Catholic self-help

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.

Signs of Easter

With winter now banished, one of my favorite signs of Roman spring is here — flowers sprouting from the tile rooftops. Above, my favorite, the corner of St. Ignatius Church seen from the terrace of our building, below a more modest view from my room. I’m not sure what this annual effusion of greenery means for the structural integrity of the tiles — and, I guess, I don’t really care. I find the flowers exuberant and surprising and, yes, just a tad reckless. In other words, a perfect sign of Easter.

I’ve always thought the flowers — life and beauty — breaking through the tiles a nice metaphor for the Resurrection, like the angels dressed in dazzling white among the scattered tombstones. This year they’ve also put me in mind of Peter. Peter is, after all, a slightly reckless figure, the desires of his heart a step ahead of his own moral capacities. His love for Jesus leads him to boast of his fidelity on Holy Thursday — “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” — and then to find that his steadfastness has fallen short of his aspirations. It is devastating to read of Peter’s betrayal; one can imagine how much more devastating it was to live it.

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Bernini’s beads

Can you spot the rosary?

When I reached the end of the station pilgrimage the last time around, I was struck by the details.

For the sacramental theologian such as myself, there’s a deep lesson in the details of the journey. The Son of God’s Incarnation meant entering fully into the reality of human life, with all its diverse moments of suffering and disappointment, of hope and joy, of sometimes just getting by. The Passion narrative is the most vividly detailed part of the Gospels, and the Resurrection stories too, though reflecting the discombobulation of that utterly unprecedented event, also retain the sort of vivid details that stick out in one’s mind even when the world has just gone outside-in. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener. Jesus eats a bit of fish. The sacraments depend on the details of the Lord’s life, too, on what he ate at his last meal.

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Pontius Pilate, postmodern man

I was recently reminded of a post I wrote on the old Whosoever Desires blog eleven years ago. It was prompted by controversy over Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ, but the questions it asks are perhaps still worth considering this Spy Wednesday as well…

Nathan’s post on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year generated a lot of discussion and ended with an intriguing question:  “Why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us?”

It would be easy, at this point, to start tossing around charges of anti-Semitism, charges which would allow us to feel a certain measure of moral superiority over those less enlightened than ourselves.  Then we could pray like the righteous Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, anti-Semites like Mel Gibson over there” (Lk 18:10).

Throwing around such charges is a way of doing precisely the same thing that blaming the Jews for the crucifixion once did:  deflecting guilt from ourselves.  I would suggest a far more troubling answer to the question, “Why do we empathize with Pilate?”

Because Pontius Pilate is the character in the Passion who is most like us.

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Soldier saints

San Giorgio in Velabro, Rome

I’ve noted before the prevalence of former soldiers among the saints of Rome, a fact especially evident in the first week of Rome’s station liturgy, when day two is celebrated at a church dedicated to St. George and St. Sebastian and day three at the site two other former soldiers, the brothers John and Paul, were martyred in 360.

The prominence of these soldier saints is especially striking while war rages in the Ukraine. Though the signs were all there ahead of time–this was not the first time Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine–the attack and the resistance to it has seemed to jolt the West from a deep and dangerous torpor. A friend recently showed me a poll asking the people of various nations if they would be willing to fight for their country; less than half of Americans said yes–and that was high for the West. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy, pledged to the world, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Today, in the face of crisis, presidents compete to issue stimulus checks because, hey, free money. Something seems to have been lost.

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Feast of the Chair of Peter

To celebrate today’s feast, I walked over to St. Peter’s Basilica this morning, especially keen to see the church decorated for the day–the candles lit on Bernini’s spectacular sculpture of the Cathedra Petri and the first pope’s statue decked out in his party regalia.

Cathedra Petri, Bernini

In the past I’ve always had class or other obligations or there were too many tourists or the world was closed for pandemic, so I’d never visited the basilica on this feast. Today, like Goldilocks but without the hair, I found everything just right. Just a smattering of visitors early in the morning, and as a bonus I was able to get to the altar of St. Leo the Great, which is in a part of the church that is sometimes blocked off. Leo is a favorite of mine because of his lapidary teaching that what was visible in Jesus when he walked the earth has passed over into the sacraments (Sermon 74).

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Like a bush in a lava waste…

Craters of the Moon National Monument

Today’s first reading from Jeremiah brought to mind the surreal landscape of Craters of the Moon National Monument in central Idaho, which I visited on a long road trip through the American West several years ago.  It’s a surreal landscape of lava flows, ash, and shards of rock so sharp they’ll slice through your shoes if you wander off the trail.  

Jeremiah’s image of a “barren bush [that] stands in a lava waste” to describe those who trust in men and not in the Lord brought Craters of the Moon to mind.  I remember rounding a cinder cone, descending onto a river of hard rock, and thinking I’d wandered into Mordor.

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The Eagle

I’m back in Rome after a happy stay at St. Isaac Jogues in Rapid City, grateful for my time in America and all that I continue to learn at my adopted parish in particular.

One anecdote came back to me this morning, reading the Gospel about the call of Peter, an important passage for me in accepting my own call. Peter recognizes his own unworthiness–“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”–but Jesus is undaunted and calls him anyway. And, of course, Peter’s subsequent story is filled with missteps, too, with the Lord again reaching out to save him and get him back on the right track. Yeah, I can identify.

At a confirmation in Rapid City a few years ago, one of my Lakota friends gave a talk that has stuck with me ever since about the eagle. Few objects are considered more sacred among Native Americans than eagle feathers, and few sights, I have to say, are more impressive than an eagle or a hawk soaring over the land.

But the point of this story was how the eagle teaches her young to fly–by carrying the little ones up into the winds and letting them go. At first they plunge, flailing and failing–until, from below, the eagle swoops down to catch them, save them, carry them aloft to try again. And that’s Jesus, my friend said, to a hushed congregation, with a conviction that could only come from knowing what it’s like to plunge and to soar.