Corpus Christi in Vienna


A procession is a holy movement of those truly united. It is a gentle stream of peaceful majesty, not a procession of fists clenched in bitterness, but of hands folded in gentleness. It is a procession which threatens no one, excludes no one, and whose blessing even falls on those who stand astonished at its edge and who look on, comprehending nothing. It is a movement which the holy One, the eternal One supports with his presence; he gives peace to the movement and he gives unity to those taking part in it. The Lord of history and of this holy exodus from exile towards the eternal homeland himself accompanies the exodus.
Karl Rahner, SJ (NB that I never quote Rahner, but this is a good quote!)

News reports tell us that Austrians are leaving the Catholic Church in droves. That may be the case, but they sure do still believe in not working on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. On this Corpus Christi THURSDAY (ahem) I was annoyed not to find a bus or taxi from my little apartment in the wine tasting village of Grinzing to get to the UBahn for the 8.30am Pontifical Mass at the Stefansdom. I did finally get there, and could not find anywhere to have my obligatory Kleiner Brauner to pump some caffeine in my system for what promised to be one of those Endurance Liturgies that no suburban American Catholic could ever cope with. Thank God for American economic imperialism, as I thanked God the only time in my life for McDonalds and hot coffee!

I entered the Sacristy of the Cathedral ahead of time and it was already abuzz with activity for the Mass and Procession. I checked with the Ceremoniarius, the Cathedral’s Master of Ceremonies, if I could concelebrate the Mass and process, and I was graciously attended to by one of the sacristans, who vested me, and about 25 other priests, in some of the most beautiful 17th century French giardinaje style vestments I have ever seen.

The Nuncio to Vienna entered and warmly greeted everyone in the sacristy with a handshake, just as every other person who entered the sacristy did. Not long thereafter, Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, in his choir dress and biretta, entered and made the rounds of everyone in the sacristy. I was delighted to have a brief conversation with him, and to receive his encouragement for my doctoral studies, which he repeated again after the Mass. His quiet but warm demeanor somehow all of its own corralled the mass of people in the sacristy, and the bell rang for Mass to begin.

The Pontifical Mass was sung very well by the Cardinal, the prayers all being in German. But the Ordinary of the Mass was Mozart’s Spaurmesse, and the famous Cathedral Choir and Orchestra did justice to Vienna’s favourite musician. For those who are unfamiliar with how a Viennese orchestral Mass works with a sung Ordinary Form Mass, I will describe the local custom.
The Kyrie is sung as the Penitential Rite itself, with everyone sitting down after the first bar. After the Kyrie, all rise and the Celebrant sings the Misereatur and then intones the Gloria. After the first bar of the Gloria, everyone sits and listens to the Gloria, and then all rise for the Collect. For the Creed, all stand after the Homily as the Celebrant intones it, and then sit after the first bar. Everyone bows in their seats at the et incarnatus est. After the Preface, the Sanctus begins, and all continue to stand. After the Sanctus, the congregation stands, kneels or sits (!) as they wish. The Eucharistic Prayer begins as normal, and the Memorial Acclamation is sung. Then, the Choir begins the Benedictus. After the conclusion of the Benedictus, the Celebrant continues the Eucharistic Prayer as normal. After the Sign of Peace, at a Pontifical Mass, the Choir sings the Agnus Dei in its usual place; but at other Masses, the Celebrant skips the Agnus Dei, which is sung at the beginning of the distribution of Holy Communion.

That is how the Ordinary is handled at the Cathedral. For some of the other music, they do something which many would balk at. The Entrance Procession and Incensation is accompanied by organ. Then, when the Celebrant reaches the Chair, a vernacular hymn is sung. A hymn is sung at the usual place of the Offertory. And after the Sacrament is returned to the tabernacle in a side altar and the Celebrant reaches his chair, a vernacular Communion hymn is sung. And the usual Recessional Hymn is sung as per usual. I have heard on occasion parts of the Latin Gregorian Propers sung, but never all of them, and never very often. While some liturgists may balk that music must accompany a liturgical action and never stand alone by itself (at least for the Introit and Communion), this practice does mean that everyone calmly sings together the hymns without having to worry about watching or doing something else. And guess what, they sing ALL THE VERSES!

There are a couple of interesting architectural things to notice. The Lucite chair for the Cardinal and the small, almost square, marble freestanding altar on their respective footpaces are placed within the Choir Aisle. The High Altar, upon which the Sacrament is not reserved, has become a very nice stand for (real) candles (that are lit all day long everyday) and flowers. The placement of the cathedra and freestanding altar makes for some very awkward motions during a liturgy which otherwise is very well executed. I would be interested to see where the Throne was placed before, and how the Stefansdom Reform of the Reform liturgy would look and sound like if the Cathedra were elsewhere and the High Altar used for the celebration of Mass.

The Procession began after the Closing Prayer after a rather long explanation of the order of procession and the wait for the various groups to take their places in the nave. The usual men and women religious, confraternities and papal knights and dames were in attendance. But there was another addition that was typically Austrian which I found quite delightful.
In the United States, when we think of fraternities, we usually think of Animal House, hazing and binge drinking. College fraternities in Austria may do all that too, but they were all out in force for Corpus Christi. Each fraternity has a specific uniform with a military style formal Mess jacket (gold buillion embroidery, epaulets, and brass buttons), trousers tucked into high boots, and what can best be described as a pillbox hat worn on the side of the head with a chin strap. They all carry swords and other fine pieces of weaponry. And they all have their place in the Procession. Also in the Procession were representatives from the secular University of Vienna, with their gowns and oversized velvet hats.

The Cardinal took up the small monstrance, which was decorated with a crown of baby’s breath, and the Procession began as the impressive bells of the Cathedral rang full peal and the organ began the hymn we all know as “Praise to the LORD, the Almighty.”

The Procession made its way through the streets of Vienna, as it has every year for centuries. I thought of how many Corpus Christi Processions this city has seen. Celebrating the feast in the glories of the late Middle Ages, as Protestants threatened to tear the city apart, as Turks besieged the gates, as Maria Theresa reigned in Enlightened splendor, as the Nazis made the town their own, and now, as secularism threatens to break a final murderous wave over a once Christian Europe. How many more Processions will there be in the future?

But suffice it to say, this Procession was very much like every other Procession in the past. It certainly was not like last year’s Procession in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt when a Pita Bread (Host?) on a pike was processed through the streets in a Burlesque version of a Corpus Christi Procession. There might have been more German in 2011 then there would have been in 1911, with the Emperor Blessed Karl von Habsburg was in attendance, or in 1511, before the Reformation threatened to destroy the German speaking world’s Eucharistic devotion. But it was a Procession like any other. Three altars, each magnificently decorated, with a sung Gospel at each; band music, the Rosary, Litanies and hymns between each station. There were only two additions which Vienna’s forebears might not have seen before, but which certainly could be seen in a hermeneutic of continuity with the true spirit of Vatican II: sung Intercessions, and a homily given by the Cardinal at each Station.

But there were also two other additions which somehow I think that Sissy, Freud, Hitler, and a lot of other people who passed through the Imperial Capital might not have ever thought to see. The first was that many of the servers, adults and children, were female (although interestingly enough, the Readings at Mass were proclaimed by seminarians). The other was the inclusion within the Procession of something I am at a loss to describe. A dapperly dressed young man held a large flag with the word, “Frauen”, Women, written on it. Next to him was a similarly well-habille young woman with a sign, with a cartoon of an androgynous figure in a cassock kicking off one of his/her/its bedslippers and pointing to a bed with the word “Frei”, Free, written on it. At first, I thought it was a silent protest saying the Church needs to keep its nose out of women’s bedrooms. But they joined the Procession with everyone else. It was one of those “huh?” moments, and if any of our readers can enlighten me as to what that was all about, I would like to know.

A more positive and less disturbing image was one of evangelization. A group of sisters dressed in long denim jumpers with a white veil, sandals, and wooden crosses hung from their necks on a string, (they had to be French, only the French come up with that kind of combo), were carrying baskets of rose petals. Every so often, they would go up to a little girl on the side of the street and ask them if they would like to throw flowers as Jesus passed by. I am not sure if any of those little girls had any idea what was going on, but I am also sure by the smiles of the girls and their families that this quiet little initiative of the good sisters was appreciated by lots of people on the margins of Christian practice, and Jesus as well!

This was a procession which was well-organized, took its time, and was prayerful. Today I prayed. And my faith was strengthened because the Body of Christ, the Church, had gathered to worship the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. And to do so among the splendor of an ancient tradition, the music of Mozart, and the quiet humble example of the Cardinal was a wonderful way to spend Corpus Christi.

The Angel with the Bow Tie

This is who we are. The other night during dinner, Jeffrey presented, with his usual quietous, measured and mild-mannered glee, a number of new publications under the CMAA banner.
(I so wish Adam B. was here, as well as many others!)
After concluding, JT came up to me and mentioned that in his kit bag he had a particular remedy for the sinus infection that has had me on the ropes now for three days. He’d apparently noticed that from my last post and wanted simply to let me know.
I did curtail some of my schedule yesterday so that my energy could be up for Mass and the “debut” of the Josquin Ave maris stella Missa. But after a great pasta dinner and brief rehearsal I crashed in our room- couldn’t even have little Dom and his mum up for apertifs.
I wheezed to Wendy, “I think we oughtta call Jeffrey.”
He was at the door in less than two minutes.
It was another difficult night, but I know his help will provide me easier days and nights to come.
Is it me, or does he really fly like St Joseph Cupertino, bow tie a-twirling? Or does he bi-locate with scores, economic treatises and meds like S Pio?
Dunno, but he is JT, and another friend who welcomed this stranger with his amazing smile and equally magnificent heart.

Pasch of the Resurrection in Andalucia

Fr Luke Melcher, Fr Christopher Smith, and Fr Pedro Jimenez Barros shoot confetti bullets
towards the Risen Christ to celebrate Easter 2011 in Coripe, Spain

Oldtimers in Southern Spain do not remember a worse year for rain during Holy Week. I apparently chose the wrong year to come, but it has been nice to live Holy Week with some calm instead of running around from dawn until way past midnight every day going from one procession to the next. Good Friday and Holy Saturday were a washout, but the Rising Sun was warmly greeted this Easter morn. Don Pedro, Fr Luke and I made our way to Coripe for Easter Sunday Mass. Of course, I found out at the last minute that I was on as MC and Preacher, so imagine my frantically composing my Spanish homily during the Victimae paschali!

The Mass was not surprisingly packed, and Chant Café Readers will be happy to know that Fr Luke sang the Vidi aquam from the Parish Book of Chant on an IPad. The rest of the Mass was a ‘traditional’ Flamenco mass with castanets, guitars and some powerful lungs belting it out from the choir loft. Latin according to the best of Solesmes style was provided by the American clergy as Spanish in the best folksy tradition descended upon this little village church in a liturgy few would ever forget.

But what I would never forget was what happened after Mass. Of course, a Procession! The Risen Christ was carried on a float by the costeleros of Coripe, with a recently formed band that meets twice a week with professional teachers. In front of the church several men of the village stood at attention with rifles and shot into the air confetti bullets. As we processed around the village for an hour, shots rang out and confetti and roses rained down all over the place. Of course, your clerical commentators, always eager to suck the marrow out of life, did not hesitate to take up arms more than once and shoot confetti into the sky. The South Carolina contingent, raised more on philosophy and French, was impressed by redneck Louisiana’s marksmanship, and learned a thing or two during pick up lessons in shooting from the hip in mid-procession.

Once the procession returned to the church, we ducked into a bar for some Cruzcampo and to greet the townsfolk while the men of the parish brought a scare-crow looking effigy of Judas with Qadaffi’s face to hang from a tree next to the north wall of the church.

I can only imagine the reaction of the insurance adjusters of American dioceses at what we saw next.

A firing squad appeared, this time with rifles with real bullets, and they shot at Judas until the kerosene tank in him exploded. And they kept shooting until there was nothing else left of the Traitor. The children rushed to throw stones at the stray pieces of straw and cloth that littered the tree, the remains of the faithful’s revenge on Judas. No felix culpas here!

After a brief respite back at the rectory, we made our way to Castelleja to see what cannot be called anything else but the Battle of the Virgins. Two neighborhoods in the same tiny smart Southern Spanish town have been involved in a West Side Story kind of struggle for so long they have two separate processions at the same time on Easter Sunday afternoon.

The Immaculate Conception procession goes up and down one street of the town while the Sorrowful Mother Procession goes up and down the other main street at the same time. Two different parishes, two different confraternities, two different worlds, all literally one street away from each other. United in the same faith, but divided by historical ties that no one really understands, no one seems to be bothered by this Battle of the Virgins that has gone on every year since time immemorial.

It was an odd way to end our Semana Santa experience in Seville. Fr Luke is staying to race Ferraris with some new friends found in the area, and I go back to my hermit lifestyle of a doctoral student in Pamplona. We started this amazing week with the impressive processions for Palm Sunday all over Seville and Don Pedro’s explanation of their origin in the Catholic Reformation’s desire to keep Spain away from Protestant iconoclasm. And we ended it with a little town which had kept that same faith, but was still divided over other issues. We saw the best of popular piety and what public manifestations of the faith can to do to promote Catholic identity. And we also saw how that deeply felt faith does not always translate into a moral life, a Catholic spirituality from day to day, orthodox belief, and the quest of the entire People of God for holiness. But I am deeply grateful to all of those friends new and old that became incredibly dear to me in this Sevillian Great and Holy Week, for allowing me to experience the Mystery of Redemption as I never have before, and perhaps never will again.

In the meantime, however, I will find a way to shoot the hell out of Judas on Easter Sunday in my next parish. Somehow I think that South Carolina just might find that Spanish tradition a welcome addition to the Palmetto State’s celebrations of the Paschal Mystery!

Many thanks to Don Pedro Jimenez Barros of the Archdiocese of Seville and Father Luke Melcher of the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana, for their expert guidance through Holy Week and or their priestly fraternity and friendship, as well as to all of the wonderful priests and laity we were graced to serve and get to know during this week.

Check out my bad photos at the Picasa Web linked in the first article, Semana Santa en Sevilla.

https://picasaweb.google.com/117938431262711129585/SemanaSantaSevilla?authkey=Gv1sRgCNXMnI3eo9a8iAE#

Maundy Thursday in Coripe

As the Director of Religious Education was driving me to Coripe, a small village outside of Moron, to celebrate the Mass In Cena Domini, we were listening to CanalSur to what was going on in Seville. It had been raining all day long. I had been sick all day long with a stomach bug. The center of Seville and all the towns of Andalucia, which were usually thronged with people, were totally lifeless and empty. Everyone was in their houses watching www.giraldatv.es. to see what would be happening. The whole region was on edge, because they usually spend all night between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in the madrugada, processions until dawn.

The most important of these processions was that of Cristo Gran Poder and the Macarena. Out of all of the floats and processions in Seville, this is by far the largest, longest, and most beautiful procession. The statue of the Macarena, of Our Lady of Hope, is the most beautiful image of Our Lady in the world, according to Sevillians, and she is covered by a velvet green cope whose gold embroidery was so rich you could hardly see the cloth underneath. The procession also has Roman soldiers in their distinctive battle dress uniform with enormous white plumes and the best bands and singers.

Everyone wants to see the Macarena, and so everyone was glued to radio, TV and internet. Would she leave the Basilica at 1am as she has for almost 500 years?

But in the meantime, there was another Seville tradition to be followed: the Visit to the Seven Repositories for Maundy Thursday. The repositories are called monumentos, and are decorated by the Confraternities. Not surprisingly, everyone competes to decorate the most beautiful repository. By the far the most beautiful one I saw was in Moron itself. They had constructed a terrace of wood planks, hidden by red brocade, flowers and candles in silver vases. The tabernacle was surrounded by more red brocade and silver and gold.

Don Carlos, a young priest from a neighboring parish, joined us on our visit, as we went from church to convent to monastery to chapel to say a brief prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament and greet other worshippers who were making their visits as well. But of course, both Don Carlos and Don Pedro had every priest’s nightmare to do tomorrow: funerals. Don Carlos has a Procession from 6am to noon, a funeral at noon, the Liturgy of the Passion at three, and then another Procession at 6pm in his parish. So the priests were all looking forward to some sleep, but we were all decided to tough it out in case the Macarena was going to process in Seville.

Having visited Jesus in the repositories, we made our way back home, anxiously awaiting word if the Macarena would process. At 1am, the gave the word. No. Driving sheets of rain would make that impossible. But on the internet, we could see what was going on inside the Basilica. All of that preparation, the money spent, the hopes dashed, was way too much for many to handle. To see some of the costeleros kneeling the midst of the throngs, weeping like little children, to hear anguished cries from the brothers of the Confraternity, was not melodrama. It was profoundly moving. This year, devotion to Christ and Our Lady would have to take the form of obedience and mortification, not obeying the orders of the Precentor and extreme bodily penance, but the obedience to weather itself and an internal mortification of the will.

So I had an early night for once this week!

Spy Wednesday in Moron de la Frontera


I don’t normally wake up at the crack of noon, really, but what can you do when you have been running all over Andalucia catching one procession after another? So today was a relatively quiet day. The church was full all day long with the elaborate procession today in Moron de la Frontera, and the men and women (and the clergy) went back and forth between church and the bar across the street. Flowers, silver polishing, beer, candles, vestment pressing, wine.

By 6pm it was time to start the procession and the costeleros were ready to begin their arduous superhuman task of carrying the floats of Christ Suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane while the Apostles sleep and Our Lady of Loreto. I wondered how this procession would be different than the ones we have seen before. Because the Confraternity belongs to Don Pedro’s parish, the parish clergy (Don Pedro and his two American friends) had to be present in an official manner. The three of us in our cassocks and the large medal of the order suspended from a silver and blue cord were given silver bastones, walking sticks topped by an image of the Holy House of Loreto and the Monstrance of the Blessed Sacrament. At first I wondered why everyone had these big sticks. I soon would find out that, though they were beautiful, they were also practical.

Since Moron is a military town, with Spanish and American air force bases in its outskirts, the Spanish Air Force is given a place of honour in the Procession. We met the Comandante of the Air Base as well as a delightful military cadet who was a local boy. He grew up as a costelero in Moron and was coming home to see his family and hometown, who were honored to see their native son take part in the procession as a dignitary. During the procession, the clergy and the officers chatted whenever the float was called to a halt.

Some of those pauses were just to keep order and a stately pace. But there were four pauses where Our Lady of Loreto had to go and visit some of her special friends. The first time the statue and its float would be turned around was at the nursing home, as the oldtimers were wheeled to the windows so they catch a glimpse of their Madonna. The second time as at the Carmelite Monastery. As the costeleros went about the delicate business of whipping the float around, Don Pedro, Fr Luke and I ran to the grille of the convent to chat briefly with the nuns, of whom only one is Spanish; all of the others are Kenyans. We begged their holy prayers and then let them pray with the Blessed Virgin. We also paused when one of the soloists from a balcony serenaded the Virgin with his Arabic-sounding saeta, and his powerful and loud performance was greeted by enthusiastic applause. Finally, underneath one balcony, a family started to throw rose petals. The crowds stood and watched as one, then two, then three, then four and it kept on going, trash bags of rose petals were emptied over the canopy of the Blessed Virgin. I am not sure how long we stood there as this deluge of roses descended upon the float to applause, but the Verger finally had enough of waiting and with his stick banged his way through the Procession to get everyone moving.

Two hours passed as if it were nothing, but as two turned into three and then into four, as we made our way up and down the hills of Moron, I began to use the baston less as a decoration and more to support my back and legs. All the while I could see the faces of the Apostles on the float, terribly peaceful and unaware in their deep sleep that their Master and Commander was sweating blood and suffering at the thought of the Passion just a few feet away.

Perhaps Jesus’ question, Can you not watch one hour with Me? was in the back of the minds of all of those thousands of participants and spectators to encourage them never to give up. When we saw the imposing bell tower of the Church of San Miguel come closer and closer, after four hours, I was so relieved! The floats made their way into the church and I said to one of the Airmen, “Wow, that was cool, but I am really tired. Glad we made it.” He looked at me quizzically. “But, Father, we have to go back in procession as well.” There was only one procession in Moron that night, and it had to go back to Don Pedro’s church. In the Church of San Miguel, I was edified to see the Airmen steal a quick prayer in various nooks and crannies of the church before they assumed once again their formation for the trek back.

The clergy, not surprisingly, decided to leave the procession and have dinner. After a lovely meal of croquetas and gambas al ajillo, we joined up the procession again, two hours later, as it was about to enter the church again.

But, this is Spain, so the float was taller than the church door. So where is the make-it-fit button? Where was the tractor to haul in the float? The valiant men underneath, the floor, of course! As the float made its way over the threshold, the Precentor rang out orders, and rank after rank, the costeleros knelt and walked on their knees to get through the doors. 100 pounds of pressure evenly distributed on each man’s back, as they walked on their knees into the church. Another knock, and they stood, and gave one last triumphant jump in the air with the float on top of them.

For one more year, after 500 had already passed, the brothers of the Confraterity of this adorable little town had made their citizens, and surely also, their LORD, proud. Needless to say, the crowd went wild, and hugs and kisses and water bottles and bandages went all around. It was quite a feat, of strength, of perseverance, of love.

It is now 2.30 in the morning. Don Pedro wisely bought me ear plugs, because all around the church and rectory, the celebratory party will go on all night. We are still deciding whether we want to drive out to Seville and see what is going on in town. I have a feeling tomorrow I may be awaking at a way too early afternoon hour. But I am also thankful I will be in better shape than most of those men I respect I saw today.

Check out my bad photos at the Picasa Web linked in the first article, Semana Santa en Sevilla.

https://picasaweb.google.com/117938431262711129585/SemanaSantaSevilla?authkey=Gv1sRgCNXMnI3eo9a8iAE#

Holy Tuesday in Seville


Like many dioceses in the United States, the Archdiocese of Seville moves its Chrism Mass to the Tuesday of Holy Week so the priests can get together for this important annual occasion without having to rush around at the last minute thinking about the Triduum. It was the first time since I was ordained to the priesthood that I experienced the Chrism Mass outside of my own cathedral with my own Bishop and my own presbyterate. But the fraternity of the priesthood exists in every diocese and every language.

The Chrism Mass was the usual standard Chrism Mass, with the canons singing the Redemptor sume Carmen (I kept hearing Bizet in the background of my mind as we were down the street from the nicotine factory famous in the opera). But before the Mass, the entire presbyterate gathered in the Parroquia del Sagrario, the sacristy of the Cathedral which is its own parish, to hear each other’s confessions. After the Mass, we all processed singing the Hymn to St Juan de Avila to the Chapel of the Virgen de los Reyes, where St Fernando, King of Spain, is buried. The Archbishop publicly thanked all of the silver and golden anniversary priests and gave a fervorino to encourage the clergy to participate in World Youth Day.

As we enjoyed a reception in the Patio de los Naranjos, every Sevillian’s worst nightmare came true: driving rain during Holy Week. And so what could we do? No float would dare go out on a day like this. And so we went to the Ritz Hotel Alfonso XIII, a seventeenth-century royal palace festooned with handpainted azulejo tiles, for coffee and tea.

There was nothing to do other than ask my Spanish friends to accompany me to the Corte Ingles department store to buy CDs of the Sevillian Holy Week music. As we made our way back to Moron de la Frontera, we listened to the ESPN of Processions. The Bofetada Procession, of Our LORD slapped by the Roman soldiers, decided to brave it. Each confraternity has an elected Big Brother, or Gran Hermano, who makes that fateful decision. It is risky. If the floats go out under the rain, the cloths are ruined, the canopies destroyed, and the costeleros underneath the floats find it even more difficult to breathe. The Yes was given, and as soon as the Bofetada got out into the street away from the Cathedral, torrential downpours started.

As we listened on the radio to the shocked commentary of the onlookers, one phone call after another came in to our host from priests and lay friends from all over Seville, “Are you following what is going on?” with as much earnestness as the last play of the Super Bowl. Finally, after a few minutes, it became impossible. We parked on the side of the street, ran into a bar, and watched on television as the float worked its way backwards into safety.

In the meantime, Moron was having its smaller, but very similar procession of the Cross. As the nazarenos, barefoot with their pointy black hats and white robes with external hairshirt-corset looking vests of hemp, worked their silent way up the winding streets of Moron, Fr Luke retired for the night, felled by a fatiguing few days and a nasty cough. It was a reminder that, as the famous antiphon goes, In the midst of life we are in death. Good thing we priests had the great honour to renew our ordination promises in one of the largest cathedrals in Christendom and then enjoy in the excitement of the Andalucian laity who are spending all night in the church working on their floats for tomorrow.

Don Pedro got a phone call. He has a funeral tomorrow. But how do you do that when the pews have been taken out of the parish church whose nave is filled with two enormous floats. We’ll figure that out tomorrow morning.

The Liturgical Formation of Theologians

I was in high school when I first read Vittorio Messori’s The Ratzinger Report, a book-long interview with the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this book I was presented for the first time with the one of the premier intellectuals of our age. And what struck me the most was how obviously Ratzinger was a man of the Church and a man of prayer, and none of that stopped him from being a rigorous scientific thinker. I thought to myself, “I want to be like him when I grow up,” and a love affair with theology began.

There are many young men and women of my generation who were born and raised under the pontificate of John Paul II, but feel very akin to Benedict XVI. I know many young fathers whose love of theology, sparked by reading something Ratzinger wrote once and probably forgot about, has led them to do night classes and online courses in theology while raising families and putting food on the table. It is now officially “cool” to be a dogmatic theologian, and Generations X and Y are working their way to becoming the theologians of the future.

The life of these young theologians, however, is not what you think it might be. Many inspired to study theology have entered undergraduate or graduate programs in theology. Their lives are spent in classrooms and libraries, they live and breathe theology. But something is missing. The self-described orthodox among them are keen on getting the doctrine right and serving the Church in fidelity to the Magisterium. And so they slough through years of lectures, papers, exams and theses. If they can even consider an entry-level job as a professor, they then enter the rat race for tenure, the pressure to publish, and they are imprisoned in the ivory tower of academia. They look around them years later and then wonder what happened to their dreams to serve Jesus Christ and His Kingdom on Earth.

Many of them look for faculties with recognized names and faculty. Not a few of them even choose to go to non-Catholic faculties of theology where brilliant Catholic scholars can mentor them. They fully agree with John Paul II that they have to do theology on their knees, but what that means is usually praying to keep their head above water in the topsy turvy lifestyle they have chosen. They are faithful Catholics, and many of them carve out of their busy schedule time for Sunday Mass in their local parish. The parish with the bad preaching, happy-clappy hymns, and, banal language.

Formed as theologians in this type of environment, working as theologians in this type of environment, will inevitably take its toll. It is very easy to see theology as an independent science, a matter of thinking independently about religious matters so that we may enlighten others as to what has come to mind. It becomes an individual quest. And it becomes detached from the lived communion of the Church, and from the founts which inform theological reflection: ecclesial life and prayer.

Theology becomes an academic discipline in a rarified university setting where its practitioners occasionally emerge to go to Mass and a parish social function. Is this what is meant by the “ecclesial vocation of the theologian” who learns his craft “on his knees”?

The doctrine which is the sine qua non of dogmatic and moral theology is more than creedal statements of the Magisterium. The teaching of Christ is celebrated in the liturgical experience of the Church. A theologian will approach the mystery of faith only as well as he has encountered the mystery through the sacred liturgy.

The document Ex corde ecclesiae is important not because it establishes a minimum of Catholic identity by way of imposing certain prohibitions on university life: we don’t do plays about body parts that talk, we don’t think that latex will save the world, we don’t allow teachers to say like the fool that there is no God. The document is important because it re-establishes contact between the search for Truth and the Truth who is grasped most fully through the Church at Prayer. For the theologian to be worthy of the doctrine he plumbs, he must be able to say Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum and understand as much as he can about why that phrase is so important.

The Catholic educational world must be suffused with the spirit of the liturgy if it is to produce seekers of wisdom and if its theology is to be authentic.

It is not surprising that in Pope Benedict’s theology, we are always bumping up against the liturgy. He could do theology by a rigorous examination of the statements of the Creed in the light of all of the human sciences. But for him, theology flows from the encounter with Christ in prayer, which is both liturgical-communal-ecclesial, as well as private-individual-contemplative.

This is why the experience our theologians have of the liturgy will inevitably shape the way they explore the words they pray every Sunday in the Creed which makes theology possible. The weekly experience of trite man-made counterfeits for liturgy will weigh heavily in their thought.

But what if students and professors of theology participated fully and actively every day in a sung liturgy? What if their reflection on the Incarnation naturally began, not from the latest book written by a PhD on Christology, but from the Introit Dominus dixit ad me from the Midnight Mass of Christmas that rang in their ears and the homilies of the Fathers in the Breviary?

Christendom College, where I began to study theology, was a place like this. Every First Friday the college community gathered in the chapel for a Holy Hour and Nocturnal Adoration. And most of that time, we sang St Thomas Aquinas’ Prayer, O Sacred Feast, according to the peaceful and beautiful setting of Healy Willan. Doing that year in and year out, the prayer and its music are etched in my memory. If I ever stop to think about the Eucharist, the soundtrack of that song, the memory of our worship of the Sacrament, is in my mind. It does not take away from the conceptual theological rigour with which I must think about the Eucharist. But would I think about the Eucharist in the same way if all I had ever heard was a praise band singing Our God is an Awesome God?

The liturgy of the Church, particularly the Propers and the Orations of the Mass, are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for prayer and theology. When they are omitted, substituted, or badly translated and expressed, they are emptied of their power to form our minds as well as our souls. The Gregorian chant which is the Church’s own gift to mankind, word made music, must be as an integral part of the life of the theologian as it is of the choirmaster. The Graduale Romanum is as important tool for the theologian as Denziger’s Enchiridion symbolorum. Think of how one’s reflection on the Holy Spirit is different if one looks for the little light inside to let it shine in a Pentecostal blaze of emotional glory, than when one listens to the readings of the Pentecost Mass, hears the Factus est repente antiphon with its musical incarnation of tongues of flame, and sings the Veni creator spiritus.

There are some who say that diocesan seminarians and lay theology students need to experience the liturgy as it will be seen in their parishes. Anything else is just monastic, wasteful and irrelevant. But is not all Christian life ordered to contemplation? What can we contemplate, if not the truths of the faith that we apprehend through their ritual celebration? How can we transcend the limitation of our darkened intellects and weakened wills, if we are not borne aloft to heaven by the symphony of the Church’s praise? How can we pass from the noise of a passing world to the inner silence of mystery, if we do not spend much time with the Word of God transfigured in glory on the Mount Tabor of our richly nourishing Mass?

I do not know if Pope Benedict XVI has a plan for renewing the Church through the reform of the liturgy. I do know, however, that he is a first-rate theologian capable of presenting the timeless truths of the faith to the time-shackled victims of the culture of death. He can do so because he is a man of the Church and a man of prayer. And in being who he is, he gives us as theologians the best example of how to be thinkers in the heart of the Church. For those of us who have caught the “theology bug” from him, we do well to make sure that the center of our theological study, reflection and work is not our own professional career, but the Christ encountered in the Liturgy and life of the Church.

Baptismal Preparation Based on the Liturgy and Its Possibilities

I was looking through the pictures of a friend of mine on Facebook the other day and saw something that disturbed me. There were pictures of a group of people sitting around a swimming pool in an apartment complex, with a fully clothed man in the middle, motioning for one of the onlookers to come in. It seemed like any number of FB pics of swimming pools. But the caption beneath it read simply, Baptism. The friend who posted the picture is a sincere Christian, a member of one of these emerging house church communities that are the reaction to the megachurch phenomenon in the evangelical world. For those unfamiliar with this kind of religion, it seems be very much Calvin on justification, Wesley on personal holiness, Jars of Clay on music, and post-modern in its approach to religious practice. At any rate, the picture was very different than the FB pics of the Extraordinary Form Baptism of my youngest godson.

The way that a Catholic approaches Baptism is obviously going to be different than the way an Emerger (what else does one call them?) would. For the Emerger, Baptism is an outward sign that expresses an internal conversion of a believer towards Jesus Christ. Water is a symbol, nothing more, and the reality that Baptism symbolizes could be had just as well without the water, but in obedience to the LORD’s command, water is used as an external symbol of what is going on internally. Precisely because it is just a symbol, then it makes just as much sense for Baptism to take place in an apartment complex swimming pool as it is does in the Baptistery of St John Lateran in Rome. There is no accompanying ritual or ceremony. On the contrary, it is a highly casual affair even if the conversion that it symbolizes is very deep and sincere. If there is anything sacred about the Baptism, the sacred is Jesus Christ Himself who saves the sinner through that conversion.

Catholic belief in Baptism is very different. But I wonder if, you gave the average Catholic the above description of Baptism according to the Emergers and asked if it were Catholic teaching, they would say yes. In reality, for the Catholic Church, the sacralization of the world and human flesh by its union with the Divinity in Jesus Christ means that there can be such a thing as sacraments, in which outward signs produce what they signify: as the water cleanses the body, the action of the creature water accompanied by the action of the Spirit cleanses the soul. But Baptism is not just a sacrament of Regeneration. It is also one of Initiation. Baptism does not only appropriate, as it were, the merits of the Redemption wrought by Jesus. It grafts its recipient onto Jesus Christ, inserts him in the life of the Trinity, and makes him a member of the Body of Christ, the Church. Precisely because it is not a symbol, Catholic Baptism is celebrated in a way different than that of the Emergers.

Of course, when there is an emergency, all bets are off. I have baptized infants in incubators using the Trinitarian formula and no accompanying ceremonies or prayers, when time was of the essence. But generally, Catholic Baptism happens first of all in a church. Why? When I went to the Holy Land, I saw Protestants baptizing believers in the Jordan River. We Catholics renewed our Baptismal Promises at the River, but it would never have occurred to us to baptize anyone there. Surely the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized is as if not more sacred than the faux marble font in Our Lady of Suburbia in Peripheria, Illinois?

As Catholics, we are members of the Church Universal. But the Church also is very local. According to canon law, the Pastor has a right to baptize his flock. Catholics belong to a Parish, a local manifestation, as it were, of the Church Universal. The relationship that a Catholic has to Church Universal, his Pastor and his Parish is different than that of an Emerger. For the latter, the Church Universal is the Church of the individual soul, and the Pastor is merely a witness, as it were, to help the believer on the Way. For a Catholic, there are bonds of communion which bind the believer to a real community, which exists in Heaven and Purgatory as much as it does on Earth, and a community which is very particular, with a particular sub-grouping of the faithful and a particular shepherd. That is why Baptism generally takes place in the parish church at the parish font, in the same place where the sub-grouping, so to speak, also celebrates the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Communion. Baptism is ordered to all of the other sacraments, and particularly to the Eucharist.

The sacred in Baptism extends to more than just the church and the parish. It extends to all of the rites and ceremonies which accompany the sacramental action. The water itself is natural water, but is set apart, made holy, by the prayers of the Church. These consecratory prayers give God’s natural creation back to Him in thanksgiving, as it were, and in return are given back to the Church as a means for supernatural re-creation. The blessing of the water, the consecration of the oil of catechumens and chrism, the exorcisms, and the rites of clothing the neophyte in the white garment and handing him a lit candle are not just explicative rites. They are not just pious traditions which some people call sacramentals. They all actually “do” something, as they are intimately united with the action of the sacrament of Baptism. Whether the Baptism takes place in the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, or the Byzantine or Maronite Rite, the Church vests her newly baptized not with a customary rite of passage, but with a sumptuous wedding feast to Christ filled with the richest of symbolic and real fare.

The reason that I present here such a stark comparison of two very different conceptions of Baptism is not as an exercise in comparative religion. It is because I wonder to what extent many who present their children or themselves for Baptism in Catholic churches have an essentially Emerging theology of Baptism, combined with respect for the external visuals of the rite as pious tradition.

A pastoral problem the Catholic Church is grappling with is this: if the largest religious group in the US is Catholics, the second is lapsed Catholics. Statistics are beginning to indicate that our ability to retain Catholics is decreasing even as the number of Catholics increases. And how many of those who were baptized as Catholics have migrated to ecclesiastical communities of the Emerging type, especially in Latin America?

We can argue all day long as to the reasons for this phenomenon. We can blame secularism, the American consumerist mentality of religion, the sex abuse scandal in the Church, the lack of valid marriages, the unwillingness of many to accept the Church’s teachings on family life, and so on. But where the rubber hits the road is Baptism. It is time to stop the blame game and go back to where it all starts.

There are two extreme policies about administering the sacrament of Baptism in our day. One, which we may cite as more evangelical, states that Baptism should only be administered to the children of serious Catholics who know their faith, and have been prepared by a rigorous preparation akin to the catechumenate. They point to the Patristic era, with its comparable stinginess about baptisizing people, as an example. The other, which we may cite as traditionalist, looks at the famous relic of the arm of St Francis Xavier who baptized everyone in sight to free them from the possibility of eternal hellfire, and seeks to baptize every human being in arm’s length. Both policies are being seen in our parishes today, along with the policy that “we just baptize anyone who asks because it is our custom.”

I would like to propose that we need to re-think these policies in light of what is going on in the Church and the world today. If Our LORD stated, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them” then it is clear that we are supposed to baptize everyone we can. But that Baptism is also connected with a life of discipleship. Baptism is the beginning of discipleship, not only for the child or adult convert who is plunged into the saving waters, but often for the parents and godparents as well.

I think it is less important whom we baptize than that the person who is baptized, or their family, is catechized well. How many times in our parishes does Baptismal preparation consist of some agonizing paperwork, a 1970s video about Christian initiation, and a poorly expressed dress code for the baptizee, all done in 45 minutes by a parish volunteer? How many times do we reject families who have not darkened the door of their parish church, failing to seize a moment to bring them to faith, and then make our faithful families jump through endless hoops to get their sixth or seventh baby baptized?

In the Extraordinary Form, Baptism begins with the simple question, “What do you seek of the Church of God?” The answer is, “Faith.” When anyone comes to our doors seeking Baptism, it is because, in some way, they want faith. They may also come to our doors for all kinds of less than authentic reasons (they hate the priest in the neighboring parish, they want to do less paperwork, because Grandma will disinherit me if I don’t baptize the baby), but when they are there, we have a sacred duty to transmit to them the faith.

The liturgical rites of Baptism already give the structure for a meaningful catechesis, not only on the sacrament itself, but the entire Christian life. Somehow I think that a 45 minute video presentation by a parish volunteer does not do justice to the evangelizing possibilities for the faith and for people’s lives that the Baptismal liturgy can offer. The questions that the rite asks of the parents can be the springboard for lively discussion and explanation of what it means to live as a Catholic. The Creed can be the occasion for explaining what we believe and why we believe it, something many parents were never taught.

Many pastors worry about the fact that of the children who are presented for Baptism, few return for Holy Communion, even fewer for Confirmation, and fewer still for Marriage. The sacramental economy seems to be breaking down. We can make the Church smaller and purer by admitting to the sacraments only those who measure up to our exacting standards. We can make it larger and broader by watering down the meaning of the sacraments and producing more uncatechized semi-pagans. Or we can roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done. Engage every person who comes for Baptism as if they were sent by God, which they have been, to learn the Faith in its entirety. Maybe, if we do that, the downward spiral of Catholic faith and practice might begin to turn around? If Christian faith and practice begins with Baptism, then Baptism has to be where we assure, not just a bare minimum, but a comprehensive introduction to faith and practice.

Dealing with Frustration at the Slow Pace of Change

Mostly I write with a sense of optimism about our liturgical future. There are so many wonderful signs: Summorum, the new English Missal, the formation of thousands of scholas, a new generation of priests who “get it” as regards the liturgy, growing support from Rome, as well as cultural change at the heart of Catholic life. All of these are fantastic, and I’m deeply grateful to be alive to see it all happening.

And yet, nearly every day I receive notes from people who are still despairing because their own local parish offers nothing that resembles the sights and sounds of Catholicism. There is no chant, the hymns are embarrassing, the musicians and liturgy directors are clueless, the pastor does nothing or is part of the problem, and every week brings another teeth-gritting moment. Many are at their wit’s end.

We should all be sympathetic to their plight. In fact, it is not unreasonable to presume that this is the norm in the overwhelming majority of parishes. It is hard to be optimistic when all the good trends are an abstraction while the bad trends date very far back in history and are the only present reality you experience week to week.

Long experience tells me that a person’s attitude toward the state of affairs in the Catholic Church is determined by their own experience on the ground level. For this reason, it’s a good idea not to dismiss anyone’s perspective on what the real problems and solutions are; one never knows for sure how we might act and believe if we walked in another’s shoes. And truly, it was not that many years ago when I dreaded going to Mass because the music was so offensive. It made me so mad that it would take until Thursday to get over it, and the whole process would start again on Sunday. These were dark times.

And yet consider this. Even if parish situations are terrible today, the knowledge that change is happening elsewhere can really lift the spirits. What if this were 1966 or so? In these years, most parishes were more or less peaceful but a terrible storm was building right outside the window. For many decades after, we saw very but decline. Standards not only fell but were destroyed. The rules and norms that governed liturgical life for centuries were suddenly thrown out and replaced by improvisation and a near-universal touch/feely ethos.

To be a priest or serious musician in those times was more than a struggle. It was a daily occasion for despair. These were people who had adopted liturgy as their lifetime vocation – and there is only one life. During the whole of their lives, they saw nothing but decline and face little but attacks.

We often hear caricatures of crabby traditionalists who could do nothing during all this time but mutter and complain, but we should be loath to condemn them for this. They were put through a trial most of us can’t even imagine. When they looked at a crucifix, they could identify, and this fact was made all the worse by the reality that their torment seem to be happening at the hands of the Church they had embraced as their true love.

Many in this generation just left. The heros are the people who stuck it out and prepared the way for the current reform. They saw the need to offer a model, to teach and train. They consoled themselves with the hope that some future generation would reap the benefits, all while knowing that they were not likely to see the fruit of their efforts in their lifetimes.

There are hundreds of such people, but let me just mention two that serve as great inspirations to me. The first is Msgr. Richard Schuler, who stood virtually alone in the United States standing for high quality music in his parish (St. Agnes in St. Paul, MN) and never relented in singing the propers of the Mass. It was treated terribly and widely regarded as the last of a dying breed. He kept the Church Music Association of America going despite having no money and very little help. He was a dreamer and an idealist but mostly he had that rare thing: faith that beauty and truth would eventually carry the day. He was ordained in a time of peace and stability in the Church but ended up fighting every day of his life against the trends of his time. But he never gave in, and always did the best that he could with what he had. We all owe him a huge debt.

Another case in point is the legendary chant director Mary Berry of the U.K. Upheaval also defined her life and she had to reinvent even her own vocation in order to survive. But thanks to amazing tenacity and a great deal of creativity, she managed to teach and inspire several generations of students. She did more than that: she entrenched chant (Latin and English) as part of the musical scene during a period in which it might otherwise have disappeared. She was the most generous person, happy to lead anyone to the beauty of liturgical chant. And when she was asked about her struggles, she would always demur and change the subject over to hopeful things. When people would attempt to drag her into controversies, battles, and internecine splits she would refuse. She had a light in front of her that she followed always, and that light was that of Christ. And you know what? The Catholic world is filled with her students today – students not only of music but students of life who have replicated her example. Some of them are in very high positions in Church today, helping to bring reform with gentleness and a loving and generous spirit.

What both of these great people had in common was the willingness to take up a cause themselves, regardless of what people around them or in the press said about them. Grousing and complaining was not their way. Their lives were light, not heat. They love the work. It was the source of their joy. They knew what they had to do and they did it, even though they received few if any personal accolades for their work. This is humility. This is a form of piety. And this is something that we should all hope to emulate. And look what they have left! It’s incredible how the life of one man and one woman can make such a difference in this world. And consistently with the poetic drama of the Christian faith itself, their glory as individuals is only obvious to us and to the world after their deaths.

To be surrounded entirely by decline is a very difficult way to live a life. Despair is a universal human temptation. We should avoid it, refuse it. But how much easier should it be for us in our time than it was for them in their time? If Msgr Schuler could build up a world world-class music program in one parish that became a light to the world, and if Mary Berry could teach thousands and leave behind generations of brilliantly trained scholars and singers, and do all of this in the 1970s and 1980s (!) surely there are things we can all do right where we are. This is the task of our generation. It is our calling. And looking back at the past, we should realize that it is a much lighter burden than theirs.

I too would love to see change sooner rather than later. We’ve waited decades and decades for this. In this time, great men and women have lived hard lives and died before the reform came. Let’s let them be our inspirations as we go forward in our own times to do what we must.