Sunday, February 3, 2019

Blessed Tommaso da Olera (1563-1631)


Sometimes holy people are declared saints right after they die. Take Benedict Joseph Labre for instance. Within minutes of his death, the youth of Rome were running through the streets shouting, “The saint is dead! The saint is dead!” – an assessment later affirmed by unanimous acclaim.

On the other hand, sometimes canonizations grind on and on...and on. Like Joan of Arc, whose sainthood wasn’t recognized until 500 years after her death.

Brother Tommaso da Olera’s cause falls into the latter class, which is in line with other delays that pepper his life story.

Born in 1563 in northern Italy, Tommaso labored as shepherd in his youth to help support his family. With no resources and no schools nearby, he missed out on an education, but eventually he did acquire a rudimentary literacy after joining the Capuchins at age 17.

Tommaso flourished in his vocation and advanced quickly in the spiritual life. A collection of his mystical writings, Fuoco d’amore (“Fire of Love”), was published 50 years after his death, and it reveals a sublime grasp of ascetical theology. It was among Pope St. John XXIII’s favorite spiritual works, and the Pontiff had portions of it read to him on his death bed.

The humble friar’s daily tasks included washing pots, collecting alms, and visiting the sick, but he also joyfully shared the Gospel with everyone he met. His reputation for holiness spread, and in 1619 Archduke Leopold V of Austria requested Tommaso’s assistance in confronting the spread of Lutheranism. Barely literate, Tommaso avoided disputation. Instead, with great success, he simply witnessed to Christ’s impassioned love for his Church.

Br. Tommaso died in Innsbruck in 1631, and it took another 356 years before Pope John Paul II proclaimed the friar Venerable in 1987. Pope Benedict XVI authorized Tommaso's beatification in 2012, and the beatification Mass was finally celebrated by a representative of Pope Francis in 2013.

Franciscans observe Bl. Tommaso's feast on May 4.
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A shorter version of this reflection originally appeared in
Franciscan Magazine, Franciscan University of Steubenville

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Eucharistic Living: Daily Mass


I go to Mass every day because I want to be with him – to be there where he is, to talk to him and to listen (although, to tell the truth, I do more talking than listening, but I’m working on that). That is, I want to commune with him whether or not I can receive communion. It’s like being at home with him, even when I, out of respect, have to forego inviting him to take up residence in me.

That doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I’ll find my way to my usual spot on Mary’s side, between Simon of Cyrene and St. Veronica, throw my arms across the back of the pew, and bask in the liturgy. Such days are unanticipated little gifts that hearken back to my youthful Romance of Eucharistic fasting. I get to briefly relive the anticipation of my eager Catholic-wannabe days and I’ll leave all the more eager to properly anticipate actual communion with my Lord the next day.
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Saturday, December 1, 2018

St. Edmund Campion and the Advent of Advent

It’s the First Sunday of Advent – it’s finally here! But, in truth, it actually started late on Saturday.

That’s because, liturgically, Sunday always begins late on Saturday. It’s a ritual reckoning of the Sabbath – sunset to sunset – that we inherited from Judaism, and it’s why we celebrate Sunday Mass as early as Saturday afternoon.

It’s also why Sundays have two celebrations of Evening Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours: First Vespers is prayed on Saturday in the p.m., and Second Vespers on Sunday itself. Thus, even when we don’t attend the Vigil Mass, our corporate Sunday observances are initiated by priests and religious (and laity) who intone Evening Prayer I the night before.

And here’s how Evening Prayer I kicks off the First Sunday of Advent every year: “Proclaim the good news among the nations: Our God will come to save us.” It’s the antiphon that heralds the first psalm of First Vespers for the First Sunday of Advent. In a sense, it’s the advent of Advent, the first little liturgical hint that something big is on its way.

It’s also an appropriate bridge this year between Advent Sunday #1 and the day that precedes it – Saturday, December 1 – which marked the feast of the English Jesuit martyr, St. Edmund Campion (1540-1581), a true proclaimer to the nations.

Campion came of age during the English Reformation and his studies at Oxford led him to question the Crown’s usurpation of papal authority. At great risk, he threw away a career in the Church of England and traveled to Rome to pursue a Catholic vocation in the Society of Jesus.

After ordination, Campion taught for a time, but in 1580 he returned to his homeland to surreptitiously serve the persecuted Catholic minority. As a priest-outlaw, St. Edmund was always on the lam, and he regularly made use of disguises so that he could better minister to the faithful.

Betrayed by a spy and convicted of treason in 1581, Fr. Campion suffered a brutal martyrdom on Dec. 1. Yet that wasn’t the end of the story. Campion’s heroic efforts and courageous example helped the English Catholic Church survive its period of persecution, and it emerged intact and vibrant in the modern era.

St. Edmund’s life was an advent of proclamation. May his prayers aid us in imitating his resolve to proclaim the Good News.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange. It originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mishawaka, Indiana. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Veterans Day 2018


Although I get (and distribute) the New York Catholic Worker newspaper, I rarely read it all the way through – as I used to do when I was hanging around Chicago’s St. Francis CW House. But I’m older and cranky and tired most the time now. When the CW bundle arrives in our mailbox every month or two, I’ll usually lay the pile out flat, scan the headlines for names I recognize, and then distribute them in our church’s vestibule the next time I’m there for Mass. “I’m sure somebody will benefit from these,” I’ll mutter.

Last week, however, for some reason, some providential reason, I leafed through a copy of the latest issue, page by page. That’s when I came across Dan Jackson’s moving testimonial, “Dorothy Was Right All Along.” He’s referring to CW founder Dorothy Day’s pacifism, which was unequivocal. Like Jackson, I found Day’s Christianity inspiring in my youth, but I held back from her call to total nonviolence. “I might get married and have children someday,” I argued (with anyone who’d listen), “and I’d have responsibility for protecting them, even if it required returning violence for violence.” And I am married, and I do have children today, and I would do whatever was necessary to protect them.

But war is another matter altogether. It seems impossible to reconcile modern, total war with the relative niceties of just war criteria. The aims of today’s wars are especially elusive and fungible, yet the costs are always incalculable. Jackson’s poignant reflection was a stark reminder of the latter. He describes an epiphany he had while working at a Catholic cemetery one summer. He’d witnessed numerous military burials, but one in particular jarred his soul.
No one spoke. No one coughed. The twenty-one gun salute reverberated under the arches of the nearby Whitestone Bridge. The only sound at the gravesite was the uncontrolled sobbing of this boy’s father. As they never had before, my eyes filled with tears. That was the day I stopped doubting Dorothy. That was the day I became sure that she was right all along.
I had Jackson’s testimonial in mind as Veterans Day arrived this year – the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. A friend of mine posted a recording from that day in 1918 when the guns went silent along the front. It’s surreal: one moment Europeans bent on slaughtering each other across stretches of land, the next moment there was calm. You can even hear the birds begin singing after the pause.

But it was a calm arranged by the very parties who’d initiated the conflict in the first place, and it prompted me to track down a movie that depicts a different, more organic ceasefire that preceded the Armistice by several years. The movie is Joyeux Noël (2006), and it tells the tale of the Christmas Truce that spontaneously occurred along the French battle lines in 1914. German, French, and British soldiers put down their arms and fraternized across enemy lines. They ate and drank; they shared photos and played soccer.

We watched it tonight, and I couldn’t help thinking that this silencing of guns was accomplished by those who were most directly affected. The men who were killing and being killed themselves decided to stop the slaughter. In time, their superiors compelled them to take up arms again against each other, but the men had chosen, even for a brief period, to choose against killing as a way of solving problems. It didn’t make sense to them. The cost was too high.

It’s still too high.

Veterans Day is the day we honor the living, and I do thank vets for their service and sacrifice. I’m also committed to praying for peace so that fewer of those who follow them in service will have to be commemorated on Memorial Day.
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Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Musical Tribute to Bill W.

My dad was an alcoholic. I loved him very much, and I know he loved me – and my brother and my sister and my mom. He was sober off and on the latter half of his life, and when he was sober, it was largely due to A.A.

Here's El Ten Eleven's tribute to Bill W., A.A.'s founder. Alcoholism is war, and I believe my dad fought valiantly with the weapons at his disposal. A.A. was one of them. Thanks, Bill, indeed. Rest in peace, Dad.

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Saturday, September 22, 2018

Our Local Pro-Life Guardian Angel

Last Thursday night, St. Joseph County Right to Life held its 27th Annual Right to Life Benefit Dinner. "The event was a huge success," read a follow-up email from the organization, "raising funds that are critical in our continuing mission of sharing the sanctity of life through education, advocacy, outreach, and prayer." At the end of the evening, my son and I had the privilege of making the following fundraising pitch.
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It’s always a joy for me and my wife, Nancy, to come to this banquet every year, and tonight is a special joy because we have two of our kids – our youngest – with us for the first time: our son, Nicholas, and our daughter, Katharine. As if that weren’t enough, Nick and I also have this honor of coming up here together, father and son, to ask you for…money.

But before we get to money, we want to talk a minute about guardian angels.

We all know about guardian angels, and if you’re Catholic, you’ve been praying to your guardian angel since you were a tot – which means you’ve also probably taught your own tots the same guardian angel prayer that your parents taught you. “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love entrusts me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.”

But not just Catholics. Other Christian traditions acknowledge the role of personal heavenly guardians based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones,” he says. “For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Jewish tradition incorporates a similar idea, and we read of an angel, Raphael, coming to the aid of the wayfarer Tobiah in the Book of Tobit.

OK, so we have guardian angels. What does that have to do with Right to Life and money? I’ll tell you. A week ago, I was in my car and the radio was on. At the top of the hour, the local news included a brief reference to Whole Woman’s Health Alliance getting the nod from an Indianapolis judge to proceed with their plans for a west-side chemical abortion center – bad news for the babies, bad news for the moms, bad news for the West Side and our entire community. But the bad news was balanced with a bit of hope: “If the Indiana Health Department doesn’t object,” the announcer said, “the order will become final on October 2.”

October 2nd – I perked up. Did you? For us Catholics, it’s the feast of the Guardian Angels – a high holy day in Catholic families with young kids. It’s the day we thank God for his provision in our lives as we celebrate the personal angelic companions he gave us – especially since we grown-ups probably don’t think about them much of the rest of the year.

But they’re always there, as the prayer says, enlightening us to truth, protecting us from harm, and guiding us forward. And that’s exactly the kind of work that St. Joseph County Right to Life has been doing since 1972 – a year before the passage of Roe v. Wade. Think of it: Even before abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court, St. Joe County Right to Life was all set, in place, and ready to act as our community’s guardian angel on behalf of the preborn.

You can bet that’s what they’ll be doing between now and October 2nd with regards to that new abortion clinic. St. Joe County Right to Life will be educating, advocating, and leading the charge to stop that place from opening if at all possible. And all while they continue doing everything else they do in our community – some things visible, like the billboards for the Women’s Care Center, and some thing less visible and behind the scenes.

Yet, unlike our personal guardian angels, who are spirits and don’t need income, our communal, pro-life guardian angel does. St. Joe County Right to Life has expenses just like any other organization, and it relies on our contributions to make ends meet. So, please, on behalf of all those guarded by St. Joe County Right to Life, be as generous as you can.
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Friday, August 31, 2018

A Reading List for a Eucharistic Life


Last June, I had the distinct privilege of sharing my testimony at a Notre Dame symposium put on by the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s Center for Liturgy. The symposium’s overall theme was “The Eucharistic Life,” and at week’s end I had the chance to relate my own spiritual story according to a Eucharistic vision. I was grateful to Dr. Tim O’Malley for the invitation, to his staff who helped me with the many details, and to the symposium participants who listened attentively to my remarks – not to mention my ums and ahs, my rambling digressions and my sobs. I don’t often get the chance to talk so freely in public about my faith history and conversion to Catholicism – my favorite, my most favorite tale to tell – and I relished the opportunity to do so at such a receptive gathering.

Then, a week or so ago, I received a follow-up email from Carolyn, the Center for Liturgy’s Program Director. “We are assembling a list of resources for our participants,” she wrote, “so if you could, send along your top 3 recommendations for indispensable books/articles that have meant a great deal to you in your study and formation that you feel our participants should know about and read.” Thankfully, mercifully, Carolyn tacked on this addendum: “Feel free to send more than 3 if you like.”

It was like an unexpected, delayed bonus on top of the honor of actually sharing at the event. As a frequent bookstore habitué (and former bookstore clerk), recommending books is second only to actually reading them in my way of seeing things, so Carolyn didn’t have to prod me for a response – especially since she lifted the numerical restriction.

“I've been mulling over your request quite a bit,” I wrote back after a couple days. “Here's the list I came up with.” I’ve cut-and-pasted the list below, and I’ve included some brief annotations [in brackets] as to why I think each item is relevant to a Eucharistic way of life.
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  1. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (1952) and, her follow-up companion volume, Loaves and Fishes (1963).
    [As I’ve noted elsewhere, I didn’t become a Catholic because of Servant of God Dorothy Day, but I don’t think I would’ve become a Catholic without her. It’s also true that her love of the Mass and the Eucharist, and how she very intentionally allowed the Eucharist to thoroughly permeate everything she thought and did and attempted, was a powerful witness. Even before I joined the Church, she was my hero bar none. After I joined the Church, she was my mentor through her writing. I still want to be like her when I grow up.]
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949).
    [Although my brother tried to get me to read LOTR and The Hobbit back in the 1970s when they were hot off the press, I couldn’t be bothered (!). After becoming a Catholic, I finally got around to Tolkien’s astounding epic, and it was like a spiritual epiphany. It's like a roadmap of the spiritual life, and a sacramental sensibility hovers over the entire corpus. Dr. O’Malley's recent piece for OSV on Tolkien’s elvish waybread as an image of Eucharistic sustenance captures what I'm getting at superbly.]
  3. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940).
    [I was in Chicago living in an urban studies center on the South Side, and just piecing together the whole mystique of Catholic Worker-ism and Catholicism when I stumbled across this novel about a delinquent priest ministering to a persecuted Mexican Church in the 1930s. It clicked, and Greene's gripping narrative about the lengths people will go to – the lengths they in fact actually went to – to receive the Eucharist permanently framed my sacramental identity.]
  4. Myles Connolly, Mr. Blue (1928) – especially Mr. Blue's movie pitch in the middle.
    [That "elevator pitch" about halfway into this short novel is almost like a mini-novelette unto itself. It, too, is a powerful picture of the centrality of the Eucharist to the Christian project, not only for the sanctification of individual believers, but for the salvation of the whole world.]
  5. Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959).
    [This monastic sci-fi masterpiece is hard to describe, and it's even harder to put into words why it's so unsettling and alluring. At the heart of it is a continuity of ancient tradition and community that revolves around liturgy and prayer, and so, like Dorothy's autobiographical writings, I think Canticle modeled for me an all-encompassing Eucharistic worldview that I couldn't resist.]
  6. C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) – particularly the beginning about the children falling into the painting.
  7. [I zoomed through Lewis's Narnia Chronicles when I was a 7th-grader, and I've come back to them periodically – and not just to read them to my own kids, but for my own pleasure and edification. Dawn Treader in particular has stood out in my memory over the years for its thread of adventurous journeying that has its genesis in a metaphysical accident. A group of children are gazing at a painting of a ship at sea, and the painting comes alive – and the children clumsily tumble down beyond the picture frame and into the painted scene. As an Evangelical, I came to interpret this imagery in terms of Christians inhabiting the Biblical literature. As a Catholic, I've come to further embrace that opening sequence as a potent metaphor for how we can be drawn into and come to inhabit the liturgy itself. In other words, the real adventure of Christianity is at the altar, the fount, and the kneeler. When we inhabit a sacramental universe, then anything can happen.]
Plus, three movies – all of which were books first (or at least a play in the case of Wit), but I like the movie adaptations a lot:
  1. Babette's Feast (1987)
    [This quiet, unassuming film is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. On the surface, it's a romantic tale of serendipity, sacrifice, and love. Look deeper, and you'll see Christ and his Church, kenosis and metanoia, and a profound ecclesial longing for heaven. Moreover, you'll see a Eucharistic feast like no other.]
  2. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
    [Maybe this is a stretch, but this fantasy film (based on Michael Ende's novel) fleshes out what Lewis was getting at in those first pages of Dawn Treader. The movie's hero, Bastian, is alienated and lonely and put upon at school, and he finds solace and escape in a beguiling storybook that increasingly occupies his consciousness. In time, Bastian is swept up into the story he is reading, and he takes on a critical role in the unfolding plot. "Real" world and the world of the page fuse for Bastian, and what had been an entertaining diversion soon swamps all other temporal concerns. Again, it's an image of inhabiting that I associated with a life centered on liturgy and sacrament.]
  3. Wit (2001)
  4. [I've been showing this HBO production of Margaret Edson's play to my nursing students for eons. Emma Thompson is superb in the role of Vivian Bearing, an English scholar who is dying of cancer. To me, its frequent biblical, hagiographic, liturgical, and sacramental allusions are palpable and illuminating. Every time I screen it for my students, I see something new – every time, really! It's a remarkable play, and this film version is astonishing. And the Eucharistic epiphany – a moment of breathtaking nuance and grace – is unforgettable.]
Come to think of it, I recall that Disney's version of Beauty and the Beast – the animated one from 1991, not the live action one from last year – had some powerful Eucharistic undertones. [Selfless love, transformative grace, death into life, and more.] Oh, and Diary of a Country Priest (1936) by Georges Bernanos is highly recommended, as is the old film version from 1954. [Both convey that same idea I found so compelling in Dorothy Day and Miller's Canticle: That a Eucharistic life is one that is shot full of Christ, and there's no out of the way corner or nook of our experience that escapes his expansive, crucified presence. "Does it matter?" the protagonist confesses at the very end. "Grace is everywhere...."]

Dom Hubert van Zeller is uniformly wonderful. Anything by him is recommended. [It's true. I've never encountered anything by Van Zeller that I didn't find captivating, instructive, and beneficial. And, as a Benedictine, even when he's not writing about the liturgy and the Eucharist explicitly, he seems to lean on their ubiquity, always in the ether informing and pervading everything else. That's my goal, too. I'm working on it.]
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