My friend and Jesuit classmate Fr. Michael Rossmann has just published a book, which upon its release held the status of Amazon’s #1 book in “self-help for Catholics”. Actually, I didn’t know there was such a category (and neither did Fr. Rossmann).
Inside the snappy cover, Fr. Rossmann makes a point I think is very important today — really saying yes to something or someone means saying no to other things. Never committing in order to keep one’s options open means refusing to choose the things that matter most.
The book is called The Freedom of Missing Out and continues the long Jesuit tradition of practical help for good decision-making that goes back to St. Ignatius’s rules for discernment. In fact, the influence of Ignatius is not far below the surface, though the book is illustrated with examples from all walks of life and lots of contemporary research. While Rossmann draws on the best of the Catholic tradition, his words about commitment and freedom will ring true to people of any religion.
Last month I had an interesting discussion with Jesuit scholastic David Inczauskis about the sacraments–what they are, why we have them, how they and the theology surrounding them developed through time, what are the challenges for sacramental theology today. David produces an in-depth podcast on liberation theology, so my general introduction to sacramental theology was the lead-in to some of his reflections on liberation theology and the sacraments, which are also included in the podcast. Here’s the Apple version of the episode:
It’s been one of the great blessings of my life to have gotten to know all four of my grandparents and to have them with me well into adulthood. Particularly in times that change so quickly and so dramatically, grandparents give us access not just to another generation but, really, to other worlds.
On this memorial of St. Joachim and St. Anne, I came across this quotation from one of the 20th century’s literary giants:
I feel that all my writing has been about the experiences of the time I spent with my grandparents.
Homily for the seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)
Today’s three readings can be read as something like before and after photos. Not, however, photos advertising a particular diet, plastic surgery, or hair cream. The middle reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, mentions one of my favorite subjects, baptism. The first reading and the Gospel give us the before and after of baptism.
But before we get into the evidence of baptism’s effects in these before and after readings, take a look again at how St. Paul describes the first sacrament in Colossians: “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Baptism means both death and life. It means participating in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, dying with him in order to rise with him. You may already have heard me say that I think we lose something if we only think about baptism in terms of babies and don’t remember the way that the sacrament was celebrated in the early Church. Then baptismal fonts were below floor-level and deep enough for adults being baptized to step down into and be fully immersed.
Baptisms, in other words, were really dramatic events. In Colossians, Paul uses dramatic language—the bond of our guilt, he says, is obliterated and nailed to the cross. In Rapid City, we know the dramatic effects of water. After a dry and scorching week, we remember that water brings life. But we also know that in 1972 this city was destroyed by flood—in fact, this church was built here after the original St. Isaac Jogues was washed away. The Bible uses two very different sets of images to talk about baptism: the water represent both the tomb, because it means being buried with Jesus, and the womb, because baptism is a second birth.
Homily for the sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
This morning, I want to talk about Abraham. For many of us, perhaps, Abraham is like one of those distant relatives your grandmother mentions occasionally but you’re never quite sure how you’re related. Fortunately, it’s easy to see how Abraham fits into the family tree. He’s at the top—Abraham is the patriarch, the father of the Jewish people and also, according to the New Testament, the father of us all in faith.
We find Abraham’s story in the book of Genesis. He lives in that period in history after the fall, when the sin of Adam has left humanity existentially disoriented. It’s the era of Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Noah and the Flood—man is lost, and every turn he makes only worsens his desolation. When I was in the Peace Corps, I was once heating a bucket of water with an electric coil, which was, shall we say, not up to OSHA standards. And without noticing that the plastic safety handle around the coil had melted, I picked it up and gave myself a shock. And in the moments after the shock, everything was fuzzy, and I couldn’t quite tell what had happened or what I was doing—so I picked it up and shocked myself again. And that’s kind of what original sin did to mankind.
Anyone reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, of course, knows exactly where the book is leading, even if the story itself recounts a tortuous journey from doubt and confusion to faith. Augustine dedicates relatively few words to his baptism–at the time, Christians avoided describing what happened during the celebration of the sacraments to those not yet initiated–but what he does say reveals much about the power of the rite. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in the baptistry of Milan’s cathedral on April 24, 387, along with his fifteen-year-old son Adeodatus. Adeodatus died only two years later. Looking up the passage anew, I was struck by the feeling in what Augustine wrote about his son:
“You had made him a fine person. He was about fifteen years old, and his intelligence surpassed that of many serious and well-educated men. I praise you for your gifts, my Lord God, Creator of all and with great power giving form to our deformities. For I contributed nothing to that boy other than sin… I learned many other remarkable things about him. His intelligence left me awestruck. Who but you could be the Maker of such wonders? Early on you took him away from life on earth. I recall him with no anxiety; there was nothing to fear in his boyhood or adolescence or indeed his manhood.”
Augustine goes on to describe his baptism, side by side with Adeodatus, both now reborn “the same age in grace”.
“We were baptized, and disquiet about our past life vanished from us. During those days I found an insatiable and amazing delight in considering the profundity of your purpose for the salvation of the human race. How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience.”
Last week, I mentioned visiting the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, resting place of the relics of St. Augustine. This week, I thought I’d share a few more pictures of the church and the tomb, as well as a favorite panel from the monument, a scene of young Augustine listening to St. Ambrose preaching.
Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, is another of my favorite theologians. He was the first Christian thinker to formulate the doctrine of baptism of desire, which–1530 years later–became the subject of my doctoral dissertation. (Augustine was the second… I’m not quite sure where I fall on the list, but it’s significantly farther down.)
In any case, below is Augustine’s description of his encounter with Ambrose to accompany the photos.
Theologian don’t have a G.O.A.T. designation. (That’s “Greatest of All Time” for those who aren’t as hip as yours truly.) But if we did, Augustine of Hippo would probably get my vote. Sure, he’s not as systematic as Thomas Aquinas, but he more than makes up for it with humanity and passion, the way you can feel him throw himself so completely into the quest for God in his sermons and treatises. If you read Augustine’s sermons out loud, you can feel the power of his rhetoric. I’ve had many a conversation with the saint as I worked on my dissertation.
So it was quite a thrill–like visiting Graceland, or Disney World before it went woke–to spend an afternoon at the tomb of St. Augustine in Pavia last week. You might reasonably wonder how the North African theologian’s bones ended up in a smallish city in the north of Italy. Pavia, today sensible and pleasant, was the capital of the Kingdom of the Lombards in the 8th century. After his death, Augustine’s relics had been hustled out of Hippo to save them from the Vandals (today the tribe would be called the Mostly Peaceful Protesters) who lay siege to Hippo as its bishop lay dying. The saint’s body ended up in Sardinia, which, like much of the Mediterranean coastline in the Middle Ages, was subject to vicious Saracen raiding. For safekeeping, Liutprand, King of the Lombards–who is buried in the same church–had the bones brought to Pavia. There they reside in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro.
With more than 900 churches, as I’ve noted before, if you’re looking for church-related curiosities, there’s no place like Rome. A friend recently pointed out an oddity that seemed to take the cake. Atop a church between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona is what seems to be a stag with a cross between its antlers, which looks suspiciously like it was taken straight from… a Jägermeister bottle.
My recent pleasure reading has included Glenn Arbery’s Boundaries of Eden from Wiseblood Books. Always nice to discover another Catholic writer. Here’s a part I liked…
Why should there be providence with respect to Braxton Forrest, anyway? Hardest of all to imagine was that God Almighty, with the whole universe to look after, cared anything about the peccadilloes of a middle-aged literature professor. The apparent absurdity of it had to be balanced against the overwhelmingly convincing sense of an inner witness, an exacting (if often ignored) conscience, a kind of co-knowing whose ground lay deeper than his own conscious mind. So yes. Acceptance of providence brought him to see himself differently. It even brought him, if only occasionally, to the Gospels, where he did not encounter the sweet, naïve, androgynous new version of the fierce Old Testament God that he expected, but the Old Testament God incarnate, the fierce, severe, enigmatic otherness of a man whose absolute authority overflowed any apparent warrant for it….