniable that Obama's election has filled millions with a new sense of hope, hope for change and for a brighter future. Indeed, much of this is a result of his own words. Our new president has personally called all of us as Americans to become invested in the well-being of our country and committed to standing up for those beliefs which we hold dear. These are inspiring thoughts and ones which we should take to heart. It is our responsibility to work for change, to be active rather than passive in building the nation which we are called to be and which we wish to see.

Ironically, the first and best chance to begin this action is also this week, as millions will gather to oppose that other great injustice in our nation's history. Thursday, January 22, marks the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the establishment of abortion as a protected practice in our country. As a result, it is in the US Church a yearly Day of Prayer and Penance for Life and the day in which thousands of pro-life marches are held around the country. As we celebrate today a large step forward away from the evils of racism let us not forget to remain committed to our obligation as Christians, and even more fundamentally as people of good will, to oppose those intrinsic evils which still continue to mar our country's honor. Our pride in our new president, and our belief in his inspiring words, nonetheless cannot keep us from ignoring our obligation to oppose those issues contrary to our faith. As the president himself has called us to do, we must be active in opposing injustice and standing up for fundamental beliefs, even if they are beliefs which he himself does not share. The cult of personality is always a dangerous thing if it leads us to ignore fundamental truths in favor of personal appeal or admiration.

On this inaugural day, then, let us be proud of our country and of our new president even as we are mindful of our moral duty to fight injustice. Let us pray for wisdom and guidance for him and his advisors, who now are charged with guiding our nation into the future. In particular, let us pray that they and all in this country might come to a new understanding of the sanctity of life, that fundamental right which is the basis for all of our hopes and dreams as a nation and as a world.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Saturday Sojourn: St. George & Scouting

The Basilica of Saint George in Velabro

As many of you know, I am a proud Eagle Scout. Scouting has been a big part of my life and the life of my family -- my sister was a Girl Scout and my mother a leader, and my brother is also an Eagle Scout and my father also a leader. I learned a lot in Scouting, both skills-oriented activities (wilderness survival, first aid) but also life lessons -- moral values, leadership, community service, active citizenship, etc. Looking back, these ideals played a big role in my vocational discernment.

This is apparently not an uncommon thing. More than 10% of NAC seminarians are Eagle Scouts (more than 20% of my class alone), and even more were Boy Scouts at one time or another. The Scouting movement, which began in England under Lord Robert Baden-Powell, recently celebrated its 100th year, and in 2010 the Boy Scouts of America will celebrate its 100th anniversary as well. In commemoration of this, I had the opportunity this morning, with 10 other fellow Eagle Scouts (including one of the vice rectors of the college, a priest of Tulsa), to visit the patronal church of Scouting, the Basilica of San George in Velabro. The church is located in Velabrum, a low-lying part of Rome near the Tiber which was in fact the agricultural center of ancient Rome. Traders from around the Mediterranean brought their food stuffs here both to supply the city itself and for shipment to other parts of Italy. Prior to its role as an economic center of the city, it was a large swampland, and legend has it that the infants Romulus and Remus washed ashore here, their basket catching in the roots of a fig tree and eventually making its way to the base of the Palatine Hill (located above Velabrum) where they were reared by a she-wolf.

The 13th century apse fresco by Peter Cavallini of (from L to R) St. George, the Virgin Mary, Christ, St. Peter, and St. Sebastian

In the late 5th century, as you may know, imperial Rome collapsed, basically imploding due to its own excesses, continuous barbarian invasions, and a bankruptcy that resulted from vain attempts to fix (or cover up) the former and ward off the latter. While much of the outlying lands of the empire fell under the permanent rule of barbarian tribes (e.g. the Franks, the Lombards, the Burgundians), Rome itself was constantly in upheaval, variously under the control of the Byzantines to the east or of Germanic tribes from the north. This created huge humanitarian problems for the citizens of Rome since there was virtually no civil government; even worse, the the city of Rome actually had a quite effective social services program for its poorest citizens, so after the empire's fall, these individuals were completely destitute. In response to this, Pope Gregory the Great founded nineteen diaconia, or centers of social services and food distribution for the poor of the city. The Basilica of Saint George in Velabro was one of the original diaconia.

The basilica church was originally built on the site of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a captain of the Praetorian Guard who was likely killed by his own men on the orders of Diocletian. Later, during the iconoclast controversy in the 8th century, Rome became the primary haven for refugee artists and icon writers, and the area of Velabrum especially became a center of Greek culture and art. Many of the churches in this area especially were adorned with beautiful mosaics and proto-cosmatesque marble inlay. In the mid-8th century, as a tribute to their artistic work (a contribution to the life of the Church at the time) Pope Zachary, himself of Greek descent, moved the relics of Saint George of Lydda to the church of Saint Sebastian and renamed it in honor of the Eastern saint.

St. Gregory the Dragonslayer, 15th century icon from the Novgorod School

Originally from the area of Lydda in Palestine, George, like Sebastian, was a high-ranking member of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian, serving in Nicomedia in western Turkey, the main imperial city of the time, and thus one of Diocletian's personal guard. When Diocletian ordered the arrests of all Christians in the Praetorian Guard (likely after the death of Sebastian) George denounced him publicly and called for him to renounce his edict. Diocletian did not wish to lose such an excellent and estimable member of his guard, but George refused all bribes of titles, land, and money and would not renounce his faith in Christ. Having given his considerable personal wealth to the poor of the area, George was tortured and then beheaded outside the walls of Nicomedia. He became a very popular saint in Eastern Christianity. Later, during the time of the Crusades, his reputation spread westward as well, and he became a popular patron, especially for the English. He is perhaps best known today for slaying a menacing dragon, a mythical tale with medieval rather than ancient origins.

The basilica was the titular church for Cardinal Odo Colonna, who later became Pope Martin V. His election marked the end of the Great Western Schism, a dark damaging time of the Church's history when three men claimed to be the rightful pope. Centered around the issue of the whether the pope should return to live in Rome or continue to reside in Avignon, France, Martin moved his residence back to Rome despite the fact that the city was at this time literally a dump, populated by only a few thousand people (after a height of 2 million in imperial times) with much of the city center being used as pasture for sheep. Martin embarked on an ambitious campaign of attracting and funding artists and architects to restore Rome to its former stateliness. His efforts did much to legitimize and to further the nascent Renassiance, which had started in Florence but spread throughout Italy (thanks, in large part, to Martin) and then throughout all of Europe.

Nearly 500 years later, the basilica served as the titular church of Cardinal John Newman, perhaps the most famous convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism, and an important theologian (at different times) of both and later an important father of modern Catholic apologetics. In 1993, after Pope John Paul II had issued some strong condemnations of the mafia, a car bomb outside the facade blew off the entire front portico of the church and damaged some of the structural walls. Fortunately, the bomb fragments were catalogued meticulously and the church has been largely returned to its ancient appearance.

From the early 16th century, a more typical picture of St. George Fighting the Dragon by Raphael

A lot of history for one church, huh? Certainly it has some very important ties to the history of Rome and to the history of the Church, and even a simple visit can give one a new appreciation for the interconnectedness of history and of the importance of one person's action in it. As our vice rector remarked in his homily this morning, these values are in essence the values of Scouting as well, and thus it's fitting that St. George in Velabro is the patronal church of Scouting. Whether it's standing up for one's beliefs, like St. George, St. Sebastian or Cardinal Newman, or helping those around you, like Gregory the Great or Martin V, our world needs more leaders whose hearts and minds are oriented to the betterment of humanity. Scouting, in my mind, can play an important part in helping form the character of our youth so that they can become those leaders. I remain very grateful for all that it taught me.

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There seems to be one thing on the mind of everyone around here lately (aside from the NFL conference championships, that is -- lots of Philly and Pitt guys at the NAC). Exams. They are swiftly approaching, and so while I still haven't forgotten about detailing to you some of my Christmas travels, posts here will have to take a backseat over the next few weeks to my studies and exam preparations. Say a prayer, if you think of it, that I do well!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Ministry of Lector

This Sunday, my fellow New Men and I had the very great privilege and honor of being instituted in the Ministry of Lector, that individual who proclaims the readings in the liturgy. Archbishop Raymond Burke, the former bishop of St. Louis and now the head of the Apostolic Signatura here in Rome, presided at the liturgy and officiated the installation. The installation ceremony itself consisted of a prayer that we may proclaim the Scriptures well and use our service as readers to inspire others through that proclamation. We then each processed forward and, kneeling before the archbishop, we held with him a Lectionary as he said: "Take this book of Holy Scripture and be faithful in handing on the word of God, so that it may grow strong in the hearts of his people."

Any member of the faith community, male or female, is able to serve as a lector and read at Mass. However, normally only men studying for the priesthood, as it stands now at least, are instituted formally as lectors. A holdover from pre-Vatican II days when it was considered a minor order, receiving the Ministry of Lector is one of the three solemn liturgical steps to be taken before diaconate ordination (the second, in our cases). Since a lector is installed and not ordained, he remains a layman; yet he holds a certain "office" in the church community of proclaiming the readings and announcing the petitions at Mass, of assisting with catechesis of the faithful, and in a wider way of helping to spread the word of God which he proclaims. Since we're seminarians, it also serves as a visible reminder to the community (and to ourselves) that we, now with an official liturgical function, are moving closer to the altar, where God-willing we will one day offer sacrifice as priests. Though not a sacrament, the installation is a sacramental which for us is ordered toward our goal of holy orders.

The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio

It was a great day and fittingly fell on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The final day of the Christmas season, the feast commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist and marks the start of Jesus' public ministry. One of the theophanies of the New Testament, the baptism of Jesus makes it clear that he is no ordinary prophet: "And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased'" (Mk 1:11). This is the public manifestation of God's Son, a private revelation which John the Baptist had previously received, first when Mary visited his mother Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-41) and later when Jesus came to where John was baptizing (Mt 3:13).

Archbishop Burke remarked that the Ministry of Reader is not unlike the role of John the Baptist. "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God'" (Is 40:3). Like John, the reader proclaims the Word of God to the people, ultimately pointing beyond himself to him who was born for them, the Emmanuel who has come to them. In the proclamation of the Scriptures (especially the Gospel), Christ is truly present, and though the reader serves as an instrument in this, it is always after the model of John the Baptist: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). I hope that in my ministry as a lector, this may be true.

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As you may know, and germane to the news above, this week is National Vocations Awareness Week in the US Church, a time when we remember that it is "our responsibility to pray for vocations and to invite young people to consider a call to ordained ministry and consecrated life." While this is the particular focus for this week, it's also great reminder for all of us that God calls each of us to follow him in a personal way. So often the idea of vocation is relegated to those that have decided to answer a religious calling, such as priests or nuns, or perhaps to those among us, young or otherwise, who are still working to discern their direction in life. But vocation is something we all possess, a universal call that is made in a unique way for every individual. Perhaps, in addition to praying for religious vocations, this week can be a reminder of the importance of mindful perseverance for those of us who have definitively answered the Lord's call already. Your calling (and mine) is one which must be lived out in a new and relevant way each day, a mission that is only answered definitively to the extent that it is responded to daily, a personal charge from God to be at once internalized and also exemplified in service to others. In this way, all of us participate in the plan of salvation which God has designed for us and brought to fulfillment through His Son. As the prayer for this week states:

Mary, Mother of the Church, the model of every vocation,
help us to say "Yes" to the Lord Who calls us to cooperate
in the divine plan of salvation.
We ask this through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Epiphany of the Lord

The Star of Bethlehem by Edward Burne-Jones

Happy 2009! And happy Feast of the Epiphany to you. I've returned from Belgium and have been preparing for the last few days to resume classes tomorrow and soon will start preparing for exams which begin in a few weeks. It's been nice, however, before all that begins, to spend some relatively quiet and reflective days here in Rome.

I had a chance to attend New Year's Eve vespers at St. Peter's and was struck by the hymn which began the service, "Laudamus Te," ("We Praise You"). Although 2008 was a difficult year for most, it's nonetheless important to give thanks and praise to God as we move into the new year. The act of giving back to God, of offering praise, helps in times of hardship especially to orient us to that which is most important and to remind us that our trust truly rests in God, not in the transitory things of this world. This theme is brought out even more clearly the next morning when, on New Year's Day, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, the ancient feast which honors Mary's motherhood of Jesus. On that first day of the year, it is fitting to remember her who is the perfect example of the way to approach the new year, with generous response to God (Luke 1:38) and with prayerful awareness to God's action in our lives (Luke 2:19). By recognizing Mary as the mother of Jesus we also acknowledge her as our own mother, asking for her protective intercession. She who lives now with God in heaven is for us a living hope -- indeed, a "Star of Hope," as the pope called her -- that we may one day come to the same joy. It is this dual attitude of praise and hope that properly marks our transition from the old year to the new. Pope Benedict put it well at the vespers service: "The maternal presence of Mary assures us tonight that God will never abandon us, if we entrust ourselves to him and follow his teachings. To Mary, then, with filial affection and trust, let us present our hopes and desires, as well as the fears and the difficulties we carry in our hearts, as we bid farewell to 2008 and prepare ourselves to welcome 2009."

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany and, as such, remember again the reason for the season. Epiphany was in ancient times a celebration of the Incarnation, much as Christmas has become today. It commemorated several events in the life of Jesus that showed God had become human: the visit of the three kings who worshipped Jesus in Bethlehem, Jesus' changing of the water into wine at Cana, and John's baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Each of these events, celebrated together at Epiphany in medieval times, constituted a theophany, a divine manifestation or disclosure in the person of Jesus. Today the event is centrally focused on the first of these events, the adoration of the three kings or Magi who came to worship Jesus from the East. We celebrate it, remembering that Christ's birth as man was not a private or isolated event -- rather, the star which foretold it was looked for and seen from afar. Jesus' birth, as witnessed today in the adoration of the Magi, is the fulfillment of human history, the event which not only achieved the redemption of the Jews but which also won the salvation of the Gentiles, whose forefathers (and our forefathers, for most of us) the Magi were.

The Feast of the Epiphany therefore is a continuation and a development of Christmas, the movement from the celebration of the Savior's birth to its public acknowledgment in the Magi's praise of the babe. In the joy and triumph of this feast, there are present nonetheless reminders both of the ignominious death that the Christchild would come to suffer, foreshadowed in the gift of myrrh (used in embalming), and also the eschatological vision, when all in heaven will join in that perpetual adoration of Christ.

These are perhaps heady considerations as we start 2009, but important ones nonetheless as we remember that the Christmas season is still with us, still as present today as it was nearly two weeks ago, still alive in the hearts of all Christians always. This great season calls us to remember not only that God became man but that he became man for us, to die for us, to bring us back to fullness of life and union with Him. The events of his life among us, acknowledged first by our forebearers, the Wise Men, mark for us today a true Epiphany, a true realization of God's presence among us, a realization which truly should fill us with praise and thanksgiving as we begin this new year. As the pope remarked today, this is what constitutes for us Christians the reason for our living, the face of God in our midst.

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It is, regrettably, the way of the world that as we celebrate a time of great peace and joy liturgically, the world instead witnesses in reality anything but. Most especially, let us remember in prayer at this time the Holy Land, the land of our Lord's earthly life, that peace may prevail in the hearts of both peoples and that those who need assistance may receive it. O Lord, as we pray today, may your light be strong, your love near, and "draw us beyond the limits which this world imposes, to the life where your Spirit makes all life complete." Amen.