30 May 2010

Extraordinary Form

This morning I attended a Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form at the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia. (The community here in Norcia celebrates Mass in both forms.) It is the first Mass of this kind that I have ever attended. (I actually participated slightly. As a priest in choir, I returned the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle in another chapel.) The Mass was beautifully celebrated. I am too new at the Extraordinary Form to give much of an opinion yet. I celebrated my first low Mass about a week before leaving Nashville. As a celebrant at a small or private Mass, I certainly appreciate it very much. I also think that I begin to understand what the Council Fathers had in mind for a reform. I think that we got much more than that, for good or ill -- who is to say? Having grown up in the extreme end of Anglo-Catholicism, I think that I can imagine a reform that would have made much use of the vernacular and allowed for greater participation of the laity and yet retained more of the ceremonial and order. But that is not what occurred. Will experiences like mine lead to a rethinking of what was lost as well as gained in the reform as it actually happened? I think that this could be very helpful, but it will take time. I am excited to learn more about the Extraordinary Form.

There is a great difference even from last year in the spread of the Extraordinary Form. This week I was at the Casa Santa Maria, the residence for American priests studying in Rome. The EF is regularly celebrated by a number of the priests there. It seems that it is becoming a part of the landscape. That is a big change.

Some of the seminarians with us attended the Mass this morning with a spirit of interest and curiosity. I think that they were impressed by what they saw. I think that Pope Benedict is giving the liturgy a new start at organic development.

27 May 2010

Reporting from Italy

OK, sorry about that! It has been a whirlwind trying to get away and get going here. About a week after graduation, I left for Italy for the Rome Experience, a program for seminarians that I help to direct. (That sounds fancier than it is.) So there was a lot to finish up at home and a lot to get sorted out here.

Right now we are in Norcia, the birthplace of Sts Benedict and Scholastica. The seminarians are on retreat. I am, however, getting on a bus for Rome in a few minutes to go meet with Fr. Socias, who calls the shots on the program. No rest for the wicked! I am meeting a priest from Knoxville and two Nashville seminarians for dinner tonight so I will be having some fun. Then I come back here tomorrow evening, and things will be a bit slower for a while.

I love Norcia. It is an incredibly charming walled city in the midst of mountains, but there are personal reasons why I am so fond of Norcia. A wonderful priest, Fr. Cassian Folsom, is the prior here. He has been tremendously helpful to me as a seminarian and priest. I have the greatest respect for him. Fr. Benedict, another one of the monks here, I have known since he was in college at Sewanee. I am very happy that we are spending so much time here this year.

I'll let you know how Rome goes!

16 May 2010


OK, I confess that I have been thinking again -- sorry, Fr. Jones. I have been thinking about proposing Jesus Christ to the world. What exactly am I proposing? I think that more than anything else the proposition that Jesus offers to the world is mercy.

Mercy is not indifference to evil or suffering. Jesus says to the woman caught in adultery: "go and sin no more." He knows that she is a sinner. But earlier and more importantly, He says: "neither do I accuse you." He is about mercy, not accusation. We need to remember that in how we treat others, personally and publicly; and we need to remember it in our own souls. God is not an accuser. Satan is the accuser -- it's what that name means. I think that my greatest failure in the spiritual life is my failure to accept God's mercy and rather to be in league with the accuser against myself and therefore against others too.

Mercy seems too good to be true. It is not the way of this world. Not only do we suffer for what we do wrong, but we also suffer for what we do right or for no reason at all. The mercy of God envelopes all of this. Mercy does not "make it go away" or make it good, but mercy gives us power and freedom to transform all of this for good. Mercy gives us freedom.

In accepting mercy, we become free of denial. We do not have to deny, justify, and rationalize what is really undeniable, unjustifiable, and irrational. The abuser can say: "I abuse." The one who covers up abuse can say: "I covered up." The alcoholic can say: "I am a drunk." The one who holds resentments can say: "I resent." We can escape denial because the Lord says: "I do not accuse you." Oh yes, there are consequences; but in mercy humiliation and even incarceration are liberating. We are free of the lie of denial.

Mercy also sets us free from despair. I can always begin again and sin no more. It is exactly when we give up because we think we are unforgivable that we become overwhelmed by sin. Mercy breaks us out of this trap and lie.

There is a strange logic to mercy. It almost, but not quite, seems to endorse evil: O felix culpa. This is because mercy flows from sacrifice, which almost seems to make love into hate. In mercy, love becomes both subject and verb. Love is all there is, and it swallows up sorrow and failure and pain. The circumstances of the lover and the beloved become irrelevant -- if the lover must die, it is still love. If the beloved is unworthy, it is still love. Isn't this the message of the Cross?

So it seems to me that Christianity is really offering something radically different from anyone else: mercy. Christians are not better or nicer than anyone else. Christians are bearers of mercy. I think that I need to be renewed in this reality. The Church is sending me Pentecost. I will pray that the love of God will be poured into my heart by the Holy Spirit once again so that Jesus Christ is once again proposed to me. Then I can carry out my mission to propose Him to you!

15 May 2010

Toward a new Pentecost

"We impose nothing, yet we propose ceaselessly," according to Pope Benedict. And what do we propose? Jesus as Lord and Christ.

I was so pleased last night at the Baccalaureate Mass for Pope John Paul II High School here in Nashville that Deacon Brian Edwards did exactly that in preaching to the graduates. Just before Mass I had been talking to Chris Findley, a friend of mine who is the head of the theology department at the school, and had asked him if the students loved the Lord Jesus. He answered honestly that generally speaking not so much, of course with wonderful exceptions. We were discussing as the procession was beginning for the Mass the need to propose Jesus at the heart of the school, to the heart of every person in the school, as the mission for all that we do there. Catechesis is a part of that but only a part. I was so pleased to hear the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the Truth at this Mass.

I had earlier in the day been at graduation here at Vanderbilt. It is really an impressive event for an impressive institution. Vanderbilt strives to be "national" and even "international," but on graduation day VU is all Southern graciousness and hospitality. Strawberries and champagne! Anyhow, I did notice one change in the program: no prayer during Commencement. I am not sure how big a matter this is practically. The "prayers" at the last few commencements that I have attended were so generic as to be almost self-parodying. But Commencement was an entirely secular event. Perhaps that is not so bad. God loves the saecula. Grace builds on nature and so we should embrace natural excellence. But let us also propose Jesus Christ!

Chancellor Zeppos offered the insight that of all of Commodore Vanderbilt's accomplishments, this university is the one that still lasts and bears fruit. The Chancellor stated his confidence that the university would continue to do so. I fully agree, and yet there will come a day, by and by, when VU will be in ruins. May that day be long in coming, yet it is coming. There is a quirky poem about my own alma mater called Sewanee in Ruins that imagines such a day. (After all, the University of the South has already lain in ruins once in its short history, and a half-million dollar endowment [half of what the Commodore would donate a few years later to found Vanderbilt] lost.) I hope that it is not impossible to imagine such a day for Vanderbilt -- and for ourselves. It is the thought of that day that keeps our accomplishments in perspective.

So let us celebrate human accomplishment! But let us remember the also human weakness and find our ultimate hope elsewhere. Let us propose Jesus as Lord and Christ.

09 May 2010

Stop Thinking!

"You think too much." This was one of the best pieces of spiritual advice* that I have ever received from a spiritual director. (It was from Fr. Carlton Jones, O.P., if you are curious.) I think that it is the case right now so no more thinking out loud in these posts for a while! Rather, I will try to notice things instead.

When I was in seminary, one of my wise professors told me that he was trying to teach us enough philosophy so that we could hold our own at cocktail parties. I have put that to good use this weekend at a rehearsal dinner Friday night and a baptism party last night. Friday night, I was with a particularly interesting subculture: old Georgia Catholics, the kind of people Flannery O'Connor came from. Last night, more good Southern folks, this time with a Notre Dame connection. The training I received from Fr. Glavin and at Sewanee stood me well. Could this be part of the New Evangelization -- or just having fun?

*The absolute best advice came from Fr. Francesco Turvasi: "be at peace!"

08 May 2010

Vandy Catholic College

I am always surprised when the end of the semester comes. To me, Vanderbilt is a very boring place when students go away, especially undergraduate ones. Everybody else is so narrowly focused as not to be very interesting unless one shares the same narrow interest. Vanderbilt is a multiversity rather than a university. But what is the "uni" in a modern secular university? I am very happy that Vandy Catholic operates in some ways as a college in the university. We have a "uni" to draw us together. We have all sorts of undergraduate students, but more and more graduate ones as well, who know each other and are involved with each other, not just personally but professionally as well. When a graduate student in history took a course in the Divinity School, the professor asked her: "what are you doing in my class?" It happened to be a seminar on Aquinas. Should any scholar have to apologize for being interested in Aquinas?

Going negative a bit here -- I believe the lack of any absolute principles is the reason that Vanderbilt has been unable effectively to stand up to the hook-up culture. We have been through the trauma here of one of our students doing what the university cannot do: offering a rational critique of the promiscuous sexuality that is so rampant on college campuses. This university is so tied to the relativism of the age that it cannot even speak out when a student is attacked for daring to offer a rationale that the hook-up culture is bad for students. It was not always so at Vanderbilt. In Nashville, there is a publication that prints old newspaper articles from different years past but which occurred in the same month. It is a funny concept, and I cannot fathom how it is profitable. There surely cannot be enough people like me who are nostalgic about "old" Nashville. Anyhow, in the May edition there is an article from May of 1952 about panty raids at Vanderbilt. The Chancellor at the time had no difficulty in denouncing the perpetrators in the most uncompromising terms. Of course, at the time Vanderbilt was complacent about racial segregation so I guess it all depends on where your blind spots are. Today the Chancellor of Vanderbilt would have no difficulty in denouncing smoking but would have the greatest possible difficulty in addressing fornication. The point is that there is no rationale beyond current fashion. Vanderbilt, like the other "universities," is simply a smart and wealthy voice of the present moment. It cannot step out of the intellectual fashion of the moment. To do so would risk the scorn of it peers, and when its excellence is largely based on reputation it cannot afford to do that.

OK, back to the positive! I think that Vandy Catholic is a place where students can be really liberal -- really free, especially of the present moment. I don't want students who all think alike, and I don't think that they do. They do think. And they think from the same first principles (-- that is the hallmark of our "college" and may there be other "colleges" that really think from first principles!) Those principles lead in the same general direction, but the divergences are fun. We have a "saving trees/saving souls" debate that resurfaces every couple of years when a new crop of leaders cycles through. Ah, this brings me back to the beginning: the transitoriness of being a university chaplain. But isn't transitoriness reality for a Christian in this world?

06 May 2010

Better Now!

OK, for all of you who expressed concern about my last post -- I'm better now! Mainly, it helps when my awesome assistant, Kristi Bentley, is here as she was yesterday. On a more spiritual level, of course, all is for good. What I was trying to say yesterday is that my emotions were really low and with some reason for it, but we go on -- not Stoically but for love of Love. So today, let's begin again and see what adventure God has for us.

05 May 2010

Wrapping Up

I am trying to remain enthusiastic about what God is calling me to do, and I have to admit that I have been finding it difficult lately. I am being asked to love for Love's sake and for not for other reasons, and I am struggling to do that. In my life, what has looked like the love of God and what has been uplifting and generally successful have coincided for the most part. It has therefore been easy to keep charging along, thinking that I am doing it for the love of God.

Right now, I cannot really be enthusiastic about the splendor of the Church. Oh, she is splendid all right, but she is hiding it well these days! I cannot by "hyped up" about the rip roaring quantitative success of Vanderbilt Catholic. We ended the year with a less than stellar attendance and participation in the last full weekend of Masses for this school year. Personally, I just don't see the fruits of what I do; but I do see the things that I mess up. This is, of course, totally missing the point; but it is what I feel these days. It only gets worse when one looks at the larger world and realizes that we are being led by people who are not dealing with the crises of our times. And I see the sadness and difficulty of this world, from flooding to aging.

All of these things are true. And none of them have any thing to do with the most important things. I know the love of God for the world and for me. I am being asked to love that Love for His own sake and not for the goodies that He has so generously given me. (And in reality, there still are plenty of goodies!) This is really no big deal. It is an early step in spiritual development. I do have to say that it is a struggle for me at this time.

And here we are ending up another year. The students are doing such a good job at trying to live the Kingdom of God here at Vanderbilt, not the easiest place in the world to live it. I was counseling a student last night about whether to work in a parish youth program or in the music business. I advised the music business because Jesus wants to be there and generally isn't. The fact that it will be hard is beside the point. OK -- I get the message, Lord!