"This is written amid fields of snow within a few days of Christmas. And when I last saw snow it was within a few miles of Bethlehem.
The coincidence will serve as a symbol of something I have noticed all my life, thought it is not very easy to sum up. It is generally the romantic thing to that turns out to be the real thing, under the extreme test of realism. It is the skeptical and even rational legend that turns out to be entirely legendary.
Everything I have been taught or told led me to regard snow in Bethlehem as a paradox, like snow in Egypt. Every rumour of realism, every indirect form of rationalism, every scientific opinion taken on authority and at third hand, had let me to regard the country where Christ was born solely as a sort of semi-tropical place with nothing but palm-trees and parasols.
It was only when I actually looked at it that it looked exactly like a Christmas card."
Illustrated London News, 1920 (about Chesterton's December, 1919 trip to the Holy Land)
And just for a little local flavor, watch this short video of Palestinian Christians singing and dancing outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Day.
A poem by Jessica Powers (Carmelite Sr. Miriam of the Holy Spirit). based upon Isaiah 58:12 (Douay)
And the places that have been desolate for ages shall be built in thee: thou shalt raise up the foundation of generation and generation: and thou shalt be called the repairer of the fences, turning the paths into rest.
I am alone in the dark, and I am thinking
what darkness would be mine if I could see
the ruin I wrought in every place I wandered
and if I could not be
aware of One who follows after me.
Whom do I love, O God, when I love Thee?
The great Undoer who has torn apart
the wall I built against a human heart,
the Mender who has sewn together the hedges
through which I broke when I went seeking ill,
the Love who follows and forgives me still.
Fumbler and fool that I am, with things around me
of fragile make like souls, how I am blessed
to hear behind me footsteps of a Savior!
I sing to the east; I sing to the west;
God is my repairer of fences, turning my paths into rest.
In so many of our ecclesial debates, we don't consider the wider global dynamics that profoundly affect how human beings understand their lives, the world they live in, and the existence of a God. Basics like life and death, dire poverty or a comfortable life that profoundly effect people's openness to the faith, what they consciously feel in need of and what they ask of God and of the Church.
Jane Austen died at age 41 of bovine tuberculosis, a very rare disease in the UK today because almost all milk is pasturized. Today we would regard such as death as tragically young but 41 was the average life expectancy in England in 1817. An England that possessed the highest life expectancy in the world at that point in time. If Jane had married, there was a significant likelihood that she would not have lived into her 40's at all. Three of Austen's sisters-in-law died in childbirth and they were affluent, healthy, well cared for women.
Take less than 5 minutes to watch this fascinating visual depiction of the staggering changes in life expectancy and wealth that human beings have experienced in the 200 years since Jane Austen published her first novel: Sense & Sensibility.
How has these changes affected what we hear when the Gospel is proclaimed? How has it influenced the development of doctrine, for instance? How has the Church's teaching in the area of human dignity, social justice, life issues, family life, education, the mission of the laity been affected? To what extent has the development of the Church teaching contributed to some of these changes?
How different does God and the Christian faith look to us because we live in 2010 instead of 1810?
Here's a lovely way to celebrate Advent and bring your petitions before God: The Saint Andrew Christmas Novena. November 30 is the Feast of St. Andrew and the tradition is that you say this short prayer 15 times a day from November 30 through Christmas Day.
It's an Advent way to practice the presence of God and keep the spirit of expectant waiting all day long!
Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.
Here's a great little video history of St. Andrew, recorded in a wonderful Scots lilt.
St. Andrews Day is the national feast day of Scotland and celebrated with great gusto there. You might consider changing your dinner plans and enjoying a true St. Andrew's day menu tonight: beginning with a warm bowl of Cullen Skink, then an entree of roast shoulder of lamb with potato and onion and ending with spiced winterfruit on creamed vanilla rice pudding.
And you've got to top it all off with the Edinburgh Military Tatoo - that largest gathering of Scottish pipers in the world.
I was trying to explain to one young woman at the Called & Gifted workshop in Brooklyn last weekend about the values of the "Nameless Lay Group" which preceded the Institute - and remembered that I had blogged about it 3 1/2 years ago. In light of the post about the extraordinary happenings at Most Precious Blood parish below, I thought that it was time to trot out that post in order to explain what we used to refer to as the "It is Normals".
In the beginning, before the Institute, there was . . .the Nameless Lay Group
In the fall of 1993, a group of young adult friends in Seattle (including me, "the other Sherry" and her husband and Mark Shea among others) got together to create a support group for lay Catholics that we called the "Nameless Lay Group" because we couldn't think of a good name. Over time we became attached to being Nameless. The NLG was the most powerful and concrete experience of a Christian community centered around discipleship that any of us have experienced as Catholics.
Anyway, Sherry C just found and sent to me last night a copy of our initial founding vision or as we knew it, the "It is Normals".
Our Vision: That we would be a Catholic community that nurtures the faith and gifts of lay Catholics, enabling them to become effective, committed disciples of Jesus Christ who have discerned and are living out their God-given mission in life.
1. It is NORMAL for lay Catholics to have a living, growing, love relationship with God.
2. It is NORMAL for lay Catholics to be excited Christian activists.
3. It is NORMAL for lay Catholics to be knowledgeable about their faith, the Scriptures, the doctrinal and moral teachings of the church, and the history of the Church.
4. It is NORMAL for lay Catholics to know what their charisms of service are and to be using them effectively in the fulfillment of their vocation or call in life.
5. It is NORMAL for lay Catholics to know that they have a vocation/mission in life (primarily in the secular world) given to them by God. It is NORMAL for lay Catholics to be actively engaged in discerning and living this vocation.
6. It is NORMAL for lay Catholics to have the fellowship of other committed lay Catholics available to them, to encourage, nurture, and discern as they attempt to follow Jesus.
7. It is NORMAL for the local parish to function consciously as a house of formation for lay Catholics which enables and empowers lay Catholics to do #1-6 above.
Here's one reason that I am thankful this Thanksgiving:
What I found while teaching a Called & Gifted workshop in Brooklyn last week is absolutely unique. I’ve worked in hundreds of Catholic parishes in 100 dioceses on 5 continents and I have NEVER met Catholics who is doing what Most Precious Blood parish is attempting. (There is no parish website yet. They've been busy building other things.)
Most Precious Blood parish is located at the tip of Brooklyn, next to Coney Island, in an area that has been majority Italian for generations. Over the past 10 years, the Italians have been moving by the thousands and their place has been taken largely by Chinese and Russian immigrants who are not Catholic. Many have no Christian background at all. Like most parishes in the area, Most Precious Blood’s membership had dropped nearly 80% from the its height in the 60's and the majority who attend are elderly.
Fr. Maduri, who grew up Catholic in the parish next-door, became pastor just over a year ago and responded in a remarkable way. He sized up the situation quickly: either the human community had to be rebuilt or the parish would close. Since the traditional Catholic population was leaving the area, he would focus on making disciples of the unchurched and apostles of the churched.
When the parish school closed, he rented the building out and used the income to renovate the old convent into a faith formation center. He brought in two enthusiastic young evangelists, newly married Andy - with his wife, Megan - and a exuberant young woman named Kree. They work with a Catholic group called Dirty Vagabonds, which specializes in the personal evangelization of urban youth. These recent graduates of the Franciscan University of Steubenville sport lots of conversation-starting tattoos, live very simply in the faith formation building, and spend their afternoons going out and meeting the kids in the neighborhood and the projects nearby. They have resurrected the parish youth group and renovated the rectory basement into an "Underground" gathering space. After only 4 months, attendance is going up steadily – with non-Catholic black and Chinese kids.
Fr. Maduri has also begun an outreach to local Hispanics. He brought in Nancy, a quietly vibrant and efficient woman, whom he had worked with in another parish, to run adult faith formation. He is forming a critical core of the parshioners, sending them to conferences, bringing in speakers to give retreats, putting on Life in the Spirit seminars, and bringing us in to teach his parishioners about gifts discernment.
But Fr. Maduri has even bigger plans. Next year, he will be collaborating with a Catholic Chinese woman to begin reaching out to the huge number of non-Christian Chinese immigrants in the area. When I realized that I was in the midst of a group of life-long Italian Catholics who were planning to learn Chinese (!) in order to evangelize their new neighbors who have no Christian background, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto!”
How rare is this? As the late Avery Cardinal Dulles noted:
“Asked whether spreading the faith was a high priority of their parishes, 75 percent of conservative Protestant congregations and 57 percent of African American congregations responded affirmatively, whereas only 6 percent of Catholic parishes did the same. Asked whether they sponsored local evangelistic activities, 39 percent of conservative Protestant congregations and 16 percent of African American congregations responded positively as compared with only 3 percent of Catholic parishes.”
No wonder the beleagured Diocese of Brooklyn is watching and supporting Fr. Maduri's efforts. All Archbishop Dolan has to do to find a remarkable example of new "vigor" in his backyard is hop the subway to Brooklyn.
Most Precious Blood parish reminded me of the amazing impact that the Parisian parish of St. Sulpice, and its pastor, Jean Jacques Olier, had on the French Catholic revival of the 17th century. How tragic that 21st century Catholics have only heard of Saint Sulpice via the Da Vinci Code! When it comes to the evangelical and missionary traditions of the Catholic Church, we are anything but "deep in history" or we would know that evangelizing mega-churches were not invented by American evangelicals! Here's the description of the parish from the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia:
"In August, 1641, M. Olier took charge of St-Sulpice. His aims were to reform the parish, establish a seminary, and Christianize the Sorbonne, then very worldly, through the piety and holiness of the seminarians who should attend its courses. The parish embraced the whole Faubourg-St-Germain, with a population as numerous and varied as a large city. It was commonly reputed the largest and most vicious parish, not only in the French capital, but in all Christendom. The enormity of the evils had killed all hope of reformation.
Father Olier organized his priests in community life. Those who found the life too strict separated from the work. The parish was divided into eight districts, each under the charge of a head priest and associates, whose duty it was to know individually all the souls under their care, with their spiritual and corporal needs, especially the poor, the uninstructed, the vicious, and those bound in irregular unions. Thirteen catechetical centres were established, for the instruction not only of children but of many adults who were almost equally ignorant of religion. Special instructions were provided for every class of persons, for the beggars, the poor, domestic servants, lackeys, midwives, workingmen, the aged etc. Instructions and debates on Catholic doctrine were organized for the benefit of Calvinists, hundreds of whom were converted.
A vigorous campaign was waged against immoral and heretical literature and obscene pictures; leaflets, holy pictures, and prayer books were distributed to those who could not or would not come to church, and a bookstore was opened at the church to supply good literature.
The poor were cared for according to methods of relief inspired by the practical genius of St. Vincent de Paul. During the five or six years of the Fronde, the terrible civil war that reduced Paris to widespread misery, and often to the verge of famine, M. Olier supported hundreds of families and provided many with clothing and shelter. None were refused. His rules of relief, adapted in other parishes, became the accepted methods and are still followed at St-Sulpice. Orphans, very numerous during the war, were placed in good parishes, and a house of refuge established for orphan girls. A home was open to shelter and reform the many women rescued from evil lives, and another for young girls exposed to danger. Many free schools for poor girls were founded by Father Olier, and he laboured also at the reform of the teachers in boys' schools, not however, with great success. He perceived that the reform of boys' schools could be accomplished only through a new congregation; which in fact came about after his death through Saint John Baptist de La Salle, a pupil of St-Sulpice, who founded his first school in Father Olier's parish. Free legal aid was provided for the poor. He gathered under one roof the sisters of many communities, who had been driven out of their convents in the country and fled to Paris for refuge, and cared for them till the close of the war. . . there was no misery among the people, spiritual or corporal, for which the pastor did not seek a remedy.
Update: I just had to add this wonderful little snippet that I just stumbled upon: the critical role of Bl. Agnes of Langeac, a Dominican nun, in Fr. Olier's life. This is such a classic experience for someone with a charism of intercessory prayer. We've heard hundreds of similar stories over the years through the Called & Gifted process. I'm not surprised one whit that the Holy Spirit called intercessors to pray for someone like Olier whom God was using in such a critical way. Anyway, here's the story:
In 1631, Jesus and Mary interiorly invited Agnes to intercede and pray for a priest she did not know. Three years later, in the monastery parlour she met Msgr. Jean-Jacques Olier and learned that he was the priest for whom she was offering her life of prayer and sacrifice. She died a year later, leaving to her sisters her particular vocation to pray for priests.
It is far too early to know whether or not Most Precious Blood is another Saint Sulpice. But the spirit of evangelical creativity, of going outto the living community present now - instead of lamenting the loss of an idealized mini-Christendom with a Brooklyn accent - is the same. Fr. Maduri is very aware that this is all experimental and that his efforts to transform the parish could fail. But he knows that, even if the parish isn't ultimately saved, the lives of some of the Catholics and non-Catholics involved will have been changed and that sort of fruit is eternal.
What a privilege to be allowed to witness such a work of the Holy Spirit in its earliest days! This Thanksgiving, shoot up a prayer for the apostles of Most Precious Blood parish, Brooklyn.
Good evening from the Coney Island end of Brooklyn, NY!
Really fascinating, one of a kind things are beginning to happen here at Precious Blood Parish. It has to be the most out of the box, missional parish I've ever been in and that's saying something after spending time hundreds of parishes in 100 dioceses. Since my internet access is very limited (I'm writing this crouched on the floor of the missionary's communal living room in the only spot where the wi-fe works), I won't attempt to give the details until I get home on Sunday.
Until then, all I can say is that what is shaping up in Brooklyn (very early stages) reminds me of the incredible impact of Saint Sulpice parish in the whole Catholic revival of the 17th century.
And I got to walk the Coney Island boardwalk and eat a chili dog at the original (1916) Nathan's Famous Hotdogs there. And experience a truly gorgeous Italian canolloni (sp?) and breakfast on Chinese pork rolls while Chinese soap operas play in the background. PS, if you are thinking of having the traditional Thanksgiving Octopus this year, I've discovered the freshest source west of Sicily. Just drop me a line.
And one more observation: the shortest humanoids on the planet are apparently Italian grandmothers in Brooklyn. I'm used to looming and have learned to behave in ways that minimizes the impact of my height (to the extent that many people don't believe I'm 6 feet tall until I actually stand right next to them - which is why I try not to do that) but here, around women who are literally 4 feet high in their shoes, I feel like Gulliver in Lilliput.
(Or like Sherry in Jakarta where the local term for Europeans is literally translated "white buffalo" and the true meaning is not nearly that polite.)
An unsolicited testimony about how lapsed Catholics do use the Called & Gifted workshop as a bridge back into the Church. I've heard stories like this a number of times before. The writer is raving about a recent workshop taught by two priests, Fr. Mike and Fr. Bryan.
"I interviewed a few of the folks that took your workshop at St. X. They raved about it and you. Always like to pass on a compliment.
One interesting story ... one of the attendees hadn't set foot in a church for 20 years. A friend recommended the workshop. As she started to tell her story the tears started to flow. Come to find out she also works on the campus as I do. She wants to meet the Newman gang. We are meeting for coffee next week. This is why I love participating in the Called and Gifted workshop."
I am about to break the unbreakable rule around here - no blog posts on liturgy. But I had to pass this one on because it is so clever, howlingly funny, and written by someone who is a true insider and because people on both sides of the debate will enjoy it - for very different reasons.
The Catholic Quote of the day - from Pope Benedict. One that we would do well to meditate upon, if we intend to do what God has instituted the Church to do.
Homily for the dedication of the Church of the Sagrada Familia:
We have dedicated this sacred space to God, who revealed and gave himself to us in Christ so as to be definitively God among men. The revealed Word, the humanity of Christ and his Church are the three supreme expressions of his self-manifestation and self-giving to mankind. As says Saint Paul in the second reading: “Let each man take care how he builds. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:10-11). The Lord Jesus is the stone which supports the weight of the world, which maintains the cohesion of the Church and brings together in ultimate unity all the achievements of mankind. In him, we have God’s word and presence and from him the Church receives her life, her teaching and her mission.
The Church of herself is nothing; she is called to be the sign and instrument of Christ, in pure docility to his authority and in total service to his mandate. The one Christ is the foundation of the one Church. He is the rock on which our faith is built. Building on this faith, let us strive together to show the world the face of God who is love and the only one who can respond to our yearning for fulfilment.
Exactly 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. He only won 40% of the popular vote but he did win the electoral college.
Two years ago, we flew to Chicago to pick up a car donated to the Institute and drove home across a early winter landscape, miraculously encased in a small, moving bubble of sunshine and dry pavement. We stopped in Springfield and toured Lincoln's home. The last home he would ever live in outside the White House.
It was early December and Lincoln's home was decorated for Christmas in the exceedingly modest manner of middle class, 19th century mid-westerners. I was especially moved by the docent's description of Lincoln's last Christmas at home as he contemplated the staggering task ahead of him. Between his election and the date Lincoln left home for Washington DC, 7 states seceded. Four more were threatening to do so as he boarded the train to the capitol and an infant Confederate government had already been formed.
Here is the famous description of Lincoln's farewell to Springfield on February 11, 1861 - the eve of his 52nd birthday:
Sculptor Thomas Jones remembered the day Lincoln left town from this depot: "It was a dark, gloomy, misty morning, boding rain. The people assembled early to say their last good-bye to the man they loved so much. The railroad office was used as the reception room. Lincoln took a position where his friends and neighbors could file by him in a line. As they came up each one took his hand in silence. The tearful eye, the tremulous lips and inaudible words was a scene never to be forgotten. When the crowd has passed him, I stepped up to say good-bye. He gave me both his hands -- no words after that."
"The train thundered in that was to bear him away, and Lincoln mounted the rear platform of one of the cars. Just at that moment Mrs. Lincoln's carriage drove up -- it was raining. I proffered my umbrella and arm, and we approached Lincoln as near as we could for the crowd, and heard the last and best speech ever delivered in Springfield."
"My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell."
(Sherry's note: Today, a candidate elected at 51 would be regarded on the youngish end of the Presidential spectrum. But the average life expectancy of a boy child born in 1860 was only 43 years vs. 78 years for a boy born in 2010.)
In honor of this anniversary, which utterly changed the future of our country, take a few minutes to watch this beautiful tribute to Lincoln, featuring an amazing collection of contemporary photographs, most of which I have not seen elsewhere. To the tune of the haunting Ashokan Farewell.