Tassel of the Cloak

Thank You, President Washington

The Constitutional Convention got off to a slow start in May 1787.  Having met already for a week, on Sunday, May 20th, the group decided not to work, but instead to attend a religious service.  Interestingly, they decided on a Catholic Mass.  There were no Catholics present in the group (the Catholic delegate, Daniel Carroll, from Maryland, had not yet arrived in Philadelphia).  Besides, Philadelphia held the country's largest Episcopalian church and, this same week, the city was hosting a national convention for the Presbyterian church.

Catholics, up to this point in the American colonies and the young American nation, had been overtly persecuted.  Catholics were forbidden from voting or holding public office.  John Jay, who would go on to become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, procured a law in New York maintaining the ban on Catholic participation in politics.  In Massachusetts, it was a capital offense for a priest to preach or celebrate Mass publicly.  

When asked why they attended Mass, George Mason, a Protestant, wrote: "it was more out of Compliment than Religion, and more out of Curiosity than Compliment." Ah, the curiosity of Catholicism! Something that still draws people today.

Mason went on to describe what the experience was like: "While I was pleased with the Air of Solemnity so generally diffused through the Church, I was somewhat disgusted with the frequent tinkling of a little bell, which put me in mind of the drawing up of the curtain for a puppet-shew."  I guess the altar bells are not for everyone!

Nonetheless, the experience was powerful that enough George Washington led a group of Protestants the following Sunday once again to Catholic Mass at St. Mary's Parish in downtown Philadelphia.  His message was clear: bigotry against Catholicism would no longer stand.  Thank you, President Washington.

Three Stairways to Christ

The Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883 and designed by John Roebling, is a cable-suspension bridge.  There are two towers connected by horizontal cables.  The cable lines run to the land, ending at an anchorage. Emanating down from the horizontal cables are vertical cables that hold up the deck bridge.  Weight transfers from the cables to the towers, which is then transferred down to the ground.  In the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, two large pine boxes, called caissons, were floated down the East River.  When the limestone towers began to be constructed on top of the caissons, they sank until they reached the bottom of the river.  Workers were able to enter into these boxes to dig into the bedrock to allow the caissons to sink even further and form a solid foundation.  They were then filled with brick and concrete.  Everything rests, essentially, on these two pillars.

An interesting aside: vaulted chambers were built into the ramped anchorages at the ends of the bridge.  Situated within limestone and maintaining a perfect temperature of 60 degrees, these vaults became perfect wine cellars.  In fact, the city rented these cellars out to liquor vendors.  On the Manhattan-side entry into one of the vaults was a shrine to the Blessed Mother with a statue of Mary.  It was called the Blue Grotto.

Saint Catherine of Siena was no stranger to bridges.  She invoked the bridge as an image of Christ.  Our Lord is the span between heaven and earth, and the soul must traverse Christ to reach God. There are three stairways on this Christ-bridge.  One stairway is our detachment from sin, the second is the practice of the virtues, and the third is the loving union with God.  May we marvel at Christ, just as we do the Brooklyn Bridge.

Running the Race

At the start of the 20th Century, less than one percent of the population practiced any sporting activity.  Sport was used only as a form of military training or as a pastime for the upper class.  To increase participation in sports for the health of society, and help promote the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympics, called upon the Vatican for an endorsement.  Pope Pius X readily agreed.  "All right," responded the Pope to an audience, "if it is impossible to understand that this can be done, then I myself will do exercise in front of everyone so that they may see that, if the Pope can do it, anyone can do it."

Over a century later the vast majority of the population exercises.  Pope Francis, the present Roman Pontiff, had this to say in audience: 

In rugby one runs towards a goal. This word, which is so beautiful and so important, makes us think about life, because all our lives lead towards a goal. This search is tiring, and requires commitment and struggle, but the important thing is not to run alone. To arrive at the goal we need to run together, the ball is passed from hand to hand, and we advance together, until we reach the goal. And then we celebrate!

Sports are not only good for our health—Saint Paul spoke of "running the race" (1 Cor 9:24) and the need to present our bodies "as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God" (Rom 12:1)—there are also moral and spiritual lessons sports instill, as Francis suggests. So, when enjoying the Super Bowl, perhaps we can be grateful to the Church to whom we owe, in part, its popularity.

 

Father Emil Kapaun

Father Emil Kapaun quickly enrolled as military chaplain following his ordination in 1940.  After serving in WWII, he found himself in Korea as a Captain with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army.  When his group was overrun by the Chinese on November 2, 1950, Kapaun ran from foxhole to foxhole, lifting men out so they could retreat, giving Last Rites to others who had been mortally wounded, hearing confessions over gunfire, and, in several cases, dragging men to safety at the casualty collection point.  He ran back and forth across 'no-man's land' and at last determined to stay behind with the wounded men who could not be transported.  He used his preaching skills to negotiate the removal of a few more soldiers and was finally forced to a POW camp, though not before stepping in front of Sergeant First Class Herbert Miller, who was about to be executed by a Chinese soldier.  Miller was spared and Father Kapaun began the 87-mile death march to prison.

Kapaun carried men on his back during the march and when the depleted group arrived, the chaplain did not rest, but set about building fires, purifying drinking water, obtaining scraps of food, and tending to the sick and dying.  He rallied the whole group, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to pray the rosary together.  He prayed individually with men, baptizing a few into the Catholic faith, and gave homilies to the group.  The Chinese guards ordered him to stop and, when he refused, he was stripped naked and forced to stand on a block of ice for several hours.  Worn down, he was left to die alone, which he did on May 23, 1951.  His body was thrown into a mass grave.  This Medal of Honor recipient is an icon of the priesthood and hero in the Catholic Church and United States.

The Gates of the Netherworld

The Holy Spirit moved mysteriously over the "waters" of the Piedmont region in Northern Italy over several decades in the 19th Century.  This was a tumultuous time for the church.  The pope had been imprisoned, the Papal States were confiscated by the new king of Italy, and the rise of nationalism led to the outright persecution of the clergy, parishes, and Catholic schools.  This was particularly the case in Germany with Otto von Bismarck.  The heresy of Jansenism had a negative impact on people, and there were still lingering anti-Catholic sentiments from the French Revolution.  The general population was skeptical of Catholicism.  God thus responded, producing a number of saints.  Never has there been so many saints from one area (around Turin) during one period of time.  Pope Francis has referred to them as the 'social saints.'  We have Saints John Bosco, Joseph Cafasso, Leonardo Murialdo, Luigi Orione, and Joseph Cottolengo.  There are others on their way to sainthood, such as Bruno Lanteri, Francis Faa di Bruno, and the 24-year-old Pier Giorgio Frassati..

Saint John Bosco, the "apostle to the youth" and founder of the Salesian Order was known for his great smile and exceptional love for all people.  Saint Joseph Cafasso was Bosco's close friend and the one who inspired Bosco with his pastoral visits to the suffering.  Saint Murialdo founded the Society of Saint Joseph, which looked after delinquent children, and Saint Orione, who was an apprentice to Bosco, founded the Hermits of Divine Providence, which tended to the poor and sick.  Saint Cottolengo likewise opened a home for the sick and orphans.   These holy priests won back the people's hearts to Catholicism and proved true Christ's claim that "the gates of the netherworld shall never prevail against the Church."

Christ's Heart Beats Loudly

Adapted from the homily delivered this past Christmas...

When Christ was born, a drumbeat entered into existence.  Beforehand, there was silence; no beat to give people a cadence and to excite them.  For that is the twofold purpose of a drum sound.  An army marching will often do so to the rhythm of a drummer.  This keeps the soldiers in line.  If the pace of the beat rises, the army charges.  The drumbeat not only quickens the feet, it also quickens the heart.  There is something primordial about a drum that produces adrenaline and energizes us.  See a football team coming out of the locker room to the drummer of the marching band.  Listen to a rock song with a great drum solo or sequence, like Happy Jack by The Who.  Or, if you want to stick to Christmas music, The Little Drummer Boy.  Originally known as 'The Carol of the Drums' this song is all about the poor shepherd boy pleasing the Holy Family with his drumming, since he has nothing else to offer.  Bob Seger has a great version of this Christmas carol.  If rock is not to your taste, you could listen to 'The Hallelujah Chorus' in Handel's Messiah, which utilizes the timpani masterfully.  This is not a sad or dull piece.

Christ has provided the drumbeat for us.  If we are to receive genuine excitement and joy and not fall astray in life, we ought to listen and march to this beat.  Henri Nouwen writes, "Discernment is a life of listening to a deeper sound and marching to a different beat, a life in which we become 'all ears'."  Prayer is one way we listen to the drums.  The Mass is another.  Christ's heart beats loudly in the Eucharist. 

For 2,000 years God has been drumming.  It is not only for us to this Christmas to be attuned and 'rock out', but also our Church, founded on a rock

 

With God, All Things Are Possible Even Time Travel

In discussing the Eucharist, Saint Thomas Aquinas writes, "This sacrament has a threefold significance: with regard to the past...with regard to the present...with regard to the future..." (ST III, 73.4). The movie Back to the Future comes to mind.

If you have never seen the 1980s cult classic movie trilogy, time travel is the subject.  A high school student travels to the 1950s and interferes with the events, thus altering the future.  When he returns back to the present, it is no longer the present as he left it.  Some terrible events have also happened in the future, and so the main character and his sidekick must travel back to the past and then back to the future to correct the situation.  It is easier to watch than describe.

"With God all things are possible" (Matt 19:26) and God makes 'time travel', in a sense, possible with the Eucharist (not the flux capacitor).  When we celebrate Mass on Sunday, three time periods are being invoked and affected.  With regard to the past, Mass is the re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary 2,000 years ago.  His sacrifice that led to our redemption is placed anew upon the altar at Catholic parishes around the world.  With regard to the present, Mass is communion.  We are united to Jesus right now and to the church, both members here on earth and those in Heaven. With regard to the future, the Mass is the participation in a banquet occurring in Heaven.  It will draw us to Heaven, which is why we sometimes refer to the Eucharist as viaticum

When we go to Mass we are, as theologian Peter Kreeft puts it, "bilocating, not just in space but in time."  I hope you enjoy the presentation.

Theotokos of Vladimir

The Theotokos of Vladimir is an icon written (icons are technically 'written' not 'painted') in the year 1130 in Constantinople and is currently in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  Theotokos means 'bearer of God,' and there are series of Theotokos icons, of which our present study is a part, called the Eleusa icons.  Eleusa means tenderness.  And so this image is sometimes referred to as 'The Virgin of Tenderness.'

Mary is holding Jesus delicately, while staring, if you notice, directly at us.  Mary wants a relationship with us.  We will be fulfilled if we do.  It is also as if Mary wants us to have the same desire for her as her Son does.  There is a lot of significance in those eyes.  Mary's tender and penetrating eyes are always upon us.  This is a beautiful thing.  We never want a mother and a lady's gaze to drift elsewhere.  We are possessive of the feminine attention.  Mary satisfies our need.      

The infant appears as if he is trying to climb Mary, to get as close to her as possible. A sandal of Jesus has even fallen off (see the right foot) in his haste to fly unto his Mother.  Mary is cooperative with this effort.  Her left hand seems to be pushing Jesus upwards. You will also notice Jesus' right hand on the face of Mary.  He has wrapped his arm around her neck--another sign of affection.  Our Lord embraces Mary.  The faces of mother and son are touching as well.  Great intimacy is present in that physical connection.  And Jesus, of course, is looking directly into the eyes of his mother. 

If there are times in our life we do not believe Jesus is looking at us, chances are he is looking at us through the eyes of his tender Mother. 

 

Behold! I Make All Things New

On October 21st, 1892, the United States celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the new world.  The year-long celebration, declared by President Benjamin Harrison, was highlighted by the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, which ran from May 1 until October 30, 1893.  The monumental fair, which drew more than 27 million visitors, was a symbol of America's industry, innovation, and exceptionalism.  And so it was fitting that Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, considered one of the world's greatest musicians, performed at the fair.  Conducting the Chicago Symphony in front of a crowd of 8,000, Dvorak received a two-minute ovation.

Dvorak had recently composed his Symphony No.9 in E Minor. 'The New World Symphony' is a uniquely American symphony.  Dvorak made it for the United States and based it off of American melodies, also having been inspired by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The United States at the time was still considered 'the new world.' It no longer is.  We might be the 'first world,' but we are not new.  Catholicism, which has been around far longer than the United States, is, paradoxically, the 'new world.'  "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1).

We are the new world, and we always will be.  "Behold, I make all things new," says our Lord (Rev 21:5).  This is because our 'old worlds' constantly end.  When an individual Catholic turns away from a particular sin, deepens his prayer life, learns about a mystery of the faith, or matures morally, his apocalypse has come and he enters a new world.  Something similar happens for the Church at large each era. 

We likely will not hear the famous final movement of the New World Symphony this Christmas.  But this feast can, indeed, be the ushering in of a new world.

Virgin with Porridge

I could not help but chuckle when I came across Gerard David's 1520 painting, bizarrely titled, "Virgin with Porridge." I wonder if Mary and Joseph taught our Lord the fable of the three bears.  I am sure they told him about the story of Esau in the Book of Genesis (cf. Gen 25: 27-34). Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a plate of porridge (or lentils, as some translators have it). 

Whether or not Jesus actually ate porridge is beside the point. The lesson from the painting is about Mary.  Just as Mary nourished her Son, so too are individuals to be fed and comforted by the Blessed Mother.  The Church likewise needs the presence of the Blessed Mother, lest we become too bureaucratic or preoccupied with our own self-preservation.  We cannot feed ourselves.  Only Mary can help us grow the right way. 

Jesus sits on Mary's knee while holding a wooden spoon (carved, perhaps, by Joseph?).  Both Mary and Jesus have spoons.  Mary is the instrument of the grace that comes from our Lord.

There are some other noteworthy aspects of the painting.  The bread near the bowl and the pitcher on the cupboard are Eucharistic.  There is an apple next to the bread, a reference to the sin of Adam and the undoing of that sin.  We also have a glimpse into the world outside through the window in the background.  There is a melding of both the spiritual and world realms, the internal and external.  We are to be both Martha and Mary—active and contemplative.  

There is nothing overtly religious about the piece. This could be any mother and child.  And therein lays the final message.  Holiness is to be found in each one of us in the mundane on goings of life. 

 

Blessed Santia Szymkowiak

Many know of St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), but there are many other female saints who were martyrs during WWII.

Blessed Santia Szymkowiak was a member of the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of Sorrows, also known as the Seraphic Sisters.  The Nazis overran her convent in Poznan in Poland in 1939 and Santia was conscripted as translator for the Germans.  She had a chance to escape, but chose instead to stay with her community, where she made her solemn vows on July 6, 1942. She would die the following month, having contracted tuberculosis in the prison camp.  She wrote in her diary, "Jesus wants me to be a holy religious and He will not be happy with me until I use all my strength for Him and become a saint...I have to become a saint at all costs. This is my constant preoccupation." Santia was beatified in 2002.

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Our Lady of Combermere

There is a unique statue in the Canadian woods, often covered in snow, of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Her arms are outstretched, hair and cloak blowing behind her as if she is flying through the air.  Our Lady of Combermere looks like she desires to embrace whoever is before her.  It is not uncommon for the Blessed Virgin to be given a town's name as an appellation.  For instance, she could be called Our Lady of Edison Park.  Mary, for the residents of that town devoted to her, helps with causes particular to the area.  In Combermere, a town in Ontario, the residents might turn to Mary when they are fetching water, chopping wood, or braving a winter storm.  In Chicago, we could turn to Mary to help us find work, renovate our house, care for our aging parents, or do well in school.  There is nothing too mundane for the Blessed Mother.

If you need a hug, you might consider praying, as residents of Madonna House do, to Our Lady of Combermere.

O Mary, you desire so much to see Jesus loved. Since you love me, this is the favor which I ask of you: to obtain for me a great personal love of Jesus Christ. You obtain from your Son whatever you please; pray then for me, that I may never lose the grace of God, that I may increase in holiness and perfection from day to day, and that I may faithfully and nobly fulfill the great calling in life which your Divine Son has given me. By that grief which you suffered on Calvary when you beheld Jesus die on the Cross, obtain for me a happy death, that by loving Jesus and you, my mother, on earth, I may share your joy in loving and blessing the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit forever in Heaven. Amen.

 

 

Ye of Little Faith

To people who doubt the existence of God and of Catholicism, using science as their reason, I would encourage a survey of the greatest scientists of the 20th Century.

Albert Einstein, though he did not believe in a personal God, did, nonetheless, believe in a "superior mind" and a higher order. God, to him, was a principle of intelligibility and rationality.  Einstein's colleagues, who developed quantum theory, had a more advanced image of God…

Max Planck, who was the originator of quantum theory and the domain of subatomic particles, believed not only in God and a personal God, but also in religion.  "Religion is the link that binds man to God," he said, "resulting from the respectful humility before a supernatural power, to which all human life is subject and which controls our weal and woe."

Werner Heisenberg, the originator of the matrix formulation of quantum mechanics, was an active Christian and defended the existence of the soul and the need for faith. 

Arthur Eddington, who confirmed Einstein's general theory of relativity from an astronomical standpoint and established other theories about the conception of the universe, has a chapter in his book on quantum theory titled, "A Defense of Mysticism." God draws us continually to new heights, be it in the field of art, spirituality, or science.  Our minds are not reduced to our brains.

Kurt Godel, a leading mathematician, demonstrated that the human capacity to understand the rules of mathematical principles and algorithms cannot be explained or grounded in the algorithms themselves.  This friend of Einstein said, "I am convinced of [the afterlife], independently of any theology. It is possible to perceive, by pure reasoning that it is entirely consistent with known facts. If the world is rationally constructed and has meaning, then there must be such a thing [as an afterlife]."

 

The Argument from Aesthetic Experience

The Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft has a very simple proof of God, which he calls 'The Argument from Aesthetic Experience." It goes like this: 

            There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

            Therefore there must be a God.

            You either see this or you don't.

Bach will not be the topic of our discussion.  Franz Joseph Haydn, a contemporary of Bach's, will be, however.  The Austrian composer, born in 1732 (Bach died in 1750), is known as the "Father of the Symphony." He ushered in the musical era known as the 'Classical Period,' while Bach was of the 'Baroque Period.'  Haydn was a devout Catholic.  He prayed daily, received the Eucharist, and relied on God for strength both in his work and in his life.  In fact, he once said about his relationship with Mary, "If my composing is not proceeding so well, I walk up and down the room with my rosary in my hand, say several Aves, and then ideas come to me again."

Haydn arranged 14 Mass settings.  The Missa Brevis in F is perhaps his most famous. His Missa in tempore belli (Mass in a time of war) is also worth a listen.

Mass settings in classical music are very different than the ones we hear today at Mass at a typical parish.  The five parts of the Mass set to elaborate choral and orchestral composition are the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei.  Each part could be five to ten minutes long!

Now, one would think composing the Mass over and over again (the words do not change) would eventually grow boring and monotonous, but not for Haydn.  Each musical composition was a prayer for him.  And he made the glory of his profession add to the glory of God.