Thursday, December 29, 2011

"A Deacon! A Miserable Deacon!": St. Thomas Becket

Today we remember the famous saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his own cathedral by knights under the influence of the king and Becket's former friend, Henry II.  What many people forget about St. Thomas is that he was a deacon; in fact, he was once the archdeacon of Canterbury under Archbishop Theobald.  He left that office (of archdeacon) when asked by his friend Henry to take over as Chancellor of England.

Back in college seminary, I took the role of Becket in a production of Jean Anouilh's play of the same name.  While many critics have rightly criticized Anouilh's historical accuracy, no one can doubt that he captures the personalities involved beautifully, and many actors have enjoyed playing these roles, including Richard Burton (Becket) and Peter O'Toole (Henry) in the movie version of of the play.

One bit of history that Anouilh appears to have appreciated accurately is the fact of Becket's diaconate!  In one of the early scenes of the play (watered down in the movie), the king has just presented his new Chancellor to the Archbishop and other Church leaders.  While the Archbishop is gracious enough, it is clear that the other bishops in attendance are not pleased, especially when they realize that young deacon Thomas is "switching sides":

Becket: My Lord and King has given me his Seal with the Three Lions to guard.  My mother is England now.
Folliot (the bishop of London): A deacon!  A miserable deacon nourished in our bosom!  Traitor!  Little viper!  Libertine!  Sycophant!  Saxon!

I suppose there have been other pastors who have felt the same way about their deacons!  One lesson that we can all learn from Becket, of course, is his courage in speaking truth to power, whether that power is found in the structures of the church or in secular authority.  May God continue to grant us all the same courage in our own lives and ministry!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas, Gentle Readers!

No reflection today: just a heartfelt wish from my family to yours, 
that you have the most blessed Christmas ever!

Friday, December 23, 2011

"Your redemption is near at hand": Remembering "Amahl and the Night Visitors"

The responsorial psalm for today reminds us, "Lift up your heads and see: your redemption is near at hand."  In a wonderful reflection over on PrayTell, Teresa Berger refers to December 23 as a liturgical "hinge day" as we transition from Advent preparations into Christmas realities.  On television, Christmas is being described in very generic, nondescript and unoffensive terms as a "time of peace, family, and gift-giving."  Nice enough, to be sure, but we could just as easily be speaking of any other solstice celebration.  To borrow from our Jewish heritage at Passover, "What makes tonight different from all other nights?" ought to be our question as we celebrate the entrance of the Christ into human history.  What difference should Christmas make?

I have shared before about the eight years I spent in Catholic seminary preparing for possible ordination to the priesthood.  These were the eight years of high school and college and, in those days, there were actually hundreds of Catholic high school seminaries around the country.  I graduated from the Salvatorian Seminary in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin in 1967.  During our junior year, the rector -- who was also our music teacher and director of the choir -- decided to stage Gian-Carlo Menotti's wonderful opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors."  We were not a large school, and since we were a seminary, there were no women or girls around to play Amahl's mother and the "shepherdesses" called for in the libretto!  So, Father Rector contacted a nearby convent/novitiate and we arranged to do a joint production.  One of our freshmen, Mike Hoffman (now Rev. Michael Hoffman, SDS), was a professionally trained singer who sang the lead role better than I have ever heard it done before or since.  I was the accompanist for the production, playing the 136-page score so often over the weeks of rehearsal and then production that I could "name that tune" in any two notes!

For those of you who do not know the story, it's quite simple.  Amahl is a crippled boy living with his widowed mother.  They are living in extreme poverty and the mother is resigned that they will soon have to become beggars in order to survive.  In the middle of the night, there is a knock on the door of their hut.  To their amazement, their visitors are the Three Kings on their way to find the Christ child, and the kings are seeking a place to rest on their journey.  After some wonderful music describing the child they are seeking (here's an audio clip from the original 1951 broadcast), and a warm welcome from the shepherds and shepherdesses living in the region, the kings and Amahl and his mother retire for the night.  In the darkness, Amahl's mother sings a beautiful aria about her own son, and then realizes what she could do for her son with just a little of gold that the kings are taking to the unknown Christ child.  (Here's the aria from the original 1951 broadcast with the remarkable Rosemary Kuhlmann.)  As she attempts to steal some of the gold, she is caught by the kings' page.  The kings tell her to keep the gold, that "the child we seek doesn't need our gold".  The mother returns the gold, however, and expresses her wish that she had something of value that she, too, could send to the child.  Amahl steps forward, saying that all he has to give is his crutch but that he would send that to the child, since, "who knows, he may need one too"!  In that act of generosity, the miracle takes place and Amahl the cripple is healed.  In thanksgiving, the mother permits Amahl to go with the kings to greet the Christ child in person.

Here's where I'm going with this.  Menotti wrote "Amahl" on a commission from NBC in 1951.  The network was seeking original programming, and in particular, they wanted a serious work to be broadcast as part of their Christmas schedule.  "Amahl" was broadcast live on Christmas Eve, 1951, and immediately became a Christmas staple for many years.  I read recently that every year it is now produced more than 500 times across the country.  I find this history stunning on many levels.  First, there was no apology by the commercial network (NBC) for having a specifically religiously-themed production aired; not only that, network executives intentionally and deliberately commissioned the work!  Second, this was a piece of classical music exquisitely performed live.  There was no attempt at a "dumbing down" of the material, and the immediate popularity of the music attests to its popular reception.  There were no cheap jokes, no scatological attempts at humor, no trivializing of the material.

I too fell in love with the music and the story.  Here is a modern re-telling of the impact the coming of Christ can have on very real people facing very real challenges in their very real lives.  This is not some kind of Christmas-lite, "feel-good", pseudo-religious piece of programming.  A single mother raising a handicapped child living in extreme poverty and about to go on the streets encounters a chance to steal some gold to turn their lives around.  Instead, through the love and the dreams of the kings and her own innate generosity and that of her son, a miracle takes place.  Their lives are changed, not because they now will have money to do whatever they want, but because the unseen Christ has come freely to them and affected the choices that they make.

Perhaps you have never heard of this opera these days.  Or, conversely, perhaps you've heard of it too much and consider merely a piece of Christmas fluff.  In any case, I offer it to you for your reconsideration.  Let yourself be swept away by some of the must beautiful music written (for example, the Mother's aria, or the quartet she sings with the kings as they ask "Have you seen a child?" and she describes Amahl to them).  We should then ask ourselves: How is the coming of Christ into my life being felt in very real, concrete ways in the lives of the people around me?

What miracles is the unseen Christ willing to work through us?  "Lift up your heads and see: your redemption is near at hand."

Friday, December 16, 2011

An Old Man's Advent Dream for Christmas


A time of waiting for "the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ" is the way the new translation of the Roman Missal puts it.  Sounds great, but what does this really mean?  "Blessed hope" for what, exactly?  And what will the coming of Christ mean THIS year?  If these words are to have any meaning beyond being part of a new liturgical ritual, it seems to me we have to make them truly incarnate, to "flesh them out" a bit.


I've been doing a lot of praying and reflecting about life this Advent, trying to figure some things out.  The older I get the more comfort I find in the words of St. Peter on Pentecost.  The people of Jerusalem, hearing the apostles speaking in tongues under the influence of the Holy Spirit, think that they are instead under the influence of new wine.  "But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:  'Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  Indeed, these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning.  No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

"In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams."

So, this reflection is nothing more than an old man dreaming a dream.

When I was a young man, I was strongly influenced -- as I've written about before -- by the visions and dreams of the bishops of the Second Vatican Council.  Some of those men were young and were seeing visions; others were old and dreaming dreams. Now I'm an old man, and I've seen some of those early visions become reality, but so much more still remains a dream.

What do I see in my dream?

It begins with a nightmare.  There are people living on the streets, under overpasses,  in dark alleys.  They are dirty, smelly, with runny noses and open sores.  Many of them are drunk on booze or drugs, and this is a violent nightmare, with people attacking each other for money or food, people selling themselves to earn money.  They are in a downward spiral, without hope, joy or reason for either.

The nightmare continues.  There are people who have been ostracized, cut off from family and friends because of things they've done in the past, or because of relationships they're in, or because they're "different" or hard to handle in "acceptable" circles of society.  There are young people who feel isolated and abandoned because they have realized that they are homosexual and they are pushed into suicide out of overwhelming depression and a sense of permanent and total exclusion.

The nightmare grows.  Old people, people who were once vital and ran through life with creativity, passion and generosity, now shunted aside because they are no longer able to contribute anything to anyone.  They are dried up, used up, and kicked to the curb of life.  Sick and dying people, whose fear of death is often faced with courage and strength, are also forgotten or relegated to the sidelines as if association with them might lead a healthy person to fear their own vulnerability.

The nightmare includes the treatment of the stranger, or people who speak different languages or who look at life and the world through eyes different from others.  The nightmare recalls an incident at a "Catholic" parish in the Midwest in which a bilingual program on pastoral planning was being held.  As signs in English and Spanish were being placed around the room, several Catholic gentlemen came forward and told the presenter to "put the American signs on this side of the room."  When the presenter said, "You mean, you want the English signs on this side of the room?" the men -- those good "Catholic" men -- repeated, "You heard what we said, you put the AMERICAN signs on this side of the room."

The nightmare?  So many people, all cut off, isolated and alone.  Where can they find hope, joy and a reason for living?

The dream?  The catholic -- truly universal -- people of God!  Every person who is cut off from everything and everyone else, is WELCOMED by the catholic people of God.  In a very real sense, the catholic people of God is the home for the homeless, the family for those who have been disowned and rejected by others, are the ones for whom this church is designed.  In the ancient catholic people of God, they were often the ones cut off and persecuted by society and those in charge, often to their deaths.  But the ancient catholic people of God rejoiced that they were a people called by God (an "ekklesia theou"), a people without church buildings or temples.  What united them and gave them hope and joy was their common faith that God had called them to be a people for each other, PRECISELY because they were cut off from everyone else.

The dream?  At Midnight Mass this year, that the doors will open and everyone -- absolutely everyone -- will walk in to applause, laughter and joy-filled welcome.  Those dirty, smelly children of God who are living under the overpass, those depressed and lonely gay teenagers who are walking on the brink of despair, those people who look and sound different from others, and even those who find themselves here without legal status -- all of them will pour through those doors and into the welcoming arms of this catholic people of God and find a true home and the love that has so often been denied them by society.  "If society has rejected you, we welcome you" is the mission statement of the catholic people of God.  And to the bishop who once remarked that the song "All are Welcome" was incorrect, and that all people are NOT welcome at Catholic Mass, I say,  "Sorry, bishop, but you are wrong.  In the Catholic Church, in the authentic catholic people of God, all are indeed welcome in this place."

I know.  Right now we have many Catholics who don't even like to reach out and take someone else's hand at the greeting of peace before communion.  Those folks are really not going to like my dream, since not only do I hope that they will shake someone else's hand, but actually, beginning at Midnight Mass this Christmas, I'm hoping that they will open their arms and embrace tightly that dirty, smelly homeless man who's been living in a cardboard box down the street from the church.  In fact, it is precisely to those who have been excluded by everyone else that Christ is coming into the world.

My dream is really quite simple.  Christ willingly emptied himself completely into human nature.  We either believe that or we don't.  Human nature is the common denominator here.  If Christ is to be found there, then we are to be found there.  The "Church" isn't a place for those who have successfully navigated life.  It's a haven for all those who admit their sinfulness, their brokenness, their need for others and for God.

And then I wake up.

What do I have to do to make the dream a reality?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Who are you? What have you got to say for yourself?"

I have a confession to make.  Oh, not a sacramental confession as in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but a confession nonetheless.  My specializations in Theology deal with ecclesiology, the theological study of the nature of Church, but my motivations for going into this field were not based on some grand academic quest.  Rather, I found at a very early age (13 to be exact), that ecclesiology was the most fascinating part of theology, since that was what the Second Vatican Council was all about.  Since the Council was just going into its second session (1963) as I was entering high school seminary, this was an understandable focus for a young seminarian.

As the Council progressed, then ended, and the Church moved into the implementation phase following the Council, so much about how we were Church evolved.  No longer was ministry something that only priests and sisters did, for example.  We had recovered a sense of baptism as the primal sacrament of ministry, and the Council has described the Church as a pilgrim in the world and servant to the world.  All members of the Church, we read in the Council's documents, were called to be evangelists, and the Church herself was to be "a leaven and a kind of soul" within the world.  However, all of this came at a cost.

Vatican II was convened because many bishops, including Pope John XXIII, believed that the Church was out of touch with the demands of the modern world.  Churchmen of the first half of the 20th Century were deeply concerned over the Church's failure to be a more effective witness of Christ during that time, and worried that the Church had been ineffectual at confronting the issues that led to two world wars and the rise of three totalitarian regimes.  The Council was an attempt to give a renewed missionary drive to the Church, to empower all of the members of the Church to be "co-responsible" as evangelists to the world, with all believers being called to perfect holiness, despite our state in life.  The Council was, as Pope Paul VI put it, "the great Catechism of our time."  My generation of seminarians found ourselves inspired to be at the forefront of these renewed efforts in the Church and the world, and enthusiastically responded to the Council's call.

Nonetheless, following the Council, we watched as public institutions, including institutional Churches, continued to lose credibility in the contemporary world.  Despite our best efforts in the 1960's and 1970's to find creative ways to be a prophetic witness of Christ to the world, efforts which are now routinely mocked by certain reactionary elements even within our own Church, people continued to find, as they had even before the Council, that certain aspects of the Church -- usually described as the "institutional" dimension of the Church -- to be irrelevant at best and harmful at worst.  Increasingly people began to say that they were spiritual, and maybe even go so far as to say that they were spiritual Catholics, but not in the sense of being churchgoing religionists.  As a friend once said to me, "The Catholic Church is great once the institution gets out of the way."  Perhaps the most troubling thing to watch, for me personally, was how members of my own family were treated by certain priests and other "good church-going Catholics," who very successfully drove these family members from the Church through their stupidity, narrowness and arrogance.  I watched as repeatedly, my loved ones would try and try again to reconnect, only to encounter the same kind of things all over again until they felt they had no choice but to leave.

And here's the real point of all this: my family's situation is not an isolated case.  Recently, on an international list-server for deacons, a brother deacon asked the group how many family members in our own extended families still "practiced" Catholicism.  I won't depress you with the final answers.

Author Eric Weiner, writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times recently, asks "Americans: Undecided about God?" Read the whole article here.  It's a most thought-provoking piece, and many folks have been blogging about it.  At first I was going to pass this one by, but as I was preparing homilies for this Third Sunday of Advent, I came back to Weiner's piece.  The questions asked of John the Baptizer remain the questions asked of us today: "Who are you?  What have you got to say about yourself? 

Weiner concludes his column with his own take on an answer:
What is the solution? The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.
While I'll leave the comparison to Steve Jobs alone, I do rather like his observation that what he's looking for is "not a new religion but a new way of being religious."  That, in my opinion, was PRECISELY was the Second Vatican Council was calling us to do.  Sure, those bishops used the Latin term novus mentis habitus (a "new way of thinking"), but there it is, in contemporary terms.  How can we, followers of Christ, find a new way of being religious, a new way of being Catholic, in the contemporary world?  A new way of being Catholic that proclaims Christ in ways that are -- like Christ Himself -- always inviting and open to all.  We shouldn't be excluding ANYONE from our assembly, precisely because we proclaim ourselves to be a people called by God ("ekklesia"), not by "the Church".  And this people called by God has always, throughout the Tradition, called itself to be catholikos -- catholic -- open to all and universal.  If we were truly finding a new way of thinking, a new way of being religious, people who now feel excluded from our communion would instead be welcomed!  No matter how else society might be treating them, they would find a warm, welcoming home with us!  "These Christians!  See how they love one another!"

"Who are you?  What have you got to say for yourself?"


Saturday, December 3, 2011

"When I grow up I want to be a Deacon!" Thanks, Elizabeth!

Some time ago, a prolific author named Elizabeth Ficocelli contacted me about a manuscript she had written for children on the diaconate.  She asked if I would take a look at the manuscript, and it was joy to do so!  That book, which Deacon Greg Kandra has already announced, has now been published and is available.  Elizabeth was recently interviewed about her work, and you may read more about that here and here.  It's called Where Do Deacons Come From? and it's published by Bezalel Books.

In the interview, she remarks that "Deacon Greg Kandra recently blogged that his friend, Deacon William Ditewig, had made the following statement: 'The diaconate will only become fully accepted as a vocation when young people say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a deacon.’  Well, Deacon Ditewig, I hope my book Where Do Deacons Come From? will help make that a reality."  Thanks, Elizabeth, I agree with you!

The reason I believe this to be so important is this: For nearly a millennium, when someone "imagined" ordained ministry, the "image" that came to mind was "priest".  In Scholastic theology, even the bishop was not considered part of the sacrament of Holy Order: he was thought to be sacramentally simply a priest who had been given additional jurisdiction.  This had NOT been the case in the ancient church, and since 1967 it is not the case any more.  It's just that while church law and official practice has shifted, how people "image" ordained ministry has not.  At least not completely.  Such a cultural shift is going to take time. 

We can see this shift taking place in different ways around the world.  In those areas where the diaconate has been around since the 1970s, we've had some four decades to become part of fabric of contemporary church life.  In those areas where the diaconate is still relatively new, of course, the process has barely begun.  What I find so fascinating and significant about Ms. Ficocelli's contribution on the diaconate is that she has captured the presence of deacons as ministers with whom the children are familiar and would like to know more about. 

So, many, many thanks, Elizabeth!  God bless you!


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Watching a Classmate Become a Bishop

I haven't seen Dave Kagan since 1967, when we graduated from Salvatorian Seminary in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin, and went our separate ways into different college-level seminaries.  Dave was a seminarian for the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois, and I was a seminarian for the Diocese of Peoria.  For those of you not in the know about such things, Rockford and Peoria have always competed for the title of the second largest city of Illinois.  Dave and I were members of a 27-student senior class, so we all knew each other quite well by the time we graduated.  Dave and the rest of the Rockford men went to Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa and the Peoria men were sent to Saint Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa.

Most Rev. David D. Kagan
I left the seminary after eight years, following graduation from St. Ambrose in 1971, and a few months later, found myself in the Navy.  Dave continued in the seminary, and was ordained a priest for the Rockford Diocese in 1975.  He became a canon lawyer and eventually served in a variety of pastoral and administrative posts until yesterday.  Yesterday, Monsignor David Kagan, Vicar General of Rockford, became Bishop David Kagan and was installed as the seventh bishop of Bismarck, North Dakota.  Here's where you can find the video of the whole event, complete with Native American drums, the new papal nuncio to the United States, and a Cathedral full of the People of God.

It was quite a moment, watching a man whom I had known as a fellow teenager, now in the process of becoming a bishop and taking on the pastoral responsibilities of a diocesan church.  What came through loud and clear is just how important it is for all of us to pray for all of our diocesan churches and their bishops.  Each of those bishops has friends who "knew them when" and I hope that each of those bishops will continue to permit themselves to stay connected to those people who knew them "before the purple."  During my days at the USCCB, more than a few bishops shared that it's often very, very difficult for a bishop to receive information he needs to have, while there are many, many people who are willing to tell him what they think he wants to hear.  Then again, there are some bishops (fortunately, very, very few) who think that they already know everything they need to know!  Still it seems important to me for bishops to retain significant connections with family and friends who will still love them for who they are as human beings (and not simply because of the office they now hold) and who will continue to be honest with them.

So, my old friend, ad multos annos on your ordination and installation as bishop!  May God continue to bless you abundantly in your family, friends and new collaborators in the vineyard.  I'm sure I speak for all of the surviving members of the Salvatorian Seminary Class of 1967 when I say that we're all proud of you and will pray ardently for you and the Church of Bismarck.

Your old classmate,
Deacon Bill