Saturday, April 23, 2011

Third Movement of the Paschal Symphony: The Vigil of Easter

I often tell people that if they want to understand Catholicism and Catholics, all they need to do is celebrate the Sacred Triduum with us!  And tonight, the Easter Vigil, is the culmination of everything!

The basic structure of the Vigil is pretty simple, consisting of four parts.  The Service of Light, in which we move -- literally -- from darkness to the light of Christ.  The Liturgy of the Word follows, but not in the abbreviated form we normally celebrate on Sundays!  As many as seven readings from the Old Testament, each with its own responsorial psalm and reflective prayer.  Following the homily, we celebrate the sacraments of intitation: baptism, reception into full communion, and confirmation. All of this moves us into the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Simple it may be, but it touches us all at the very core of our beings.

One of the great joys and challenges for the deacon is the chanting of the ancient prayer known as the Exultet.  You can find the whole thing here.   I find the whole prayer to be a profound Easter reflection, but one passage is particularly moving and meaningful in today's world. 

The power of this holy night:

dispels all evil,

washes guilt away,
restores lost innocence,
 brings mourners joy;
 it casts our hatred,
 brings us peace
 and humbles earthly pride.

May tonight's Vigil bring us all to new life, hope and joy!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Second Movement of the Paschal Symphony: Good Friday

Last night the sacred Triduum opened with the celebration of the Lord's Supper.  With that celebration, the symphony of the Paschal Mystery began.  A symphony is a single piece of music consisting of three major sections, or movements, and the Triduum  is very much a symphony of prayer and worship.  The First Movement, on Holy Thursday, concludes with the stripping bare of the altar and with the people of God following Christ to an altar of repose.  Liturgically, it is most significant that there is no final blessing and dismissal, as we would have at any other Mass; in other words, the liturgy HAS NOT ENDED.

Today, as we gather this afternoon to commemorate the second movement of the Paschal Symphony, this idea continues.  There is no "ordinary" entrance; I'll have more to say on that in a moment.  But when the priest first speaks, it is not to give an "Opening Prayer."  The rubrics are very specific that the priest offers this first prayer "with hands joined" rather than the using the orans gesture normally used for an opening prayer?  Why?  Because this prayer today is NOT an opening prayer; the celebration TODAY is a continuation of the celebration begun last night.  At the end of this afternoon's service, notice again that there is no final blessing or dismissal; the ministers simply leave the sanctuary.

Personally, several things always "grab" me about today's service.  First, at the outset, the priests and deacons prostrate ourselves in prayer.  No other gesture or posture is as profound in our liturgy, in my opinion.  It is an act of total surrender.  To be vested as a minister of the Gospel and then, in the presence of the People of God, to lie down before God is a most awesome and vulnerable moment.  For me, I am reminded of the only other time I did this: at the Mass of Ordination when I was ordained a deacon.  At ordination, and now on every Good Friday, I prostrate myself before God the people I have been ordained to serve.  As I said, nothing is more awesome and vulnerable.

Second, there is the sense I spoke of above that this is not a "new" service, but that we are simply entering a new phase of the sacred worship initiated last night.  In many monasteries and convents, and now even in some parishes, people don't leave after the Holy Thursday celebration.  Often serving in shifts throughout the night, people are in constant prayer and adoration awaiting today's movement to commence.  They will remain after today's movement, in prayer and adoration, until the solemn Easter Vigil tomorrow night on Holy Saturday.  One Paschal Symphony in three movements.

Third is the Rite of Communion celebrated during the service today.  This is the one day of the entire year in which Mass is not to be celebrated, which would mean, normally, that communion would not be received.  As one writer has put it very well, it is a day in which we should feel a "Eucharistic hunger" as Christ is in the tomb and we await Resurrection.  For many centuries, in fact, communion was NOT received in Catholic churches.  With the exception of those sick, imprisoned, or otherwise unable to attend Mass itself, communion should not be received outside of Mass, although bishops may make other decisions based on their assessment of pastoral need.  I was once assigned as deacon to a Cathedral parish in the Midwest.  After the Good Friday service, a lady approached me in great agitation.  She was a visitor from Eastern Europe, and she asked me to confirm whether or not this church was a Catholic Church.  I assured her that it was, and that, in fact, it was the Cathedral church of the diocese.  She seemed a bit relieved, but even more confused.  I asked her what was wrong.  She told me that in her part of the world, Catholic churches did NOT distribute communion on Good Friday, in honor of Christ's passion and death.  She was concerned that perhaps she had mistakenly come to a Protestant church and that she had "missed" a Catholic celebration.  So, I ponder whether the liturgical reforms of Holy Week initiated in the 1950's by Pope Pius XII might not have gone too far by introducing a Rite of Communion outside of Mass into the Good Friday service.  This is a good day, and good opportunity, to experience the void left by Christ between his death and his resurrection.

Just one deacon's reflections. . . . May you all have a prayerful and blessed celebration of Good Friday: the Second Movement of the Paschal Symphony.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

And so we enter into the Triduum: Holy Thursday

Tonight we enter into that most sacred time of the entire life of Christianity: the Three Days (Triduum) of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  At the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday we celebrate the climax of the Paschal Mystery as Christ overturns death and restores life.  I pray that this will be an especially graced time for all of us!

Since this is a particularly busy time for many of us, I don't know how often I'll be able to post during the Triduum; some people have even "given up" their electronic ventures "for Lent."  Still, I hope to post some reflections on these days as time permits.

One of the most unique features of our Celebration of the Lord's Supper tonight (Holy Thursday) is the mandatum, during which Christ's action of washing the feet of his disciples is re-enacted in our parishes, often with the clergy washing to the feet of members of the assembly.  I think it is important to consider a particularly powerful moment in the Gospel account.

Following the washing of the feet, Jesus returns to his place at table and asks the disciples if they understand what he just did for them.  Clueless as always, the disciples don't have an answer for him.  He then remarks, "I have given you a model to follow. . . ."  And this is where many people stop.  "OK, Jesus washed feet; that was a service even slaves could not be commanded to do, it was so menial.  This meant that usually only women did this. So, what Jesus is saying is that we all have to do this for each other, right?"  Well, that's right, but only to a point!  But there's much more to the story.

See, the Gospel of John uses a very unique word for that "model" or "example" that Jesus mentions.  The Greek word in question is hypodeigma, and it appears in v. 15 of the passage. This expression, found only here in the New Testament, is associated with exemplary death.  Jesus’ exhortation is not to moral performance but to imitation of his self-gift. . . .  Entrance into the Johannine community of disciples meant taking the risk of accepting the hypodeigma of Jesus, a commitment to love even if it led to death. (For more on this passage, see Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 375.

The implications of this passage for the identity of Christ as well as the identity and ministry of the apostles are profound, since it links the kenotic self-sacrifice of Christ to the life of the disciple.  Just as Christ is willing to give himself completely “to the end” for the sake of others, so too must his disciples.  Fr. Moloney writes, “To ‘have part with Jesus’ through washing means to be part of the self-giving love that will bring Jesus’ life to an end, symbolically anticipated by the footwashing.”  

Furthermore, those who would be servant-leaders in the community of disciples are to be identified by their own self-sacrificing love in imitation of the kenosis of Christ.

So, for all of us, we should ask ourselves, "How willing am I, not only to do whatever menial tasks are necessary to care for others, but even to sacrifice my total self in their service?"  This is the ultimate meaning of the mandatum.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Reflection on Diaconate by Deacon Thomas Merton

Here's another tidbit to ponder during the Holy Week, especially for deacons and deacon candidates.

Most folks are familiar with Fr. Thomas Merton, OCSO.  On 19 March 1949 he was ordained a deacon, and he wrote the following reflection shortly after his ordination.  As you read it, please keep in mind that in 1949, the Latin Church still had the longstanding "cursus honorum" ("course of honors") by which a man entered the clergy through a rite known as Tonsure, then progressed up the "minor orders" of porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte.  He then moved on to the major orders of subdiaconate, diaconate and priesthood.  The fact that the diaconate was known as one of the "major" orders explains the starting point for Merton's reflection, but as you will see, it doesn't exhaust its meaning for him.
  The first thing about the diaconate is that it is big. The more I think about it the more I realize that it is a Major Order. You are supposed to be the strength of the Church. You receive the Holy Spirit ad robur, not only for yourself, but to support the whole Church.
 So diaconal service, far from being focused on menial "tasks" can be seen in quite a different light.  I believe that it ties in nicely with our earlier reflections on the servant-leadership to which the deacon is called and ordained.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Reflecting on Fifty Years of Priesthood: Interesting for All

Today I received the following reflection from a friend of mine, a diocesan priest who is approaching his own golden jubilee.  A close friend of his, who is a priest in another country, shared his own thoughts on fifty years of service as a priest.  Now, why am I posting this here, on a blog focused on the ministry of the deacon? There are two main reasons.

First, I was a seminarian myself for eight years (high school and college).  Had I remained in the seminary I would have been ordained to the presbyterate in 1975, placing me in the population of priests being discussed by Father in his reflection, and much of what he writes has a particular resonance with much of my own experience.  In checking with other priest-friends of our generations, they too found much in common with their experiences as well.  To that end, this reflection offers a good insight into these men of God and their service.

Second, I believe that as members of the church, we have a responsibility to try to place many things in perspective so as to avoid the polarization that is afflicting our society in general and the Church in particular.  I often hear many strange claims made about the priests of this man's generation by people who did not live through this period of history, and his own reflections will undoubtedly frame certain questions in new ways.

I'm sure that this reflection will upset some people.  I do not apologize for that, because I believe this is an honest reflection of one man's opinion.  I do not ask people to agree with him on everything.  But I believe it to be insightful and valuable as we reflect on the nature of ministry in general.  We, as Church, are called to collaborate in caring for the People of God, and understanding each other is a critical component of that collaboration.  This reflection is quite lengthy, but I believe it worth the read.


We are the Gaudium et Spes priests. We went into the seminary at the highest rate in living memory. We were ordained between 1955 and 1975 – in double the numbers our parishes required. Most of us were from the Silent Generation with a few years of Baby Boomers at the end. We took Vatican II to heart.  We changed from being priests called and consecrated by God to being presbyters called and ordained by the Church – the People of God.

Ecumenism became a normal way of thinking for us. Prepared for the challenge by Cardijn’s apostolate of like-to-like, we were successful at educating a newly vital and active laity. We worked with the people rather than for them. We realized that clericalism was an evil, not a good, and discarded it with its style and culture. We ran highly successful and active parishes. Though ageing now, many of us are still on the job. Our presbyteral and pastoral lives have been a source of that unusual experience – joy.

But not without grief. We have experienced the awakening 60s, the exciting 70s, the suspicious 80s, the depressing 90s and the imploding 00s. During the 1980s we became aware that a lot was going wrong. Ordinations suddenly dropped after 1975. We started to lose parishioners – first from Mass, then from affiliation. Both of these changes had mixed social causes.

Worse! Discordant decisions were coming down from the pope. Priestly celibacy, despite being highly contentious, was reasserted by Paul VI in 1967 without discussion. In 1968 Humanae Vitae was a shocking disappointment.  Most of us never accepted it.  Paul VI began appointing bishops opposed to the council’s ethos.  This was most notable in Holland which had become a trailblazer in implementing the council.  Paul killed that initiative and we are all the worse off for that. The whole trend was demoralizing.

Then came John Paul II.  Charismatic in front of the TV camera; brilliant at languages; but – out of touch in scripture and limited in theology, a bad listener and rock solid is his self-assessment as God’s chosen man of destiny. His whole life had been spent in the persecuted church of Poland with its fortress church mentality frozen in time.

The open dialogue of the Church with the new ideas and values arising out of new knowledge in scriptural criticism, theology, psychology, sociology, anthropology stopped. New scientific discoveries in genetics were treated with suspicion and their application usually condemned. Sexual mores were promoted to the top shelf of his panorama of sin – a bit of an obsession with him.

Power corrupts. The history of the papacy shows this pre-eminently.  Unchecked potentates believe their own propaganda. Taken to the extreme, they claim infallibility.  Pius IX bullied Vatican I into institutionalizing such a claim.  Since then creeping infallibility has resulted in the pope and his theologically limited curia stealing the term “magisterium” from its real owners – the college of professional theologians. How can you conscientiously give assent of mind and heart to policies formed without theological debate, consultation, transparency or accountability?  In contemporary government and business this would be judged unethical.

John Paul’s lust for power showed very early and was taken to monumental proportions. Accountable to nobody, John Paul moved against any opinion other than his own and removed many exponents of alternative opinions from teaching and publishing. His most powerful enforcer was the Ratzinger-led Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Other Roman dicasteries joined the campaign.

The CDF is the current euphemism for the Inquisition. True to its mediaeval roots, it assumes the pope to be entitled to enforce his views. It conducts its deliberations and proceedings in secret.  In today’s secular world this is a violation of human rights.

Theological censorship justifies itself as the quest for the truth and poses as truth’s champion. In fact it is the enemy of the discovery of truth because discussion is forestalled. The contemporary secular world understands this and wisely enshrines freedom of speech and debate as a central value. The Church no less than any other enterprise is at least the poorer and at worst prone to error when it rejects this value.

All of us are abused by this process. The priest at the coal face is not consulted, yet is contemptuously expected to defend policies he and his people do not believe.  John Paul II also enforced much of his own devotional life on the church at large. Despite Vatican II he effectively stopped the third rite of Penance, reversed a burgeoning dynamic theology of Eucharist by reverting to and re-emphasising devotion to the static Real Presence, reinforced a distorted devotion to Mary based on fundamentalist theology and introduced peculiar devotions such as Sr. Faustina’s Divine Mercy Devotion which undercuts Easter – the climax of our liturgical year.

A more grievous abuse of power by John Paul II was his appointment of bishops. Appointees were to be clerical, compliant and in total agreement with his personal opinions. This has emasculated the leadership of the Church. The episcopal ranks are now low on creativity, leadership, education and even intelligence. Many are from the ranks of Opus Dei – reactionary, authoritarian and decidedly not creative. Many, often at the top of the hierarchical tree, are embarrassingly ignorant of any recent learning in scripture, theology and scientific disciplines. Many are classic company boys. Some of the more intelligent and better educated seem to have sold their souls for advancement. Can they really believe the line they channel? Ecclesiastical politics have trumped integrity. And when these men are appointed as the leaders of priests without any consultation they become a standing act of contempt.

Worse still, this happened over a period when the priesthood held its biggest proportion of intelligent, educated and competent leaders. It was those very qualities which blackballed them for appointment under the blinkered but powerful regime. Our best chance has been missed. Today the ranks of the priesthood are depleted due to low recruitment over the last forty years. The pool from which future bishops must be chosen is very shallow.

A newly critical laity questions policy but receives no answers.  Why can’t women be leaders in the Church?  Why do priests have to be celibate?  What is wrong with contraception? Why alienate remarried divorcees?  Why this salacious preoccupation with sexual mores? Why are scientific advances always suspected of being bad?  Why can’t we recognize the reality of homosexual orientation – and the social consequences of that recognition?  Have we learnt nothing from the Galileo case – or the treatment of Teilhard de Chardin? Can’t we escape the Syllabus of Errors mentality?

Benedict XVI has continued the reversal of Vatican II. He is imposing a new English translation of the Sacramentary on a resisting English speaking constituency. This may very well backfire because many priests are not going to implement it.  Benedict has received back bishops from the schismatic Society of St Pius X.  He has encouraged the Tridentine Mass in Latin.  He has reintroduced kneeling for communion on the tongue at his public Masses – all deliberate key pointers to regression from the spirit of Vatican II.  To the priests who embraced Vatican II they are iconic insults.

Then he has the nerve to decree a Year for Priests in 2009 with St John Vianney as patron. Like Fr. Donald Cozzens, many felt they were being played.  The celebration of the importance of priests in the church is belied by the contempt with which they are treated.  How can Rome call priests to repentance when it is so recalcitrant; so slow to admit any failing of its own?  How can they be serious in stressing the importance of the priest as confessor when it is clear that confession has all but vanished from the life of the Church?  How can they urge Holy Hours and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament when most priests have moved on from that static theology of Eucharist to a dynamic one – with Vatican II leading the way?  How can they urge priests to more intense prayer when they show no evidence of a change of heart or attitude – the genuine indicator that prayer is working?

We took as normal the world and the church into which we were ordained.  In reality, the religious affiliation of the period was abnormally high.  Mass and sacramental participation and priestly vocations were at a high water mark.  The reversal which began in the late 60s was always going to happen.  But with Vatican II we had the tools to handle the new situation. A large group of the priests were ready to meet the challenge.  They did not get the chance. T he orders from above were to withdraw to the fortress and sing the old song.  Instead of embracing the new they lost the opportunity and left us high and dry – and disappointed.

In the western world priests still always rate highly in job satisfaction surveys. They generally enjoy their job and do it well. That is because they are happy in their own patch. But they feel betrayed by the pope and the bishops. If you ask them what they think about the powers up top and where the official show is going you get a very different answer.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Deacons and Diakonia: "Configured to Christ the Servant"

For the last seven or eight years, I have written a monthly column -- "Priests and Deacons" -- for The Priest, which is a periodical published by Our Sunday VisitorSubscribers can access articles online here.  Recently, I have been reviewing several foundational documents, speeches and catecheses on the diaconate.  One such text is an address given by Pope John Paul II to a joint plenary assembly of the Congregation for Clergy and the Congregation for Catholic Education on 30 November 1995.  The Congregations were gathering to prepare two documents on the diaconate, which were eventually published in Feburary, 1998.  This papal address was the official launch of this project.  I think it would be interesting to share some of it here as part of our reflection on deacons and the ministry of charity.

Entitled "Deacons Are Configured to Christ the Servant," the whole address is excellent, but one paragraph is particularly rich in significance.  Here's the first part of what the pope had to say:
“The exercise of the diaconal ministry—like that of other ministries in the Church—requires per se of all deacons, celibate or married, a spiritual attitude of total dedication.  Although in certain cases it is necessary to make the ministry of the diaconate compatible with other obligations, to think of oneself and to act in practice as a ‘part-time deacon’ would make no sense. The deacon is not a part-time employee or ecclesiastical official, but a minister of the Church. His is not a profession, but a mission!”

Deacons often find themselves dealing with a common misperception on the part of some presbyters and laity that they are, in fact, “part-time” ministers.  Such a misperception places the locus of ministry on formal ecclesial structures themselves; the deacon, however, as a full-time minister, exercises diaconal ministry across the full range of human activity: whether he is at home with his family, at work in a secular profession, or functioning at church.  At all times and in every venue he is, in fact, acting as a sacred minister of the Church, and the pope makes this point perfectly clear.

However, the pope wasn't just talking to other people about deacons; his words are important for deacons themselves.  Immediately after the quote above, he continued:

“It is the circumstances of his life -- prudently evaluated by the candidate himself and by the bishop, before ordination -- which should, if necessary, be adapted to the exercise of his ministry by facilitating it in every way.  The many problems which are still to be resolved and are of concern to pastors should be examined in this light.  The deacon is called to be a person open to all, ready to serve people, generous in promoting just social causes, avoiding attitudes or positions which could make him appear to show favoritism.  In fact, a minister of Jesus Christ, even as a citizen, must always promote unity and avoid, as far as possible, being a source of disunity or conflict."
Notice how the pope changes the focus of his comments: it is not only others who need to appreciate the fundamental sacramental identity of the deacon, but the deacon himself must evaluate the rest of his life in light of that identity!  Furthermore, it is the other dimensions of his life that are to be adapted to the demands of ordained ministry, not the other way around.  This is a topic every diaconal aspirant and candidate, and all deacons, and all the wives of aspirants, candidates and deacons, should consider prayerfully and honestly.  How one’s life is forever re-oriented as a result of diaconal ordination lies at the very heart and expression of the deacon’s sacramental identity. 
With this observation, the pope reminds pastors (including bishops) that this is a concern that they too must address.  The deacon is not someone who simply “fits in” the ministerial program as he can; he is a vital member of the ministry and must be treated as such.  Finally, the pope offers a rather nice summary of the pastoral attitude which ought to be the deacon’s: he is to be the very sign of what it means to be Catholic: “open to all, ready to serve people, generous in promoting just social causes.” While all people are called to this, the deacon sacramentalizes these traits.  The deacon must  avoid anything that (“attitudes or positions”) which could be perceived as showing favoritism for one person (or group of persons) over others.  I find it particularly interesting that the pope even highlights the deacon’s role in what me considered the political sphere: that as “a minister of Jesus Christ, even as a citizen, [the deacon] must always promote unity and avoid, as far as possible, being a source of disunity or conflict.
This section of the pope’s address offers a wonderful reflection on the proper orientation of the deacon, a vision of how the deacon ought not only be perceived by others, but how he should see and understand himself and the ordained ministry in which he participates.  It is, in fact, a kind of diaconal world view which can form the foundation of a healthy, well-integrated and transformative diaconate in the Church today.
What do you think?  Apply some of these papal insights to contemporary ministry.
Talk amongst yourselves!