Why celebrate mass

I was at mass a few years ago at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Center City Philadelphia, and wrote the following afterwards and thought it made sense to share.

It was a mass celebrating Latino heritage and was said by Bishop Nelson Perez of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Bishop Perez was a local and pastor in West Chester previously, so it was something of a warm homecoming for him. The Mass was in Spanish which gave me more mental space than I typically find when it’s in English and am pulled into responding at the appropriate times.

Why go to Mass, at the most basic level? A friend shared the engraved illustration not long ago, and although I don’t know the source it conveys the traditional theological reasons:

But let me offer a non-theological basis for celebrating mass. This is the one place I’ll be this week where no one around me has any designs on me. No one wants to use me. No one wants anything. We’re just here to celebrate and worship. In that sense, we’re truly at liberty.

You’re free to retreat, if you’d like, into a mental space of solitude that we rarely get very much of in a noisy world of false urgencies.

The mass presents an opportunity every day to be a new person. To think of yourself differently. To reclaim a sense of oneself, and one’s essential role. And don’t we all want to be a new person in some way?

It’s a gift.

Everything is that firework

The question of being, the wondering about our origins and the basis for our existence, is the question that nags at the human heart. Bishop Robert Barron addresses this today in reflecting on Matthew 6:19-23, today’s Gospel reading:

Friends, in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples not to store up treasures for themselves on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven, “where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.”

St. Augustine once said that since every creature is made ex nihilo, it carries with it the heritage of non-being. There is a kind of penumbra or shadow of nothingness that haunts every finite thing.

This is a rather high philosophical way of stating what all of us know in our bones: no matter how good, beautiful, true, or exciting a thing or state of affairs is here below, it is destined to pass into non-being. Think of a gorgeous firework that bursts open like a giant flower and then, in the twinkling of an eye, is gone forever. Everything is haunted by non-being; everything, finally, is that firework.

But this is not meant to depress us; it is meant to redirect our attention precisely to the treasures of heaven, to the eternity of God. Once we see everything in light of God, we can learn to love the things of this world without clinging to them and without expecting too much of them. Think of how much disappointment and heartache could be avoided if we only learned this truth!

That beautiful, powerful, moving moments of joy, fellowship, singing, philosophizing, and baseball games even exist in passing is just incredible.

We say that anything above or below the “natural” doesn’t exist; that even the possibility of the supernatural or metaphysical is a sort of superstitution—maybe useful for abstract  thought experiments, but not for pointing to anything of ultimate concern. And at the same time, we do everything we can to pursue happiness. So why should happiness exist at all? Why should we exist? Why should the universe be intelligible in the way that it is? Doesn’t the intelligibility of the universe suggest an antecedent intelligence?

Why is there something rather than nothing? Why should being, be?

It’s good and fortifying to wonder about these things.

Distressing disguises

Brandon Vogt writes on Mother Teresa:

The Christian Church has a long history of saints who helped the poor, sick, and dying. And like so many others Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) devoted herself to this vital work. But what sets her apart is the way she not only served people in need, but dignified them. This makes her a model for the first major theme of Catholic social teaching, the life and dignity of the human person.

From the time of her birth in 1910, Agnes Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa) was trained to respect the dignity of others, even those society ignores. Each weeknight Agnes’ mother invited poor people into their home for dinner and conversation. She especially welcomed women in distress: old widows with no caretakers, homeless women with no roof, and unwed mothers shunned by family and friends. Agnes’ brother later commented that, “[Our mother] never allowed any of the many poor people who came to our door to leave empty handed. When we would look at her strangely, she would say, ‘Keep in mind that even those who are not our blood relatives, even if they are poor, are still our brethren.’”

It was through serving these visitors that Agnes first discovered “Jesus in his most distressing disguise.” She came to value the poor not because of what they could do or produce, not because of their job or credentials, but because they radiated the image of God. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God” (CCC 1700). Thus from the beginning until now, every man and woman bears the divine image and so bears within an inestimable dignity. …

When the priest says the words of consecration, Christ becomes substantially present even though he’s not evident to our senses. Our faith helps us transcend sensory experience to spot the divine image in its most ordinary form.

Mother Teresa knew how crucial this was. Seeing Christ in the Eucharist enabled her to see him in the streets. “If we recognize [Jesus] under the appearance of bread,” she explained, “we will have no difficulty recognizing him in the disguise of the suffering poor.” This is why Mother Teresa could say, “I have an opportunity to be with Jesus 24 hours a day.” Whether in the chapel or the slums, the pew or the hospital, she recognized the Lord everywhere she went because she trained herself each morning at the altar.

I’m not sharing this for any particular reason other than the fact that confronting the poor is something we all do, and I think almost all of us struggle to do well in terms of any willingness to encounter that person as a person rather than as an inconvenience. I know I struggle with that. It helps to imagine our neighbors—of all walks and means—as wearing disguises, to some degree. In thinking this way, maybe we can put our ego to one side.

Vatican II’s fruits

Nathan Israel Smolin shared this recently and I’m sharing it here because it’s a convincing perspective on Christianity’s enduring characteristics:

You know, say what you will about the post-Vatican 2 Catholic Church, but any era of the Church that could produce Lumen Gentium, the writings of Pope St. John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church can’t exactly be a dark age.

I have no real doubt that in a century, Catholics will still be reading all of these things, and finding them very important and foundational. They’ll probably also, frankly, be hearing some version of the NO Mass. I doubt *anyone* will remember who Hans Kung was, though.

Most eras of the Church are judged in retrospect, not by their conflicts or failings, their heretics or worldly clerics, but by their Saints and Doctors–because these latter have fruits that endure for centuries & forever. That makes it hard to judge any time while it’s going on

Probably the silliest thing self-described Traditionalists do is complain about the Fruits of Vatican 2 & insist on judging it immediately by those fruits. If it comes to that, what were the Fruits of the Council of Nicaea in the same timeframe?

Externally, the main effect of the Council of Nicaea was to put the Church into the power of the Imperial office, which would immediately betray it. Inside the Church, within a decade of Nicaea there were pitched battles between Christian factions in the streets of major cities.

I’m not saying Vatican 2 is as important as Nicaea; but the truth is, the 4th and 5th centuries defined the Church for the next millennium through the Doctors & Councils. But it was also the time of the worst internal conflicts ever, heresies, & massive schisms that still endure.

We marvel at Augustine’s faith; no one really cares about the Donatists who for most of his life had much more power & numbers in North Africa, let alone the vast flock of semi-pagans delaying baptism til death he preached to.

We can read Pope Leo the Great’s Christology, and be inspired by it. We don’t have to read Eutychius, or worry about the loss of the Patriarchate of Alexandria to Schism. We can read Basil the Great, & skip all the brilliant & politically influential Arian Bishops he argued with.

Anyway, I don’t pretend to know how the past fifty years will be seen in the Church. But I’m sure future Catholics will be reading & judging it by its great saints & doctors & documents, & mostly ignoring & forgetting all the things we spend our time worrying & fighting about.

John Henry Newman’s room

K.V. Turley writes on the experience of visiting John Henry Newman’s room:

To stand in the room of a saint is quite something. Such was my privilege the other day when the door to the room of John Henry Newman was unlocked and I was bid enter.

There, before me, was the desk at which Blessed John Henry had written letters, sermons and books, all of which are still pored over by scholars today, and no doubt shall be in the years and decades to come. There were his books and his papers; upon the walls his pictures, mostly religious, and, pasted on a wooden cupboard, there was still the trace of a Victorian newspaper. Newman was wont to decorate his cabinet doors with cuttings from newspapers and journals.

There was something else though.

The room is partitioned. Behind the thin wall that separates the two parts of the room there stands an altar. Upon it, there is the Crucifix and candles yet that Newman used when he offered Mass there. On the wall above the altar there also hangs a portrait of St. Francis de Sales, the French spiritual father of this most English of Englishmen. To the left, there is a built-in cupboard holding vestments. They all still hang there: green, red, white, rose, black. It is as if they are about to be lifted out and worn once more. It is as if, at any moment, a footstep will be heard, and before our eyes will come the man who lived and worked in this room: Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, Prince of the Church, but above all, a priest of God offering the Holy Sacrifice each day to the Glory of God and for forgiveness of sins. More than 100 years later, the room retains something of the air of the sanctity of its former occupant. No one else has lived or worked here since Newman, and no one else ever shall. It stands still as if John Henry Newman has just stepped out for a moment, and is due back very soon. Perhaps, in a way, that is how a Christian death should feel – a passing, not an ending, before a never-ending reunion.

There is another ‘death’ in this room though. It is the room itself. The Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory call this room of Newman’s “ the Dying Room.”

My guide pointed to the ceiling. In the corner of the room where two external walls join, there were large ominous cracks on display. Recent structural survey reports indicate that these cracks, far from being superficial, are the outward manifestation of serious interior decay. In the vernacular: Newman’s room is crumbling to dust.

Many will have seen Newman’s room, and the equally impressive library, at the Birmingham Oratory. Some may recall how Pope Benedict XVI, on his visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, visited this room and its adjacent library. There are many pictures online recording this occasion when one saintly scholar visited the room of another. One can only imagine what might have passed through the mind of Pope Benedict when he beheld the room of Blessed John Henry still as intact, at least superficially, as in the late 1800s. One can almost visualize Pope and Blessed sitting at the table in the center of the room lost in the enjoyment of discoursing upon weighty theological matters.

But the room is ‘dying.’

The Birmingham Oratory is seeking patrons able to help conserve that simple and remarkable space. K.V. Turley adds:

When men, whether in the world of science or theology, history or philosophy seemed intent on rejecting God, here was a man who dared to engage his reason so as to understand better his faith. In doing so, Newman created something in the world of ideas that has not only grown in significance since but also seen off many of his then contemporaries and their modish theories. …

A strange prayer perhaps, but a prayer nonetheless: let his rooms be preserved and, thereby, with them, his memory as a man as rational as he was holy.

When I was in London for the Olympics in 2012 we attended mass at Brompton Oratory, which has a small space of honor and devotion to John Henry Newman. Having first encountered his writing when I was still at Penn State, and then seeing his place of honor in this English church, was a special thing; one of those moments where so much experience that has been “in your head” suddenly came rushing into this particular place and in this particular moment. An experience of concrete reality.

Franciscan Brothers of Peace

Jessica Trygstad reports on the Franciscan Brothers of Peace and their missionary work alongside torture survivors:

The Franciscan Brothers of Peace have housed male international victims of torture since the 1990s — about 70 to date, said Brother Conrad Richardson, who serves as the brothers’ community leader. Describing their apostolate as “doing whatever needs to be done,” Brother Richardson said the 12 brothers provide room and board and fulfill other tangible needs — climate-appropriate clothing, food, monthly mass transit passes and phone cards. Multicultural artwork hangs on the walls of their friary, and their kitchen is stocked with ethnic foods to help give their guests a sense of home.

“All are received as Christ,” Brother Richardson said. “Residents who live here, they know that they’re welcome to join us for any meals we have and even to join us in prayer as they like.”

The men come to the U.S. through various means. A former resident, Brother Richardson said, was a stowaway on a ship and found enough food and water to survive the journey. Another man from Iraq had served in a high-ranking military position under Saddam Hussein. He escaped through bribery. The information the brothers garner about their guests is confidential; through the men’s social workers and lawyers, the brothers only know pertinent information and what the men are willing to share, per the Center for Victims of Torture’s policies.

Knowing at least some English, most of the men were well educated and held good jobs in their home countries, giving them the wherewithal to help mobilize people, thus making them targets of their oppressive governments. …

He said a “beautiful aspect” of sharing their home with people of different faiths has been the unity they’ve found through common respect, pointing to their Muslim guests’ admiration of Mary and Jesus. The brothers try to reciprocate that respect. Brother Richardson recalled the time a Muslim guest asked one of the brothers about getting a prayer rug to use for his required prayer times throughout the day. When the brother supplied one, the man held it to his chest and tried to keep his composure.

“He said to us, ‘I have experienced peace here that I have hardly experienced even among my people,’” Brother Richardson recalled, “and that he would be buried with this rug, the gift that was given.”

Complementing the brothers’ ministry, Sarah’s Oasis, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, serves female victims of torture.

Br. Conrad Richardson and the Franciscan Brothers of Peace are good and remarkable men. I know Br. Conrad as a friend and as a Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network board member, and we talked about this work when he was visiting Philadelphia last month. I can’t imagine bearing the emotional and spiritual weight of this work day to day, and so I admire Br. Conrad and his missionaries all the more.


Happy Easter! I celebrated Easter Vigil mass last night with my brothers. Seven passages from scripture are read at Easter Vigil, along with the usual Easter customs of affirming one’s baptismal promises. We are weak, we are frail, we are made for the eternal.

In his homily, Msgr. Thomas Flanagan noted that it’s Easter, not Christmas, that is the most central point in the calendar, and that celebrations of the Nativity weren’t particularly widespread until the 200s. That makes sense, but it’s not a history I was familiar with.

Fr. George Rutler, pastor of St. Michael’s in New York, reflects:

We know directly from Saint Paul that Greek philosophers thought the Resurrection was a curious absurdity. Politicians more pragmatically feared that it would upset the whole social order. One of the earliest Christian “apologists,” or explainers, was Saint Justin Martyr who tried to persuade the emperor Antoninus Pius that Christianity is the fulfillment of the best intuitions of classical philosophers like Socrates and Plato.

Justin was reared in an erudite pagan family in Samaria, in the land of Israel just about one lifetime from the Resurrection. Justin studied hard and accepted Christ as his Savior, probably in Ephesus, and then set up his own philosophical school in Rome to explain the sound logic of the Divine Logos. Refusing to worship the Roman gods, and threatened with torture by the Prefect Rusticus, he said: “You can kill us, but you cannot hurt us.” Then he was beheaded.

Fast forward almost exactly a thousand years, and another philosopher, Bernard of Chartres, also admired the best of the Greek philosophers and coined the phrase “We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.” There had been long centuries without much effort to explain the mystery of the Resurrection with luminous intelligence. In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton would describe himself the same way. Being intellectual dwarfs may sound pessimistic, but there was also optimism in the fact that, lifted on the shoulders of giants, they could see even farther than the giants themselves. In witness to that, less than fifty years after Bernard died, building began on the great cathedral of Chartres. The magnificent rose window in the south transept depicts the evangelists as small men on the shoulders of the tall prophets. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are closer to Christ in the center of the window, than Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel who lift them up, seeing in fact what the prophets had longed for in hope.

The Risen Christ is neither a ghost nor a mere mortal. Ancient philosophies could be vague about things supernatural, and ancient cults could be distant from personal conduct. The Resurrection unites ethics and worship. The famous letter of an anonymous contemporary of Justin Martyr, meant to be read by the emperor Marcus Aurelius, said that the way Christians live “has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines.”

The Resurrection was the greatest event in history, and unlike other events that affect life in subsequent generations in different degrees by sequential cause and effect, the Resurrection is a living force for all time, making Christ present both objectively in the Sacraments, and personally in those who accept him. Thus, indifference to the Resurrection is not an option. The future life of each one of us depends on a willingness to be saved from eternal death.

And in another New York-themed Easter thing, here’s a 1956 shot of the Financial District that someone shared yesterday:

Snopes explains:

The image is real and was taken shortly before Easter in 1956. One newspaper, the Oxnard Press-Courier, published the photo on 31 March 1956 with the following caption: “Huge crosses, formed by lighted windows, blaze above New York’s skyline as part of an Easter display in Manhattan’s financial district. This scene, photographed from the roof of the Municipal Building, features 150-foot-high crosses in the City Services Co., City Bank Farmers Trust Co., and the Forty Wall Street Corp. buildings. (United Press Telephoto)”

Intentionally (I assume) those buildings seem to mirror the three crucifixions at Calvary.

Jesus isn’t tame

Glenn T. Stanton writes:

Christians around the world have recently begun one of the most important seasons in the liturgical calendar: Lent. As we prepare for the Passion and Resurrection of our Savior, it’s a good time to consider Him in His fullness. He is indeed the comforting, welcoming Prince of Peace. But Jesus also demonstrated a less gentle side, one that too many of us are not terribly comfortable with. It is important that we know and appreciate the not-just-meek-and-mild Jesus as we sojourn through Lent this year. …

There are two truths about Jesus that seem to be at odds with the modern Christian understanding. First, the God-Man, unbound by time, held a decidedly ancient and “unenlightened” view of the world. Second, He regularly hurt folks’ feelings and didn’t apologize for it. The tender Lamb of God is also a fierce lion.

Let’s start with the first point. In this scientific age, we think it’s silly to believe that an actual devil, demons, and hell exist. But Jesus is old-school. He spoke of a literal Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Jonah in the belly of the great fish, and the destruction of Sodom—all as actual fact. He talks quite often in the Gospels about Satan and demonic possession. Doing exorcisms was all in a day’s work. He once dropped a bomb on a group of everyday folks, declaring that they were not the children of Abraham, but “of your father the devil.” That’s rough stuff, telling folks they’re sons of the devil. He spoke this way because He believed it.

Second, Jesus believed in the reality of sin, the need for repentance, and a real hell where people weep and gnash their teeth. He spoke of these things regularly, and not conceptually or metaphorically. He personalized this bad news for actual people in vibrant ways. He likened some folks to weeds and said He would “send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace,” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

He explains how the final judgment will work. One group, those who do His will, will be welcomed into His Kingdom. To the other, He will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” If we were Jesus’s tour manager, we might be inclined to remind Him that honey attracts more flies. He would remind us that He’s got this, only doing what His Father does.

Jesus is not shy about telling us that He can be a harsh judge. He came into the world to judge and is eager (eager!) to cast fire upon the earth. It wasn’t only the hypocritical religious leaders of the day who received this message. He warned some everyday folks that if they didn’t repent, they would all perish in unspeakable ways.

The Scriptures conclude in St. John’s Revelation with an extremely distressing Jesus. He’s downright frightening. John, who once rested upon the Savior’s breast and was given care over Our Lord’s mother, encounters Jesus again some years later. It isn’t a happy reunion. John falls as if dead before the Jesus whose eyes are fire. From the Prince of Peace’s mouth comes a massive and mighty sword with razor edges, with which He will strike down the nations. Revelation Jesus, the very same tender baby Jesus of the manger, is fierce beyond description.

Jesus Christ wasn’t a tame spiritual philosopher, but rather claimed relationship with the creator of all things. Unlike other spiritual teachers or philosophers or gurus, he is someone who must be dealt with.

How Catholic churches spend money

Villanova’s Center for the Study of Church Management produced a great look at Catholic Church budgets about a decade ago:

A recently released 2010 survey conducted by the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership (CCSP), a multi-faith group of religious researchers and faith leaders representing over 25 faith groups, had some interesting findings in that regard. The survey included data from a national sample of 390 Catholic parishes. The average annual budget of the parishes in the sample was $566,564. They spent about 39 percent of their budget on salaries and benefits, 26 percent on buildings and operations, 13 percent on program support (such as religious education or youth groups), 12 percent on mission and charity (including diocesan assessments) and 10 percent on other expenditures. The CCSP found that among the Catholic parishes in their sample:

39.7 percent thought that their parish’s financial health was in good or excellent condition in 2010, while 42.9 percent believed that to have been the case for their parish in 2005. 56.8 percent indicated that their income had declined during the recession; 19.6 percent found no significant change; 13.2 percent of the parishes in the sample saw income decrease at first and then rebound; and 10.5 percent realized an increase in parish income during the recession.

The largest piece of the financial pie at parishes is the cost of staff; that 39 percent for salaries and benefits. This is where the drop-off in religious vocations and brothers and nuns has born out as a catastrophic wound to church infrastructure. All these people we now have to pay to administer the life of a community.

And I wonder how much of that 39 percent is due to parishes hiring or maintaining staff positions out of a misplaced feeling of charity. Let’s bring Susan on board, she’s been out of work for a while. We could have her… type up the weekly bulletin. I once worked with a few Catholic churches where I was told this was basically one of their financial drains thanks to the sort of kindness of the pastor.

From the looks of these numbers, most areas seem about as slim as they can get: 12 percent on mission/charity work, 13 percent on program support, etc. That 39 percent still looks pretty fat.

Any tool that can allow a parish to further reduce staff will probably be welcome, pretty much as soon as possible. Ideally that would mean vocations, but for the foreseeable future that probably means software.

False infinities

Pope Benedict XVI in August 2012 reflected on the human instinct to want to live forever, to become infinite in some sense, to escape the limits of our creatureliness and our embodied and finite existence:

“Psalm 63 helps us to enter into the heart of [the matter]: ‘O God, my God, for you I long at break of day; my soul thirsts for you, my body pines for you, like a dry land without water.’ Not only my soul, but even every fiber of my flesh is made to find … its fulfillment in God. And this tension cannot be erased from man’s heart: even when he rejects or denies God, the thirst for the Infinite that abides in man does not disappear. Instead, he begins a desperate and sterile search for ‘false infinities’ that can satisfy him at least for the moment.”

A few years ago I was sitting out on Market Street in Old City, Philadelphia with a friend of mine, and we were talking about sin. How can we talk about sin to someone who doesn’t accept it as making any sense, as referring to any real or concrete thing?

I attempt that by describing sin as those moments where I’m essentially being dishonest with myself, moments when I choose not to live in a way that’s consistent with the story of “Who Tom is” that was meant to be told. In those moments we rob the world of something that was meant to be, to borrow and differently apply an idea from Michael Novak. It’s in sin that, to some degree, I try vainly to be infinite. That is, a moment of sin is a moment where I’m lying to myself in saying, “I can do all of the things that I desire to do, from moment to moment, and can be every ‘version’ of myself that I want to exist, forever, and that’s a reasonable way to live.” In this, I’m trying to live out an infinite number of versions of my own life. I’m trying to live out an infinite number of “Toms”—one Tom that lives this way, one Tom that lives that way, one Tom that says this, one Tom that does that, etc.

The recognition of sin as a reality, and the sense to call ourselves hypocrites, both stem from the reality that even while Christians believe we were made for an experience of the infinite in God as the creator and essence of all things, we ourselves are not infinite, and only a hypocrite could try to live out what Benedict XVI calls “false infinities” without at least the consequence of being a bastard, if not ultimately facing to metaphysical account.