The Maniple of Tears

The ordinary vestments of the priest—alb, stole, cincture, chasuble—and the symbolism thereof are surely familiar to most readers of this blog. Less familiar, perhaps, may be the maniple, a vestment like a miniature stole which the priest traditionally wears upon his left forearm for the celebration of Holy Mass. Though it is enjoying a resurgence among some clergy in these happy days of restoration and recovery (one of the priests I live with uses it daily, for example), the maniple has been largely forgotten since the liturgical reforms of 1969.

I was asked the other day about the history and significance of this ancient vestment, and although I knew that it had something to do with work (it has irreverently been called the Roman “sweat rag,” used to wipe their brows in the heat of the day), I had to admit my ignorance about its origins and deeper meaning. My best guess was that it signified the labor of the priest as he offered the sacrifice of the Mass. Then I found the following illuminating passage:

This vestment … originated from the mappula, the linen handkerchief that the Roman nobility wore on their left arm to wipe away tears and sweat. It was used also to give the signal to begin the combat games in the Circus. ‘Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris’, says the priest as he puts it on while vesting. ‘O Lord, may I be worthy to wear the maniple of tears and suffering, so that I may receive with joy the reward of my labors.’ And once again the battle begins against the world and its prince, in which mystically the priest sweats, cries, bleeds, and does battle in so far as he is on the Cross as the alter Christus.1

The liturgy, after all, is holy work, but it remains work. Not for nothing does St. Benedict call it the opus Dei, the work of God. This fact is reflected in the etymology of the word itself, λειτουργία (leitourgía),which can be traced to the words λαός (laós), “the people,” and ἔργον (érgon), “work.” A fitting definition of liturgy may be the work done by and on behalf of the whole people of God in adoration of their Creator and Lord.

Of course, it is Jesus Christ alone, “the high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1),2 who offers truly fitting worship to God upon the altar of the Cross, where He himself is priest and victim. The ministerial priests of the New Covenant all participate in this one priesthood of Christ, offering in union with Him the one sacrifice pleasing to the Father, that is, the loving self-offering of the Son. The entire priestly people of God in turn unite their prayers and sacrifices, through and with their priest, to the eternal and infinitely meritorious prayer and sacrifice of the Risen Lord.3

What is key here is the notion of liturgy as sacrifice, namely, the self-sacrifice of the Son. We who have been baptized into Christ are one Body with Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:13). In the liturgy, the members of the Body are mystically joined, across time and space, to the sacrifice of that Body to the Father. Each of the baptized participate “in its own special way”4 in this work—the ministerial priest as head (‘in persona Christi capitis’) and the rest of the baptized as the body (we might say ‘in persona Christi corporis’)—but all are called to unite themselves to the sacrifice, offering themselves back to the Father in union with the Son.

There is one central fact in this lofty discussion of sacrifice and labor of which we must not lose sight. As a professor of mine often reminds us seminarians, “We love only at our own cost.” This is especially true with regard to the sacred liturgy, the ultimate labor of love. Whether we speak of the priest or the people, to participate in the sacrifice requires self-offering, the truth of which must not be diminished but rather magnified by the fact that it is self-offering in union with Christ, the “pioneer of our salvation” who was made “perfect through suffering” (cf. Hebrews 2:10-11). Like the Lord, we must love at the cost of our lives, our bodies, all that we have and are. And although “in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross,”5 we must not therefore be deceived into thinking our participation can be bloodless, a merely mental assent. It is a labor of blood, sweat, and tears.

In conclusion, Gnocchi writes of the priest:

There needs to be that painful and manly interpenetration in the sacrifice, of which the maniple is the sign and instrument … If the memory of it has been lost willingly so that one can dedicate oneself to the festal banquet of a salvation lacking any sweat and toil, then there is no place for the signs of the battle to which one must consign one’s own body.”6

To that, I would add only that the “festal banquet … lacking any sweat and toil” of which he speaks (and which too many Masses since 1969 have scandalously resembled) becomes in symbol a merely ritual meal, a community celebration, stripped as it is of signs of sacrifice and therefore devoid of that inclination of priest and people alike toward God in loving self-offering, by which we glorify the Father and are transformed in Christ.

The recovery of the maniple is a small but significant step toward the sorely needed restoration of the authentic understanding of liturgy as sacrifice. Brothers, wear your maniples! Good people of God, encourage your priests to wear them, thank those who do, and let the “maniple of tears and suffering” be a reminder to unite yourselves to Christ in and with your priest in the Church’s great labor of love.


Footnotes

  1. Alessandro Gnocchi, “Traces of the Hegelian Guillotine in the Liturgical Reform,” Il Foglio, April 10, 2014, trans. Fr. Richard Cipolla, at Rorate Cæli.
  2. Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).
  3. Paul VI, Lumen gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] (21 November 1964), §10.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Council of Trent, Session 22, “On the Sacrifice of the Mass,” ch. 2.
  6. Gnocchi, “Traces of the Hegelian Guillotine in the Liturgical Reform.”

The Bones of the Lamb

At a recent class on the Eucharist for our adult catechumens, I was teaching about the typological symbolism of the Paschal lamb. Like the sacrificial victim of the Passover, carefully chosen from among the flocks in accord with the Lord’s ritual commandments, Jesus is the true “lamb without blemish, a male” (Ex 12:5), who is sacrificed “in the evening” (v. 6) before the Sabbath, and whose “blood shall be a sign” (v. 13) marking those who are saved: “[God] shall see the blood … and not suffer the destroyer to come into your houses and to hurt you” (v. 23).

Significantly, the lamb was not only sacrificed, but totally consumed: “They shall eat the flesh that night roasted at the fire, and unleavened bread,” the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron. “Neither shall there remain any thing of it until morning. If there be any thing left, you shall burn it with fire” (vv. 8, 10).

This mitzvah of “the Passover of the Lord” (v. 11) is fulfilled at the Lord’s Last Supper, his final celebration of the Passover with his twelve most intimate friends, during which “our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed”” (CCC 1323, emphasis added; cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 47).

The Eucharist, then, is the Paschal banquet of the New Covenant, in which Christ himself becomes our food! In place of the lamb of old, there is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, whose flesh and blood becomes “true food and true drink” (John 6:56) for us. As that lamb was roasted whole (cf. Ex 12:9), a prefiguration of the whole burnt offerings which the Lord would later command His people to offer Him upon the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem, so the Lord becomes a ‘holocaust-offering of love’ to the Father at Calvary, a ‘whole burnt offering’ in which He gives all that He has and is, holding nothing in remainder: “Jesus crying with a loud voice, said: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. And saying this, he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46).

As we were exploring this rich symbolism and its fulfillment in Christ, one student asked: “What about the bones of the lamb?” Since the lamb had to be eaten whole, he wondered whether the Jews were commanded to break open its bones and eat the marrow, and what significance this might hold for us.

In fact, the Lord explicitly forbids the breaking of the bones of the sacrificial lamb: “In one house shall it be eaten, neither shall you carry forth of the flesh thereof out of the house, neither shall you break a bone thereof” (Exodus 12:46). This becomes another significant prefiguration of the Lord which is fulfilled in St. John’s account of the Passion: “The Jews … besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. The soldiers therefore came; and they broke the legs of the first, and of the other that was crucified with him. But after they were come to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs” (John 19:31-33).

But why the prohibition? The rabbinical commentaries on this mitzvah give us some insight. The Hebrew word עצם (‛étsem, cf. BDB, 6292), translated ‘bone’ in the Exodus quotation given above, also bears the related meanings of ‘essence’ or ‘substance.’ It refers to the irreducible core of something, the sine qua non. (The bodily analogy is clear enough; after all, without bones, you wouldn’t have much of a body!)

According to the commentary of Rabbi Maimonides, as interpreted by the Orthodox Congregation B’nai Avraham in New York City:

The essence and core of a Jew is his or her emunah, faith in G-d. On the first Pesach, the Jewish people were endowed with perfect faith. Each Pesach, the strength of our faith is renewed … Therefore, the Torah tells us that we cannot break the bone, the etzem, of the Pascal offering – not only that we may not, but that we cannot, that the faith of a Jew can never truly be broken because it is our very core.

“Don’t Break Any Bones: The Deeper Meaning to the Paschal Offering” (Brooklyn, NY: Congregation B’nai Avraham, 2015)

If, as Maimonides suggests, the mystical meaning of the unbroken bones of the lamb is the unbroken faith of the people of Israel in the covenant with the Lord, then this too is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, High Priest and Victim of the New Covenant (cf. Hebrews 3:1). The people of Israel, after all, were by and large unfaithful to the covenant promises. “They offered sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burnt incense upon the hills: under the oak, and the poplar, and the turpentine tree” (Hosea 4:13).

Jesus alone, the New Israel Incarnate, remains faithful to his final breath, taking upon himself the people’s self-imposed separation and estrangement from God—the principal and most awful consequence of sin—and making atonement for all by his perfect, loving, filial fidelity to the Father.

His cry from the depths, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 14:34), as Pope Benedict XVI writes,

is no ordinary cry of abandonment. Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulations, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with all who suffer ‘under God’s darkness’; He takes their cry, their anguish upon himself – and in so doing transforms it.”

Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2, 214

How does he transform it? In the words of my dear professor of Trinitarian theology, Dr. Margaret Turek, “sin is ‘borne away’ in being transformed or converted into its opposite. If sin is to be transformed into its opposite, then that which is the opposite of sin – filial love for God – must enter into and bear sin away.”1 This ‘filial love,’ by the way, is the very substance of the Son of God: loving confidence, trust, and obedience in the Father.

Therefore, to quote another great scholar of the atonement, Fr. Norbert Hoffmann:

“The crucified Son … occupies the ‘place of sinners’ and allows God to be ‘Father’ there … as he stands in their sinful estrangement from the Father and endures it … Here sin is fashioned as in a furnace until all that is left is the Son’s [heartache], that is, that form of love-suffering that is the exact opposite of sinful rebellion, that converts and nullifies it.”

Hoffmann, “Atonement and the Spirituality of the Sacred Heart,” in Faith in Christ and the Worship of Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 170

What does it mean for us that Jesus’ bones, his substance, was unbroken to the end? It means that his faith in the Father was unshaken, and that his filial love-suffering, by which He atoned for our sin and achieved our salvation, was a truly commensurate offering to atone for the sin of the world.


Footnotes

  1. Margaret Turek, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology,” draft copy (Menlo Park, CA: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, 2019), 31.

A Divine Surprise

This reflection was given after Holy Mass at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the Third Thursday of Advent, December 17, 2020. The audio is available here.


What are we waiting for?

This is an urgent question as we count down these last days until Christmas. The Church gives us every year this season of Advent as a time of waiting. Now, with this morning’s Mass, we have entered the last and most intense stage of the season. The Church’s longing and expectation for the coming of her Bridegroom now reaches its highest pitch. Each night at Vespers for the next eight days, the Church will cry out to the Lord under a new title, each one more perfect than the last, like a lover stammering out the praises of her beloved, though she knows no words can ever exhaust His beauty or her desire. We hear echoes of these Great Antiphons also in the Mass during these days, as in today’s Alleluia verse: “O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge!”

It is very fitting that we should begin these eight days of our most intense prayer for the coming of the Lord with this antiphon. Christ, after all, is “the power of God and the Wisdom of God,” as St. Paul teaches (1 Cor 1:24), and so God’s wisdom is not merely something intellectual or theoretical; it is incarnate; it is a person. It is a baby in a manger! Christ is the Word of the Father, spoken by the Father in an eternal silence, who nevertheless on this feast of Christmas breaks forth from eternity into the midst of time and space, into the created order, confounding the so-called wisdom of human beings with the impact of His coming. 

In his divine origins, this child is “God from God.” In his human origins, he is—what, exactly? “The son of David, the son of Abraham,” to be sure—born of the royal line, in fulfillment of all the prophecies—and yet who had ever predicted a Messiah quite like this? No one expected that God would come to save His people, not as a conquering general with armor gleaming in the sun, not even as a prince born in the royal palace to great pomp and circumstance, but in obscurity, in a manger, cold, poor, vulnerable, a baby laid in straw and wrapped in swaddling clothes. 

Even his family line is not quite what the professional prophets might have expected. In the genealogy of Jesus expounded by St. Matthew, there are Gentiles, murderers, prostitutes and adulterers, traitors, idolaters, liars and cheats—and yet from this mess, from this tangle of human brokenness and sin, springs forth the Just One, the Messiah. It’s not an accident. “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Cor 3:19-20), but “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:25).

In fact, the birth and infancy of the Christ child shows us the very “pattern” of God’s wisdom, as St. Paul has it: “The foolish things of the world God hath chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world God hath chosen, that he may confound the strong” (1 Cor 1:27).

Rejoice, good Christian people, if that’s your story—if you are among “his poor,” the foolish and the weak ones of the world God has chosen to shame the strong and the wise. I can tell you that it’s my story. And our weakness and our foolishness, our poverty, our shame, the many ways in which we are inadequate and incapable, our own particular personal and familial histories of brokenness and sin—all of this is our glory, because it is for all this that Christ chose us and made us His own! When He took on a human nature, after all, He didn’t take on an imaginary, ideal humanity but a broken and a lowly humanity, born of a poor and humble family. That miserable humanity, just like yours and mine, so “attracted God’s mercy” (St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Letter 298) that He united it to Himself in the marriage of Christmas Day.

And He who shares a human origin with each one of us comes now into the midst of our messy lives to share with us His own divine origin, in the perfect and eternal love of the heart of God. Not to deny our human origins. Not to replace them. But to redeem and renew them, to bring into the midst of it all a new kind of life from above, a breath of heavenly air: to live the life of God.

Friends, that is the promise of Christmas. That is what we, the Church, await with such urgent longing that our hearts can hardly contain it! And the “path of knowledge” we cry out for Him to come and teach us is the way to live our human life, here and now, in accord with the new kind of life He offers, according to the pattern of divine Wisdom shown us by the infant God: not noise, but silence; not self-promotion, but hiddenness; not self-indulgence, but poverty; not cynicism, but vulnerability; not guardedness, but weakness. 

It is not easy to walk this path in Advent 2020. In fact, it is foolishness to the world, perhaps more so now than in any other age. But we must choose with determination to follow this foolish Wisdom of God, for the gift He promises to those who live this way surpasses all understanding.

And so I ask you again, dear friends of God: What are you waiting for this Christmas? A vacation? A visit with loved ones? A special gift? I hope you have all that and more. But above all, I pray you receive the gift our infant King so longs to give you: new life; a new beginning in the midst of your human existence; a divine surprise. 

“O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.”

Theological Reflection: Parish Devotional Life

The rosary has held a very special place in my own devotional life since even before I was a Catholic. Early in the journey of my conversion, I heard a passionate Dominican sermon on the miracles of the rosary and enrolled in the Confraternity of the Rosary that very day, a year or more before I was received into the Church! In the years before entering seminary, I prayed the rosary fervently before and after daily Mass to obtain the grace of clarity in my vocational discernment. In fact, I attribute all the graces of my conversion and my vocation to Our Lady’s intercession. Although there was a time in college seminary that I was inconsistent in praying the rosary, I always returned to it in difficult moments, times of testing and turmoil. One day, when I saw a young man walking hand in hand with his girlfriend down the hill from Mount Angel Abbey and felt some pangs of loneliness and self-pity, I was deeply consoled by the thought that I was holding Mary’s hand as I walked praying her rosary. Another time, when my mom was suddenly hospitalized due to a serious illness and I was hundreds of miles away, feeling powerless and afraid, I felt capable of no other prayer than the continuous repetition of the rosary, which got me through long, dark hours until I heard the good news that she was okay.

I could go on and on with stories of the consolation and strength Our Lady’s rosary has been to me over the years. As I was reflecting on the parish devotional life here at St. Mary’s, however, I was struck by the many and varied ways in which the rosary has brought people together here and given the gifts of peace, hope and communion in such different circumstances. On several occasions, I have had the privilege of leading the rosary before a funeral. Sometimes the gathering of the family before the funeral is tearful, sometimes raucous and noisy, but in both cases I have noticed how this communal prayer, with its soothing repetition like the advancing tide, allows people to settle into a spirit of stillness and peace. It is a perfect preparation for the funeral liturgy. On another occasion, I helped lead the rosary at a pro-life rally, kicking off the Forty Days for Life campaign on the sidewalk outside our local Planned Parenthood clinic. Here again I was struck by the contrast: the rosary made of us an oasis of peace in a place of ugliness, violence, noise and fury. I led a rosary for discernment at the first meeting of our parish priestly discernment group, handing on the great gift I had received in my own early discernment. I have prayed the rosary every week at our parish holy hours, the decades alternating between English, Spanish, and Latin, and I imagine the delight it must bring Our Lady to receive our grateful praises and prayers in our different tongues, like a bouquet of different kinds of flowers bound together by our common love for her and her Son. I think, too, of the decades I prayed in a hospital room with a parishioner who wept, saying how long it had been since she had prayed with another person and what a comfort this familiar prayer was. I knew exactly what she meant. 

Why is the rosary so effective in such vastly different situations, for people of such different cultures, backgrounds and even spiritualities and temperaments, at bringing peace, stillness, comfort, clarity, and countless other spiritual gifts besides? The liturgical handbook of the Archdiocese remarks that “foremost among the Marian devotions is the rosary, which is a kind of compendium of the Gospel and, as such, it is a profoundly Christian devotion that helps the faithful to contemplate the mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ through the eyes of the Virgin Mary.”1 The key, I believe, is that this devotion leads naturally to contemplation. As Saint John Paul the Great eloquently writes, “with the Rosary, the Christian people [are] led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love … The Rosary belongs among the finest and most praiseworthy traditions of Christian contemplation.”2 To reach this end, it must of course be truly prayed and not merely recited, as Pope St. Paul VI instructs us:

Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas, in violation of the admonition of Christ: ‘In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words’ (Mt 6:7). By its nature the recitation of the Rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord’s life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord.3

When the rosary is in fact prayed in this way, it leads to a deep interior stillness before the face of Christ and alongside Mary, His mother and ours. In fact, to quote Pope St. John Paul II one final time, “the Rosary mystically transports us to Mary’s side as she is busy watching over the human growth of Christ in the home of Nazareth. This enables her to train us and to mold us with the same care, until Christ is ‘fully formed’ in us (cf. Gal 4:19).”4 Like all authentically Christian contemplative prayer, then, the prayer of the rosary does not merely achieve a fleeting psychic state of tranquility; it accomplishes our ever deeper conformity to and union with Jesus Christ.

In spite of the long and profound personal history with the rosary I mentioned above, there was a time when I was first discovering the riches of contemplative prayer that I felt I had “outgrown” the rosary, in favor of purely mental prayer. I was annoyed at parishes where the rosary was prayed before or after Mass, since I preferred to spend that time in the prayer of quiet, preparing for Mass or making my thanksgiving. After more experience with both contemplative prayer and pastoral ministry, and studying at the feet of such great masters, I now see the rosary more clearly as a truly indispensable treasure of our Roman Catholic tradition given to us by the Mother of God herself for our sanctification. As a pastor, therefore, I want to promote the prayer of the rosary among parish groups, at Holy Hours, during the novenas for Marian feast days, on regular processions (I know of one pastor who holds monthly “rosary walks” around his parish boundaries) and on as many other occasions as possible. The Liturgical Handbook notes that “the Catholic faithful enjoy the right to pray the rosary on most occasions,”5 and as a shepherd I intend to zealously guard and promote that right.


Footnotes

  1. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 18.6.6.
  2. Pope St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (16 October 2002), 1, 5.
  3. Pope St. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus (2 February 1974), 47.
  4. John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 15.
  5. ALH, 14.8.6.

Theological Reflection: Funerals

Last month, I had the honor of assisting at two funeral liturgies only days apart. That in itself would not be so unusual; we have had many funerals since I arrived here in August. What makes this particular sequence of funerals stand out in my memory is the vastly different circumstances of the deceased. The first was a boy less than six months old whose parents awoke one morning to find him lying dead in his crib. The family were heartbroken, the parents inconsolable. Since no one in the family felt up to the task of reading during that liturgy, I proclaimed these words from the Wisdom of Solomon, which have remained in my heart:

The righteous one, though he die early, shall be at rest. For the age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years … The one who pleased God was loved, living among sinners, was transported—snatched away … Having become perfect in a short while, he reached the fullness of a long career; for his soul was pleasing to the LORD, therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness.1

Wisdom 4:7-14

My pastor admitted during his homily that he did not have the words to take away their pain, when all they wanted was to hold their child in their arms again. All that he could give them was the assurance that God is greater than death. This he indeed proclaimed, and then fell silent. The last thing I remember is standing beside him for a long time in silence as the men and boys took turns, one by one, shoveling dirt into his open grave.

The second funeral was for a woman who had just surpassed her hundredth birthday. Our church was packed with her relatives, down to the fifth generation of great-great-grandchildren, and they all congregated afterwards in front of the church, the kids eating cookies and playing, the adults swapping stories amid hugs and tearful smiles.

It would be hard to imagine two more different funerals! Though the liturgy was substantially the same, the fundamental difference is that the family in the latter case had many years to spend with the deceased. They felt that she had lived a long life and a good one. In the former, they felt that their child’s life had been cut short almost before it had begun; they mourned not only for him but for the future they had hoped to see, the years and memories that would never be. What can soothe a grief as enormous as that? I am sure my pastor was right in admitting that words could never be enough. As he also told me as we left the cemetery, the family would probably not remember the words we had said at all. They would, however, remember that we were there, and that we stayed.

It is only natural that the funeral of a hundred year old mother of many generations would be celebrated with more festivity, with sorrow interpenetrated with joy and laughter, than the unexpected, inconceivable funeral of a little baby. Yet the wisdom of that first reading is profound. Though they may not have been capable of receiving it then, I hope that the family do remember those words, for there is consolation and power in them: “The age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years. Rather, understanding passes for gray hair, and an unsullied life is the attainment of old age” (Wis 4:8-9).

The Lord measures out a span of days for each one of us—“seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; most of them are toil and sorrow; they pass quickly, and we are gone” (Ps 90:10). When a life comes to an end, our human tendency is to judge it by its length, by their accomplishments, by the number of their descendants and the memories they made with those who survive them. We mourn the more bitterly for those who die early with none of these. But our prayer must be that of the Psalmist: “Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12). Counting our days aright means, in part, judging the real value of our human lives from God’s perspective, who is unimpressed by our accomplishments or length of days. The real value of a life is that the one who lived was a child of God, His beloved, who loved Him in return as best they could. Thus our Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook teaches that

Holy Mother Church, who … generates to a new and immortal life the children who are born to her in Baptism, and nourishes them by the sacraments during their earthly pilgrimage, accompanies each of them at his journey’s end, in order to surrender him ‘into the Father’s hands.’ She offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of his grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.2

When we die, all that matters is that the one who came from God is returning to Him. We, the Church, pray that the holy angels speed them on their way, that the Father receives them with joy, and that, “even if final purifications are still necessary in order to be clothed with the nuptial garment of eternal joy and salvation,”3 they will soon partake in the wedding feast of the Lamb, where we hope to be reunited with them for all eternity.

As a priest, I hope to follow my pastor’s good example of keeping silent watch in moments of such extreme suffering and tribulation, being present with those who are in suffering and having the self-awareness to realize that many words will do more harm than good. At the same time, I hope to follow his example in simply and boldly announcing our faith that God is greater than death. And I hope to keep close to my heart and at the forefront of my mind—and to share it with those who grieve the loss of a loved one, when the time is right—that the value of each of our lives is determined not by our length of days or any of our accomplishments, but by the infinite love of God.


Footnotes

  1. New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2010).
  2. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 14.1.1.
  3. ALH, 14.1.2.

Open Letter to Governor Kate Brown on “the Freeze”

The following is the text of a letter I sent today to the Governor of Oregon about the effect of her recent executive order on the life of the Church in Oregon. I plan to send a similar letter each week until the restrictions are lifted. If you feel as I do, please feel free to adapt this letter and send a version of it to her yourself.


November 17, 2020

The Hon. Kate Brown
900 Court Street NE, Suite 254
Salem, OR 97301-4047

Dear Governor Brown,

I am a Roman Catholic seminarian in residence at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Eugene. In union with His Excellency, Archbishop Alexander Sample, and all the Catholic people of Eugene and throughout the State of Oregon, I am writing to express my frustration with your recent Executive Order 20-65, directing a “Temporary Freeze to Address Surge in COVID-19 Cases in Oregon.”

I understand well the need to contain this pandemic. However, any actions which are taken by the State to maintain and restore our public health must be carefully weighed in the balance against the spiritual (as well as mental, emotional and social) needs of Oregonians. I know that you are sensitive to some of these needs, since a report issued by OPB last Friday, November 13 indicated that “services such as hair salons, barber shops and massage services can all continue under their current operations. Brown said that’s because state experts haven’t seen clear ties between rising cases and those sorts of businesses if patrons and employees wear masks and social distance, and because many provide services that help Oregonians keep up their mental and physical health.”

For your Catholic constituents, attendance at Holy Mass and reception of the Sacraments is paramount to our spiritual, emotional and mental well-being, far more important than our ability to get a haircut or a massage. Furthermore, the parishes of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland have strictly abided by the social distancing, masks and sanitation requirements since reopening, and to my knowledge, there have been no COVID outbreaks linked to Mass attendance in the State of Oregon.

Given these facts, I ask that you hold us to the same standard as hair salons and barber shops, and allow us to continue operating as we have been. It is an injustice to your Catholic constituents to hold our churches to a stricter standard. It strikes us as arbitrary, heavy-handed religious discrimination. The Mass is an essential service for Catholics, and the absolute limit of 25 people in attendance at religious worship severely curtails the ability of our Catholic people to attend Mass and receive the sacraments of the Church.

In fact, I urge you to allow us to operate at 75% of the capacity of our churches, as the grocery stores and retail outlets are allowed. We can do so safely. This would be a gesture of good will and reassure us that you are in fact motivated by a concern for our well-being as Catholic citizens of the State of Oregon. Please, Governor Brown, free the Mass.

Yours in Christ Crucified and risen,

Matthew Knight, Seminarian
Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon

Theological Reflection: Sacrament of the Sick

Since the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has undergone a remarkable development in practice. Where once it was only given only to those members of “the faithful who … from infirmity or old age become in danger of death,”1 the Church, by means of this sacrament, now “commends to the suffering and glorified Lord the faithful who are dangerously ill [periculose aegrotantes] so that he may support and save them.”2 The specific reference to the danger of death in the 1917 Code is conspicuous by its absence from the 1983 Code. This change, in fact, as well as the change in the very name of the sacrament from Extreme Unction (or ‘final anointing’) to the Anointing of the Sick, was made “in an endeavour to make it clear that it ‘is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death,’”3 but for “any man sick among you” (Jas 5:14) whose illness is serious.

By extending the gift of this Sacrament to more of Christ’s faithful who are in suffering, including those with chronic illnesses and even mental illnesses which constitute a real share in the Cross, even though they may not place them in immediate danger of death, the Church implicitly acknowledges the dignity and the particular “vocation of the sick.”4 Indeed, “the sick, especially the chronically ill, share in the Church’s life and mission … United to Christ, the baptized and confirmed ‘sick person is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive passion.’”5 The Sacrament of Anointing is not only the means by which the Church intercedes for her suffering son or daughter to receive strength and healing, though it is certainly that; it also renews and deepens the sick person’s union with the suffering Christ, that they might “fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ” (Col 1:24 DRA) by their own bodily participation in His redemptive Passion. Therefore the Church consoles the sick that their “sickness has meaning and value for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world.”6 

This affirmation of the dignity of the sick and of their participation in the Church’s mission precisely by means of their sickness is of critical importance in increasingly decadent, secular Western societies such as ours, which, through the habitual and legal practice of euthanasia, tacitly deny the value of suffering and degrade the dignity of the sick and aged. Often those who are chronically ill or disabled, particularly the elderly, can fall into depression and despair. They may feel that their life is as good as over, that they no longer have any role to play or any meaningful impact to make in the world. Against such diabolic lies, the Church insists with a mother’s solicitude that the sick may yet “contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ,”7 in particular “to offer their sufferings for missionaries,” by which offering “the sick themselves become missionaries!”8 Rather than only marking the end of a Christian’s pilgrimage through life and sending him on his final journey to the heavenly homeland, the Anointing of the Sick now serves to fortify and exhort a Christian soul in suffering to do their part in the battle for the world’s salvation, a part which they are uniquely suited to play: “Some work of noble note may yet be done.”9


Footnotes

  1. “Fideles qui … ob infirmitatem vel senium in periculo mortis versetur.” Code of Canon Law/1917, c. 940, in Codex iuris canonici 1917, at Biblia Clerus, http://www.clerus.org. Translation mine.
  2. Code of Canon Law, c. 998, in Code of Canon Law Annotated (Woodridge: Midwest Theological Forum, 2004), 764.
  3. Code of Canon Law Annotated, 764. Inner quote is from Paul VI, Sacrosanctum concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] (December 4, 1963), 73.
  4. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 12.1.7.
  5. ALH, 12.1.6. Inner quote is from Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1521; cf. also CCC 1294, 1523.
  6. Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum, trans. and ed. International Commission on English in the Liturgy (Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1983), 1.
  7. ALH, 12.1.5.
  8. John Paul II, qtd. in S. de Boer, “The Collective Anointing of the Weak,” Questions liturgiques 76 (1995), 74.
  9. Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses,” 52, at poets.org.

Tax Collectors and Sinners

This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on Thursday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time (Cycle II), November 5, 2020. The audio is available here.


“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Friends, consider the scene at the beginning of today’s Gospel. The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus because they wanted to listen to Him. Interesting group of people, isn’t it? Tax collectors and sinners. St. Luke manages to suggest in four neat words the great mass of unwashed deplorables, the hoi polloi of Israel and Judea, the kind of people Ted Hughes describes rather more colorfully in his translation of Bacchus and Pentheus:

“Children and their teachers, laborers, bankers,
Mothers and grandmothers, merchants, agents,
Prostitutes, politicians, police,
Scavengers and accountants, lawyers and burglars,
Builders, layabouts, tradesmen, con-men,
Scoundrels, tax-collectors, academicians,
Physicians, morticians, musicians, magicians,
The idle rich and the laughing mob!”

“Bacchus and Pentheus,” trans. Ted Hughes, in Tales from Ovid (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997), 68-75

These came to hear the Gospel, the word of life from the lips of the one that some in the crowd whispered excitedly was the “Christ,” the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. But the scribes and Pharisees, the religious élite, draw back. They stand apart from the crowds. These are not their kind of people, after all. And they whisper to one another something altogether different than the crowds, something they mean to be a condemnation of the whole phenomenon of the prophet from Nazareth: “This man, this Jesus, welcomes these sinners!”

If he were a prophet, if he were from God, he would reject them. If he were truly the Son of God, he would be with us. Are we not the teachers of the people? Are we not righteous? Do we not keep the law, fast, tithe, purify our hands? By the very fact that he welcomes them, he rejects us. And if he rejects us, then he rejects the covenant, the temple, the law—he places himself against God!

The seeds of their condemnation of Jesus before Pilate are already planted here in whispers.

For the Pharisees and scribes, after all, the line was clear. Those who do what the law commands are righteous and worthy of reward. Those who do not are wicked and deserving of punishment.

What the Pharisees and the scribes fail to see is that the line was not drawn between these worthy people of God and those tax collectors and sinners. The line is drawn down the center of every human heart. And here is the fundamental difference between the hearts of the Pharisees and the sinners from whom they draw back: the Pharisees are confident in their flesh, that is, in their Jewish bloodline, in the mark of the circumcision which made them members of the people of God, in their tribe, in their status, in righteousness based on the law.

Who could accuse them of any sin? In the reading we heard from his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul says that according to the law, “I was blameless,” and we have no reason to doubt that the Pharisees could say the same. What reason do they have to repent and believe in the Gospel of this preacher from Nazareth? They can stand tall before God and man on the strength of their own conduct.

Not so these sinners. The tax collectors were considered sell-outs and traitors to their own people, more Romans than Jews. These people coming to hear Jesus have no status. They have no dignity. But they see more clearly than the Pharisees, whose deadly pride and self-righteousness has made them blind: this man is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

The Pharisees have confidence in themselves. The sinners can only have confidence in Him.

Dear Christian people, what the scribes and Pharisees whispered with horror and resentment, we proclaim with boundless joy. This man, Jesus, true God and true Man, welcomes sinners!

He does not welcome sin. He cannot, any more than light can welcome darkness: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). But He is that “light from light, true God from true God,” who goes forth into the world in search of sinners to call us to repentance and bring us back to life. Like the woman in the parable who lights a lamp and overturns the house to find her one lost coin, Jesus is that light who comes forth from God and moves heaven and earth to find one lost soul, that Good Shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine in search of the one whom he has lost. Unlike the Pharisees, this God never writes anyone off as a lost cause: He goes after the lost one until he finds it. And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy.

Imagine the look on the Pharisees’ faces when Jesus turns to them and says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine ‘righteous people’ who have no need of repentance!”

They know he means them. They know he is saying that one of these poor sinners, if he only repents and believes in the Gospel, if he puts his trust in Jesus, the very “face of the Father’s mercy” (Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, §1) and “goes and sins no more,” is a greater joy to God and all His angels and saints than ninety-nine stiff-necked, self-righteous Pharisees. And they hate him for it. One day, they will kill him for it.

But dear friends, we love him for it. Because we are among that crowd of sinners, you and I. We “do not put our confidence in the flesh”; we know we are not blameless; we cannot come to God proud of our own merits. We are the poor and broken ones who come before Him often uncertainly, with our eyes lowered. We have been wounded before. We have been rejected. We know our faults all too well. We worry that we are not good enough for God—or at least that He would prefer to spend His time with holier, better, more perfect people than the likes of us.

But this God of ours does not demand that we be perfect to approach Him. He waits for us with patience. If we are lost, he comes in search of us. And when we draw near at last to listen to Him, He says to us again: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Theological Reflection: Confession

This week, I was approached by a woman at the RCIA who wanted to go to confession right away. Although she did not specify the reason (and of course I did not ask), I surmised that she had felt convicted by what we had been studying in the course of the lesson, and the gentle action of the Holy Spirit had moved her heart to repent and seek reconciliation with God and the Church. When she learned that I was unable to hear her confession right then and there, she asked me to help her make an appointment with the pastor at the earliest available time. 

The urgency of her desire to repent and be reconciled to God made an impression on me. In fact, just the day before, I had been in a similar position, feeling convicted by my conscience of a grave sin and in need of repentance and absolution. Because I am a seminarian and have personal connections with various priests in the vicariate, I was able to text a priest friend, drive out to his parish, go to confession that same hour, and stay for dinner. This woman felt the same compunction of heart, but did not have the luxury I did of such easy access to the sacrament of the Lord’s forgiveness. Although I could have passed her off to the parish office to make an appointment through the usual channels, I went to some extra effort as an intermediary working on her behalf to get her on the pastor’s schedule as soon as possible, following the pastor’s own advice: “Being pastoral means ‘more work for me.’”

This encounter highlighted for me the profound connection between the Sacrament of Penance and the overall process of conversion for candidates, such as this woman, who have previously been baptized in a non-Catholic ecclesial community. To be sure, the guidelines of the Archdiocese of Portland state that “in preparation for reception and completion of sacramental Initiation, and at a time prior to and distinct from the Rite of Reception, [such] candidates, according to their own consciences, should receive the Sacrament of Penance,” since this sacrament “provides grace and help to continuing conversion.”1 The same guidelines indicate that “it is fitting that such candidates celebrate the Sacrament of Penance in a communal setting with other members of the Catholic community, especially during Lent,” which is in fact a normal and scheduled part of RCIA every year in our parish, although “it is also possible to arrange a communal celebration specifically for the candidates, or to allow them to approach the sacrament privately.”2 

To my mind, it seems pastorally desirable to make the latter option as freely available as possible to such candidates. This woman had the courage to approach me and make an appointment, but there may be others who are afraid to do so, or are perhaps unaware that they can even go to confession before they are formally received into the Church. Therefore, as a priest, I would like to let the candidates for RCIA know from day one that if they are baptized, they are invited to approach the Sacrament of Penance at any time. They are free to come to the regularly scheduled confession times of the parish or to approach me any time they see me and ask for a “quick confession.” I would make it my promise to them (and the parish as a whole) that, unless I am directly on my way to a sick call or a meeting, etc., I will always honor those requests. Furthermore, I would make it my goal to be present at the RCIA nights as often as I can, every week if possible, precisely to be available for such requests. (My pastor has been good at being present, but he was not there that night; if he had been, I’m sure he would have heard this woman’s confession on the spot!) It may be more work for me, but it will mean a lot to them. 


Footnotes

  1. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 6.36.4. Cf. Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (1988),482; National Statues for the Catechumenate (Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1986), no. 36; Code of Canon Law, cann. 844 §4, 959.
  2. ALH, 6.36.5.

Live Not By Lies

This reflection was given after Holy Mass at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. John Paul II, October 22, 2020. The audio is available here.


The Rule of Saint Benedict begins with this question. “‘Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?’ If you hear this and your answer is ‘I do,’ God then directs these words to you: ‘If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; seek and strive after peace.”

Yet Our Lord in today’s Gospel asks us a very different question: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?” And before we can answer, “yes, Lord, of course!”—”No, I tell you, but rather division.” 

These are difficult, challenging words. 

What we must understand first is that where there is truth, there is always division. Truth is the light which shines through the fog and the darkness of the world, exposing the shadows of error and deception and revealing the shape of things as they really are. But as St. John says, “the hearts of men preferred darkness to light.” So wherever the truth is proclaimed, it is a sword which separates not only what is from what is not, but those who believe it and live by it from those who prefer to live by useful, comfortable, familiar lies. It is, in fact, a bright line drawn down the middle of our households, our families, our society, our nation, our Church, and even (if we are honest) our own hearts.

Of course, truth is more than just a set of propositions to be believed. Truth is, in fact, a person. “Ego sum via, veritas et vita,” says the Lord: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And as our Holy Father of happy memory, St. John Paul the Great, whose feast we celebrate today, taught us in his encyclical entitled The Splendor of Truth: “Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, ‘the true light that enlightens everyone’ (Jn 1:9), [we] become ‘light in the Lord’ and ‘children of light’ (Eph 5:8), and are made holy by ‘obedience to the truth’ (1 Pet 1:22).”

Ah, but now at once we see what it means that the Lord came not “to establish peace … but rather division.” The truth which Jesus Is and was sent to reveal—the truth, for example, that we are made in God’s image, male and female; that we belong to Him; that we are not autonomous and self-sufficient, masters of our own little lives and destinies, but creatures made by the hand of a great Creator, sinners in need of redemption and sheep in urgent danger from the wolves; that God who loves us wills to save us; that we are faced with a grave and urgent choice, whether we are for Him or against Him!— that truth not only divides; it crucifies. “For the hearts of men preferred darkness to light.” 

And so St. Simeon, holding the Christ child in his arms, prophesied to Mary that this baby God was “a sign which shall be contradicted” (Lk  2:34), spoken against.

Now, the disciple is not greater than the master. If we follow the truth, the narrow way which is Christ, we too shall be contradicted. We must expect to be mocked, misunderstood, rejected and abused, to suffer separation even from loved ones, to face slanderous and vile insults and worse from a world which hates us because it hated Him first (cf. Jn 15:18). 

Very well: fiat. Let it be done! But if we leave it at that, it looks like a bleak and lonely road indeed. “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?” So listen again now to the Lord’s words at the beginning of today’s Gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

That urgent fire in the heart of Jesus which he longed to set loose upon the world is the Holy Spirit, that Spirit Who so inflamed the apostles at Pentecost that they went fearlessly to the ends of the earth and gladly accepted martyrdom for the splendor of the truth they proclaimed. That’s why Saint Paul prays that “the Father … may grant you, in accord with the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power through his Spirit.” We need the Holy Spirit, not only to make us strong enough to proclaim the truth and live by the truth, not even just to reveal the truth to us, “the length and breadth and height and depth,” but to transform us into the truth of who we are.

We are indeed made for peace, but that peace comes only from living in the truth of who God is and who we are, and becoming through obedience who we are meant to be. 

To seek and strive after that peace means to seek and strive after and live by the whole truth of Christ. We must “live not by lies”: not by the lies of the world, not by the lies of the Devil, not even by the lies which make up our false selves. We must renounce all such lies, be divided from them, to live in the truth. And only obedience to the truth, in the end, will set us free to live the life of God. 

Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Thou spirit of truth. Come and teach us all things. Come, transform us. Come, unite us to yourself.