Sing, but keep going

Yesterday’s reading from the Office, the last of the liturgical year, is also one of the best, St. Augustine at his most eloquent. Like this time of year in the liturgy itself, it’s as much about beginning as it is about ending. It captures that joyful hope that so characterizes the Advent season and which I think is much in need these days — that flicker of unfailing light to guide us through the winter darkness.

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome

There’s nothing saccharine in Augustine — Rome was crumbling as he wrote, and his honesty about his own failings and man’s sinfulness is unflinching — but that’s what makes his alleluia really count. Despite his own weakness and wrongheadedness, he knew God’s pursuit was unfailing. And he knew — something I feel acutely today given the state of the Church and the world — that there is still so much work before us…

“Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security… Even here amidst trials and temptations let us, let all men, sing alleluia. God is faithful, says holy Scripture, and he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength. So let us sing alleluia, even here on earth. Man is still a debtor, but God is faithful…

“O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

“So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going…”

St. Augustine, Sermo 256

Office of Readings

Saturday, 34th Week in Ordinary Time

Thomas Aquinas on eternal life

The end of the liturgical year coincides with a number of gems from the Office of Readings, including this conference from St. Thomas Aquinas, which I’d never taken note of before. It reinforces a number of things that I’ve noticed over the past several years researching the theme of baptism of desire. The first–that eternal life means union with God–is perhaps the most important and, today, the most neglected. Heaven, in others words, does not mean having more treats, but communion with God. It’s maybe uncomfortable to say in our age of “moralistic therapeutic Deism”, but those who don’t desire communion with God don’t really want what we mean by heaven. In the end, heaven has more to do with how we love than with where we are.

Here’s how Thomas puts it:

Final Judgment, Orvieto Cathedral

“The first point about eternal life is that man is united with God. For God himself is the reward and end of all our labors…

“Next it consists in perfect praise…

“It also consists in the complete satisfaction of desire, for there the blessed will be given more than they wanted or hoped for. The reason is that in this life no one can fulfill his longing, nor can any creature satisfy man’s desire. Only God satisfies, he infinitely exceeds all other pleasures. That is why man can rest in nothing but God. As Augustine says: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart can find no rest until it rests in you

“…eternal life consists of the joyous community of all the blessed, a community of supreme delight, since everyone will share all that is good with all the blessed. Everyone will love everyone else as himself…”

St. Thomas Aquinas, Credo in Deum

Office of Readings

Saturday of the Thirty-third week in Ordinary Time

Can travel make us better?

I have a new piece this week at the excellent Plough Quarterly magazine on one of my favorite themes, travel. It was fun to write, letting me look back at visits to Jesuit brothers in Burkina Faso, my Peace Corps days in Kazakhstan, and my one time riding a helicopter in the Alps. Plus thinking about Chinua Achebe’s great novel Things Fall Apart. Here is a link to the essay “Between Continents“.

Faces of Medieval Rome

Visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome often don’t realize that the magnificent baroque church is built over the site of a still more ancient basilica, built by Constantine and then torn down completely by Pope Julius II during the Renaissance. Over the course of the next century, today’s basilica was rebuilt by the likes of Bramante, Giulio da Sangallo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Bernini.

Surprisingly little of the original church remains, so I was fascinated this week to see a few of the mosaics saved from the first basilica at a special exhibition on medieval Rome at the Museo di Roma. The exhibition displayed work from the other four major basilicas, each of which has a unique history. The complex around St. John Lateran, another Constantinian construction, has changed greatly over the centuries and the interior of the church was redone by Francesco Borromini in the 17th century, though the shape of the basilica remains basically the same. St. Mary Major preserves the magnificent mosaics from its Roman days, but St. Paul Outside the Walls was entirely rebuilt after a fire burnt it down in the early 1800s.

Here are a few pictures form the papal basilicas’ medieval past.

Ritual and desire

A few weeks ago I mentioned José Granados’s fine new book Introduction to Sacramental Theology: Signs of Christ in the Flesh. It’s full of interesting insights. Since I’m working on putting the final touches on my book about baptism of desire, one line that indirectly touches on the theme of desire stood out.

I often point out that our rituals are meant to form us. They shape us and make us into new beings, especially the sacraments of initiation. In this regard, Granados points out that rituals form our desires as well.

“For in our action there is always more than what we have put into it; and for that reason we desire, when we act, more than what we think we desire.” (309)

The action of the liturgy, in other words, implies desiring certain things and in a certain way. When we participate in the liturgy, therefore, those desires become our own. This insight gets at what makes the sacraments irreducible, why they cannot be replaced with just having the right ideas, and what makes baptism of desire such a difficult and fascinating topic.

Hope and satire

I don’t have much time for leisure reading this semester, but I was pleased to pick up Lee Oser’s witty satire Old Enemies as I settled back into Roman life last month. It’s both funny and thought-provoking. In fact, you can read the thoughts it provoked in my review “Hope in the Ruins” published at Law & Liberty. I also muse about what grounds we have for hope during the West’s current self-destructive cultural moment.

Abortion, public policy, and the Catholic bishops

This article by Richard Doerflinger in America magazine “The U.S. bishops aren’t the extremists in the abortion debate” makes what I think are some very important points about the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion and public policy. It answers a few questions I’m sometimes asked and clears up some misunderstandings.

Catholic teaching does, in fact, allow for an incremental approach to ending abortion, as Pope St. John Paul II taught in Evangelium Vitae, 73. This means that, while Catholic politicians can never legitimately vote for more permissive abortion laws, they can in good conscience make reasonable compromises when advancing pro-life legislation.

Continue reading “Abortion, public policy, and the Catholic bishops”

Back to school

It’s back to school time in Rome. Yes, the Roman academic calendar starts and ends about a month later than the American schedule–which is a good thing since the first couple of weeks of September were too hot to think, let alone study.

Gregorian University, Rome

And this year, for the first time since starting Kindergarten 1985, my student days are behind me. I’ll be on the other side of the classroom this year, teaching full time at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Since I have to get to class, I thought this week I’d post an interview with my new boss, the Gregorian’s new Rector, Fr. Mark Lewis, S.J. You’ll see why I’m excited to be teaching at the Greg and to be working for Fr. Lewis. His words on the perspective history provides are particularly valuable.

Theology of Carla Tortelli

I was blessed to spend last week as one of the spiritual directors for the Pontifical North American College’s pre-ordination retreat. I was humbled and deeply impressed by the sincerity and generosity of the young men preparing for ordination to the diaconate next week. I thought I’d share the homily I gave on one of the weekdays during the retreat. The Gospel for the day was:

The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him
but were unable to join him because of the crowd.
He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside
and they wish to see you.”
He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers 
are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”

Luke 8:19-21

Many years ago, in the previous century, before streaming, when you could watch TV on one of three different channels–then four with Fox and maybe Channel 9 if you adjusted the antenna just right–there existed a neighborhood bar in Boston where everybody knew your name, and they were always glad you came because, well, troubles were all the same.

At that bar, Cheers, there worked a waitress, Carla Tortelli. Carla was a hardboiled Sicilian who didn’t take guff or prisoners. Carla was a Catholic, but she was not, let us say, in the running to be the mascot for the year of mercy.

Boston, 2014

On one episode of Cheers, Carla’s son decided to become a priest. Carla was thrilled because according to her belief, a priest’s mother automatically went to heaven. The rest of the episode, Carla behaves like a monster–spilling beer on the mailman Cliff Claven, being even more crass toward her customers than usual–because she can. She has a get-into-heaven-free card.

Continue reading “Theology of Carla Tortelli”

Fresh insights in sacramental theology

My summer reading this year included Fr. José Granados’s excellent book Introduction to Sacramental Theology: Signs of Christ in the Flesh, which Catholic University of America Press has recently made available in English. (The Spanish original Tratado General de los Sacramentos came out in 2016.)

Like the Church Fathers, Granados emphasizes the rootedness of the sacraments in the Incarnation of Jesus. This means giving due importance–too often lacking in theology–to the human body, which is the locus for all of our relationships.

The sacraments tell us that the message of Jesus is always rooted in the concrete relations that we form in our flesh.

José Granados, Introduction to Sacramental Theology, xiv

The book’s preface eloquently identifies the fundamental desire to which the sacraments respond, our need for the presence of Jesus:

“We have his parables, we lack the sight of him; we have his commandments, we lack his voice; we have the strength of his commission, we lack the touch of his arms. Without the second, the first loses its foundations: doctrine that is clear but abstract; morality that is superior but utopian; mission that is great but irrelevant.” (xiii-xiv)

The sacraments provide what is missing.

This leads to surprising conclusions about the need for a sacramental basis for today’s evangelization. A fairly common error is to think that responding to the needs of the modern world means conforming to the modern world; really, it means offering what contemporary life lacks.

“In fact, the great evil that afflicts the postmodern subject is his isolation in the cell of subjectivity. What remains is a weak individual who moves to the tune of his most intense feeling, with no relations to sustain him and with no path to bring him to his destination. We will not cure this sickness by proposing that he encounter God in the depths of his soul. For his real problem is the lack of relational environments that would enable him to understand his true identity, which is always discovered and forged in an encounter and a communion.” (383)