Thursday, October 29, 2009

Catching Up (part I): Summer in the States

Classes are heating up here in Rome, but the weather's turning decidedly colder. It's one of my favorite times of year, although the fall colors are decidedly rarer here in the heart of Rome. While our responsibilities and tasks are as numerous as ever, the daily schedule has also settled down quite a bit from a few weeks ago. I thought I'd take some time then over the next few weeks to play catch up a bit. I realize that it's not possible to recap everything from of the last few months, both in the U.S. and here in Italy, but I'd like to write on a few of the highlights anyway. This will probably be a little disjointed, but what the heck.

A few of the friends who were able to make it over for a little Inde

As you know, I returned to the States in late June. I had a little bit of time off to relax after a long year, and I was able to visit some family and friends, take a trip to see my sister in Kansas City, and celebrate the 25th ordination anniversary of my cousin who's a priest of the Diocese of Little Rock. A few days after the Fourth of July, I began my pastoral assignment for the summer. I was stationed in the northwest part of Arkansas, working with Fr. Shaun Wesley, who serves the parish communities in both Eureka Springs and Berryville. When I arrived, Fr. Shaun had already been working for about a month with another seminarian, Mauricio, who attends Saint Meinrad, my old seminary, but it didn't take me too long to situate myself and understand where I fit into the picture. The two parishes, St. Elizabeth in Eureka Springs and St. Anne in Berryville, each had their own character, with wonderful and welcoming people at both places. Each also had their own challenges as well and it was a really great insight into parish life in Arkansas to see the various strengths and the needs of each community.

The historic church building of St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish in Eureka Springs...

... just down the hill from the Crescent Hotel. St. Elizabeth is celebrating its centennial this year.

The biggest task of the summer -- certainly in my experience and likely in Fr. Shaun's and Mauricio's as well -- was preparing for St. Anne's first annual parish festival on July 25th, the eve of the Feast of St. Anne and St. Joachim. From the start, it was a lofty endeavor and a large undertaking. The aim was to provide an event that would bring the parish community together, introduce some of the other Berryville neighbors to the Catholic presence in town, and hopefully raise some money for the parish building fund. These weren't fundamentally easy tasks -- St. Anne's parishioners are about 50/50 Anglo and Hispanic, and Berryville is largely made up hard-working farmers and plant workers, most of them evangelical Protestant. Needless to say, it was going to take work to bring them out on a Saturday. Luckily, Fr. Shaun is a gourmet chef, so food was the main attraction from the outset -- beef brisket, pork ribs, baked beans, tomato & cucumber salad, and a host of homemade desserts from the parish community.

The festival was a huge hit. It had been a lot of work -- securing rentals, enlisting workers, endless logistical planning, pick-ups and drop-offs, troubleshooting, food purchase, food preparation, and so on. Much of that was, for better or worse, done in the last week before the day of the festival, but God's Providence was really with us and everything worked out well. In the end, we served nearly 600 full dinners (about 100 more than hoped for) and lots of other snacks, drinks, desserts, etc. There were kids' games, a kids' train, big bouncy castle things (which are, by the way, a real chore to roll up!), and live music. It was really inspiring to see the parish come together as we had hoped, and the event was definitely a showcase of St. Anne's to the Berryville community. And we even made some money, so in every aspect it was a great success. Many remarked about how they can't wait till next year's festival (and many wanted to the help of us seminarians again in putting it together), and I hope I get the chance to attend again somewhere down the road.

Having some water balloon fun with the teenagers from St. Anne during a trip to the Kings River.

That's just one event, and from only one of the two parishes at which I served, but it's a pretty good example of the summer experience for me. Being with fellow Arkansans, getting to know them, worshiping with them at daily and Sunday Mass, and thinking of what it will be like to serve them as a priest was very rewarding. I'm very grateful to Fr. Shaun, Mauricio, and the parish staff at St. Anne and St. Elizabeth for their guidance, advice, and fellowship in giving me a taste of pastoral ministry in Arkansas.

The summer also provided me a great opportunity to reconnect with some of my fellow seminarians for the diocese. First, we gathered in early July to celebrate the priestly ordinations of two of our brothers, Fr. Edward D'Almeida and Fr. James Melnick. Ordinations are always exciting events, but this was one was even more special since I'd studied with them at the NAC this past year. I was able to lector at the ordination itself and at the first Masses for both priests which was a real privilege for me. Both men are now involved in parish ministry in Arkansas, and our prayers go with them.

Fr. James Melnick (left) and Fr. Edward D'Almeida, on the eve of their ordination to the priesthood.

Hanging out with Fr. T.J. Hart (middle) and some seminarians at the diocese's Discernment House.

The seminarian community also gathered in August as we do every year to enjoy a few days of prayer and relaxation at Lake Catherine near Hot Springs. A wonderful Little Rock family has hosted the retreat for a few decades now, and for the last few years, priests from around the diocese have made the trek down to talk about their experiences, share some insights, and enjoy good food and some fun on the lake. For me, it was an opportunity to get to know several of the new seminarians whom I hadn't met before and catch up with those that I did know. Most of them were headed back to school directly, and since the academic calendar is different here in Europe, several of them will be priests by the time I get to return. It's exciting to see guys you've been in seminary with drawing close to priesthood and a good reminder for me of how close 2012 really is.

Attending a Royals game with the family in August. Dad's behind the camera.

The little bro wanted to spend his 21st birthday at a casino. Why not?

My last few weeks in the States mostly consisted of spending some time with family and friends and preparing to return to Rome. I was able to see much of my extended family in the area, celebrate my little brother's 21st birthday with him, make a little road trip with the family to get him moved into his new apartment at Creighton, and make some trips to see friends in St. Louis and Dallas/Ft. Worth. I also was checking off the list all the necessary tasks that had to be completed before crossing the pond again. It was a busy few weeks, and it was a little mentally draining to think about gearing up for another year. Thankfully, though, everything was accomplished, and when it came time to make the return journey, I was ready for it and thankful for a really great summer. I look forward to the next one!

Until next time....

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

From Rome and London: "Together in Unity and Mission"

I usually don't wade into the religiopolitical sphere in this blog and that's a conscious decision. It's not that the various news and events of the Church's bureaucracy don't interest me. Far from it, actually. But I know that most of you aren't interested in such things -- even if you were, there are far better places to read about them -- and this blog was never intended to become a site for relaying news and giving pointed opinion on the wider Church. Rather, it's merely a blog about my time in Rome.

Yet, in some cases, including this one, I'll make an exception, so for those that remain uninterested in such topics, please excuse the following. However, the news from Rome today deserves, I think, notable mention in that it affects not merely the Catholic Church but also some of our Protestant brethren. We've heard a lot of talk in the Church over the last 40 years about the importance of and the benefits from ecumenism, but it's rare that we see the tangible fruits of that continued dialogue with other Christian faiths. Today's announcement is a reminder that, through faith, good will, and honest communication, it is not in vain that we hope the Body of Christ -- the entire Christian community -- may once again be one. From Reuters:
Pope Benedict on Tuesday took a major step to make it easier for disaffected Anglicans who feel their Church has become too liberal to convert to Roman Catholicism.

The move comes after years of discontent in some sectors of the 77-million-strong worldwide Anglican community over the ordination of women priests and homosexual bishops.

While both sides stressed the step would not affect dialogue between the two Churches, it was clear it was taken because of the growing number of Anglicans who want to leave their Church.

The Vatican said the Pope had approved a document known as an "Apostolic Constitution" to accept Anglicans who want to join Catholicism, either individually or in groups, while maintaining some of their own traditions.

It marks perhaps the clearest and boldest institutional step by the Vatican to welcome disaffected Anglicans into the fold since King Henry VIII broke with Rome and set himself up at the head of the new Church of England in 1534.

The new structure allows for the appointment of leaders, usually bishops who will come from the ranks of unmarried former Anglican priests, to oversee communities of former Anglicans who become Catholics and recognize the pope as their leader.

"In this way, the Apostolic Constitution seeks to balance on the one hand the concern to preserve the worthy Anglican liturgical and spiritual patrimony and, on the other hand, the concern that these groups and their clergy will be integrated into the Catholic Church," the Vatican said.

Yes, that's a lot of church speak. But seeing as how so many members of the Anglican Communion were upset with recent doctrinal developments in their local churches, today's announcement responds to the desire of many (including some in the Episcopal Church in the US and the international Traditional Anglican Communion) to find some way to enter into full unity with Rome while still retaining their liturgical heritage as Anglicans. The larger ramifications of this are still to come, but the structure is in place to provide a spiritual home to those Anglicans upset with the direction the Anglican churches are moving. From the Catholic standpoint, of course, it's a time to be joyous and thankful to God that some of our Christian brothers and sisters are looking to return home to Rome.

At the same time as the announcement in Rome, a joint statement was given in London by the (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the (Catholic) Archbishop of Wesminster, Vincent Nichols. Though Anglican-Catholic dialogue has been occurring for some 40 years and has even more recently been a high priority for both churches, it's safe to say such a joint press conference is not a common occurrence:

The announcement of this Apostolic Constitution brings to an end a period of uncertainty for such groups who have nurtured hopes of new ways of embracing unity with the Catholic Church. It will now be up to those who have made requests to the Holy See to respond to the Apostolic Constitution.

The Apostolic Constitution is further recognition of the substantial overlap in faith, doctrine and spirituality between the Catholic Church and the Anglican tradition. Without the dialogues of the past forty years, this recognition would not have been possible, nor would hopes for full visible unity have been nurtured. In this sense, this Apostolic Constitution is one consequence of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

The on-going official dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion provides the basis for our continuing cooperation.... With God's grace and prayer we are determined that our on-going mutual commitment and consultation on these and other matters should continue to be strengthened.... This close cooperation will continue as we grow together in unity and mission, in witness to the Gospel in our country, and in the Church at large.
In a letter to his fellow bishops of the Church of England, Williams went on to say that the move should not be construed as an act of "proselytism or aggression" against the Anglican Church on the part of Rome.

As I said, where we go from here remains to be seen. As Archbishops Williams and Nichols noted, the ball's now largely in the hands of those who wish to seek communion with Rome. But it's a sign of the Holy Spirit's continued work in the Church that the way to such communion is now open. Deo gratias!

* * *
Today's news arouses the interest and passion of many of us who are studying to be ministers in the Church. At the risk of verging on ecclesial nerd-dom, it's exciting to see the various disciplines we're studying in action in such a current and impactful way! Speaking of studies, our classes have now begun, so I thought I'd pass along my current courses as I have in the past. It's a larger workload than last spring's was but nothing like what next spring's will be! My courses are:
-The Church of Christ (Ecclesiology)
-The Pauline Corpus (on the Pauline Scriptures)
-The History of the Catholic Church in the United States (in English!)
-Sacraments I: Baptism, Confirmation & Eucharist
-Law in the Mystery of the Church (Canon Law)
-The Shape and Theology of the Psalter
Should be a fun semester!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Little Flower

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as Theresa of the Child Jesus or The Little Flower of Jesus. She is, in my humble opinion, one of the most amazing saints in recent history.

By all appearances, her life was unremarkable. Born in Alençon in Normandy in 1873, she had a fairly normal if devout upbringing. Wishing to follow her older sister, Thérèse expressed a desire from a young age to enter the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux, which she finally was allowed to enter early when 15. As a nun, she lived a life of service and prayer with her fellow sisters. In her early twenties, Thérèse's health began to decline rapidly, and she died in 1897 at age 24.

Despite the humble details of her life, she was a spiritual giant. Upon the posthumous translation of her spiritual autobiography, Story of a Soul (written at the command of her superiors), Thérèse's passionate, quiet spirituality comes alive on the pages. Her story inspired many across Europe and she was canonized a saint a mere 28 years after her death. The town of Lisieux became the second most popular site of pilgrimage after Lourdes. In 1997, Pope John Paul II named her the 33rd Doctor of the Church (and only the third woman), recognizing the spiritual mastery of this "greatest saint of modern times," in the words of Pope Pius XII.

Thérèse, from a young age, had a deep and abiding love for God and wished to express this love by committing her life to his service. Realizing that she was unlikely to show her love by suffering martyrdom or accomplishing great feats, Thérèse decided that her sainthood would have to stem from transforming the mundane moments of the day into spiritual encounters with God. She writes:

Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.... Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realised that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.

Thérèse's "Little Way" shows us that we need not flee to the desert or serve the poor on the street to achieve true holiness. Every action of every day can be consecrated to Christ. As Pope Benedict expressed earlier today:

Little Thérèse of Lisieux points out, as the answer to the great questions of life, the 'little way,' which looks instead to the essential of things. It is the humble way of love, capable of enveloping and of giving meaning and value to every human circumstance.... Dear friends, follow the example of this saint. The way followed by her is within everyone's reach because it is the way of total confidence in God, who is Love and who never abandons us.

I find it a profoundly hopeful thing to know and believe that human existence does have a purpose -- that our daily lives can be consecrated to that purpose -- that Love can be shown and honored in the circumstances of any life -- that, in short, holiness is possible for all of us, for any of us. Thérèse lived a simple life in rural France in the late 19th century but has had arguably more impact on the Church than any other saint of the last 200 years. She is a true model of sainthood -- daily sainthood -- that we can all follow. Let us all remember, "What matters in life is not great deeds but great love."

* * *

Thanks for your prayers while I was on retreat. It was a very restful and prayerful time for me -- a good charge-up to what I'm sure will be a tiring year. Things are getting pretty busy around here. We have diaconate ordination coming up a week from today, so guests and other VIP's will soon be arriving. The Fourth Year men are excited, I think, as are the rest of us. It's a good preview of what the future holds.