Tuesday, November 12, 2019

5 (more) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis #5

Continuing the theme from my 2014 e-book (now out of...print?), on understanding the Church's first Latin American Pope and his ministry, I present you with key #5:

5. Pope Francis is the Pope.

Every five years or so, the heads of the dioceses go to Rome to report on the situation of their local Church with visits to the various dicasteries in the Vatican (for example, the Dicastery for Communications, for Human Development; the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors) and to meet personally with the Holy Father. Right now the US Bishops are making their “Ad limina” visits to the Holy Father (the Bishops of New England went first!).

In the Philippines (photo by Michael Makri, SDB)
It takes about seven years for the Pope to meet all the diocesan “Ordinaries” of the world. He gives them a chance to talk about their biggest concerns for their people, and he take the opportunity to share his own chief concerns with them. Now that Pope Francis has been on the Chair of Peter for six and a half years, and made personal visits as Pope to (so far) 48 nations, Francis knows the Church and the world like nobody else. This puts him in a unique position.

When he speaks, it can be hard to know whom he is addressing, because he has so many people and situations before his eyes. It could be any of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, most of whom are poor, and a huge percentage of whom are in life-threatening situations from corrupt political systems or lack of education, environmental degradation or dangerous working conditions (so many times, all three go together). Or he may be addressing other Christians (another 1.1 billion), who are open to his leadership because he is clearly not seeking his own advancement. Sometimes we see him reach out to people of other faiths, as when he and key Orthodox Christian leaders met at the Vatican this past October 28 with Jewish and Muslim leaders to reaffirm shared values in end-of-life care, and restate their opposition to euthanasia and “physician-assisted suicide.”

He has his hand on the pulse of the whole world, and our corner of it may be very, very small. Indeed, we may well be lacking the tools to even interpret what the Pope is saying (or doing) because our own experience of Catholicism itself, or of the Catholic world, is too limited. (I have certainly had that experience as a member of an international religious congregation!)

How many times is the Pope acting “in persona Christi”—but not in the classic sense that lifetime Catholics may expect? He may be taking us back to the Upper Room where the Master offered a deliberately provocative act of charity to break through his disciples' conventional thinking and tell them, “I have given you an example” (Jn 13:15).

This is not to say that no one can disagree with the Pope's practical judgments, any more than Paul hesitated to differ with Peter's personal decision to resume a kosher diet while in Antioch (see Gal 2:11-13). But in a media age, where criticism has an exponential capacity (and a peculiar credibility), it is unwise to draw increased attention to what one may find disagreeable. It was always Bl. James Alberione's publishing policy (and he lived during Italy's difficult Fascist period) in the case of Church leaders, to respond to actions that seemed out of place, badly timed, or outright disedifying by affirming in a positive way the principles that one found compromised.

This would be sound advice for Catholics in social media today, too. It  keeps honest disagreement from devolving into personal disparagement or an animosity bordering on contempt. (There are some posts I have seen on social media which are so vile that I am afraid that the Catholics posting them avoid mortal sin only because of their ignorance of the gravity of what they are doing.)

There are thousands of voices pleading for attention (Nunblogger is one of them!); thousands who believe they have something of value to offer. Only one teacher on this planet was given an assurance of divine support. Only one man was given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

He, and no one else, is the visible sign of unity for the Church. We really have nothing to fear if we stick by him.




I think I'll cover some media issues related to Pope Francis in a future post. In the meantime, here are all the 5 (More) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis posts:
Key #1 (Pope Francis is Latin American)
Key #2 (Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos)
Key #3 (Pope Francis Trusts in the Holy Spirit)
Key #4 (Pope Francis is Catholic)
Key #5 (Pope Francis is the Pope)

Thursday, November 07, 2019

5 (more) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, #4 (updated)



Continuing the theme from my 2014 e-book (now out of...print?), on understanding the Church's first Latin American Pope and his ministry, I present you with key #4: 

4. Pope Francis is Catholic.

I remember that back in the late 70's and through the 80's there were certain pious Catholics who, it seemed, could never refer to the Pope without using a string of titles: "Our Most Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, His Holiness, Pope (name)." Since this was invariably done in Catholic settings, it really was overkill. It drove me nuts. (Today I suppose we would call this "virtue signaling.") Granted, there were plenty of people in the Church who were doing crazy thing in the name of "the Spirit of Vatican II," it really wasn't necessary to affirm the status of the Bishop of Rome at every mention. Especially for daily Mass in a convent.

Not only as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, Successor of Peter, Servant of the Servants of God, and Bishop of Rome, but simply as a fellow member of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has a right to presume that what he says (even informally) about faith and right living will be interpreted in continuity with the whole trajectory of Church Teaching. In other words, it is not necessary to restate each and every time what definitions are to be used for ordinary theological terms and concepts, any more than it was necessary for those pious Catholics in the 80's to clarify exactly what the Pope's job description was every time they mentioned his name. This is not only a precept of charity, as St Ignatius reminded us over 400 years ago in the very trying years of the Protestant Reformation (while the Inquisition was actively involved in investigating any theological discrepancies that came its way); it is also an obligation of prudence, which does not leave everything open to question, debate, or challenge.

People can and may disagree with the practical conclusions or priorities they find in Papal documents; they may believe that other vital concerns are being neglected or sidelined; they may not like where things appear to be going. But it is unwise,  unfaithful and ultimately anti-Catholic to run Pope Francis' official teachings through any kind of "orthodoxy filter." It is especially unjust to interpret the Pope's words and official teachings through a lens of unbiblical, anti-christian or political philosophies, or theories that are plainly opposed to Catholic Tradition (that Tradition itself being understood in the broad sense, and not judged by one's own experience or by an appeal to limited cultural expressions). In other words, the only legitimate interpretive key for understanding Church documents (or papal remarks) is...Church teaching.

This can be a challenge in the case of a pastor like Francis who is willing to speak directly to the person he is with, off script and without regard for the way an expression can be taken out of context (even from good will or an excess of enthusiasm) and take on a life of its own. Most of us know how to "hear" what our friends or our trusted advisors mean even when they misspeak. A relationship wouldn't last long if one party was continually scrutinizing the other's every move with a prosecutorial ear,  presenting him or her with a tabulated list of faults or near-misses at the end of each encounter. And yet there are Catholics who presume to do this with the Most Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and Visible Head of the Church, especially if they have found a Cardinal or two whose manner or clarity of style they find more congenial.

The gates of hell ultimately will not prevail over the Church, but in the meantime, our battle is not against flesh and blood, and certainly not against our fellow believers (much less the man entrusted with shepherding the Lord's flock!). No, "our struggle is against principalities and powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness" (Eph 6:12) who will do anything to scatter the sheep or separate them from the one whom Jesus established precisely to be the visible center of unity for his followers.

Let us pray:
Lord,
Cover with your protection
our Holy Father,  Pope Francis.
Be his light,  his strength,  his consolation.
Amen.




Here are all the "5 (More) Keys" posts:
Key #1 (Pope Francis is Latin American)
Key #2 (Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos)
Key #3 (Pope Francis Trusts in the Holy Spirit)
Key #4 (Pope Francis is Catholic)
Key #5 (Pope Francis is the Pope





Tuesday, October 29, 2019

5 (more) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, #3

Continuing the theme from my 2014 e-book (now out of...print?), on understanding the Church's first Argentinian Pope six years in, here comes key #3: 

3. Pope Francis trusts in the Holy Spirit.


Here I can speak from personal experience, not of Pope Francis, but of the Holy Spirit as the real "ruler" in a Church institution. After all, I live in a canonically established religious institute. My life is regulated by Canon Law and my canonically recognized congregation's Constitutions. I have made perpetual vows according to those Constitutions and in line with Canon Law. I have staked my life on God's faithfulness not just to me personally, but to my congregation.


Most people assume that the vow of chastity is the toughest of the three. (It certainly is the aspect of our life that speaks the most clearly to society today!) But for me (and, I think, for many women religious) the really tough vow is obedience. We commit ourselves to obey women whose directives we promise to receive as the will of God for us. That doesn't mean that we vow to be brainless doormats (we can respond with information that the superior may not have had when making a decision, for example), but the bottom line is still that the superior in a certain sense represents in a community the place or role of the Divine Master among the disciples, and her decisions are not to be shaken off.


A number of years ago a decision was made by a major superior (someone my Mom referred to as "Big Momma"). This decision affected over a hundred sisters. It was supported by a powerful member of the hierarchy. There was no form of appeal. It was simply one of those rare cases in religious life where a very large group of sisters was obliged to receive an unexpected decision in a spirit of obedience.

I have been a religious sister for over 40 years, and that was the most difficult time I have ever faced in keeping my vows.


That day's Gospel was the story of the multiplication of bread and fish in John 6. John lets us know, "Jesus knew what he was going to do; he said this to test Philip's response." Those words seemed to speak directly to our situation.

And then the next day's Gospel was the continuation of John 6, with Jesus walking on the water. The disciples cried out, but Jesus said to them, "It is I!"


I cannot describe to you what it was like to hear that Gospel proclaimed under those circumstances. The words, "It is I!" reached into my body and shook me as if the Lord wanted me to really know that it was, in fact, he who was behind all that was going on. It looked so terribly unfair, and on the human level it is quite possible that not everything that had led to the "Big Momma's" decision was entirely above-board; that it was too hurried; that all-too-human motives had entered in, without information being pursued. None of that mattered as much as the fact that in and through all of this, Jesus would still be the Master, would still be in charge, would "order all things mightily and sweetly" and in such a way that they would turn out better than if the humans in charge had done their due diligence in the most proper manner possible.


I learned over the next few days that I was not the only sister who had heard those words of the Gospel in the same striking manner.


Time has shown that what looked like a fatal and dismaying abuse of authority in the end had no dismal repercussions on our community. If anything, it strengthened our faith; I know it strengthened mine to such an extent that every time I am tested I go back to that assurance, "It is I!" to remind myself of how faithful God is. (When I write those words in my journal they are underscored three times and followed by three exclamation points. Always.)


And so I offer you this experience of mine to suggest how Pope Francis may trust in the Holy Spirit. Certainly he trusts in the Holy Spirit more than in human processes and promises!


Likewise, we as a Church are also invited to trust more in the Holy Spirit than in merely human actions, rationales, projects and plans. We are invited to trust more in the Holy Spirit than in our own fears. We are invited to trust more in the Holy Spirit than in the human qualities of the Pope. We are invited to trust that it is only the Holy Spirit who keeps the Barque of Peter afloat on the stormy waters of our times, and that as long as we stay in the boat, we have nothing, really nothing, to fear because of the one with Peter who says to him and to us, "It is I!"





Here are all the "5 (More) Keys" posts:
Key #1 (Pope Francis is Latin American)
Key #2 (Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos)
Key #3 (Pope Francis Trusts in the Holy Spirit)
Key #4 (Pope Francis is Catholic)
Key #5 (Pope Francis is the Pope












5 (more) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, #2

Continuing the theme from my 2014 e-book (now out of...print?), and following up on the first of these five efforts at understanding the Church's first Argentinian Pope six years in, here comes key #2:

2. Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos.


"No kidding," I hear you say.

Think of the first Christian Pentecost. The sound of a driving wind (where was it coming from?), the unmoored flames popping up seemingly everywhere, voices raised in languages that no one had ever heard, much less spoken, before. It must have seemed like...chaos.

I think Pope Francis would rather provide an open forum for conflicting opinions to be discussed with broad input than allow them to keep being cultivated by special interest groups that cloak their agendas in acceptable language and symbols, all the while working feverishly to divide and conquer.

In other words, he is not afraid of chaos, but he is very suspicious of secret machinations.

What may look like chaos is often part of a process of development; it's a stage in the working out of things. Ideas are proposed, perhaps with fanfare and to general applause. Then, from a quiet corner of the room, an observation is made. A gentle ripple begins to spread. Another fanfare. This time, a trumpet blast from an opposing group. More applause. From a different corner, an upraised eyebrow signals the start of a subtle chain reaction...

No one can really predict where the process will lead. Maybe in the short term it will be a dead-end. Maybe it will lead to something less than optimal being established, but in the long term, no matter how much chaos is raised, we know that when it comes to the Church of Jesus Christ, "the gates of hell will not prevail."

As an older person, Francis has seen this sort of thing many times. No wonder he's not too concerned.




Here are all the "5 (More) Keys" posts:
Key #1 (Pope Francis is Latin American)
Key #2 (Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos)
Key #3 (Pope Francis Trusts in the Holy Spirit)
Key #4 (Pope Francis is Catholic)
Key #5 (Pope Francis is the Pope

Monday, October 28, 2019

5 (more) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, #1

Six years ago, just about this time of year, I was working on what turned into a small e-book, 5 Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, who was a very new Pope at the time  (the book was recently retired, or I'd link to it). Especially after the events of the past three weeks with social media headlines from extreme left and right, I thought it was time to offer five MORE keys to understanding Pope Francis.

These keys come in part from my own reflection, in part from seeing the misinterpretations that have gained way too much traction in social media, and in part from the genuine questions that have come my way from Catholics in the kind of churchly circles I tend to swim in: liturgically sedate, doctrinally unadventurous, conventionally pious. (Let me state from the outset, for the benefit of any who are tired of finding themselves on the receiving end of veiled criticism, that  I do not intend these words in any negative sense whatever: I am trying to be dispassionately accurate about things I am actually passionate about!)

1: Pope Francis is Latin American.
This means he is deeply familiar with expressions of faith integrated into a Catholic culture that is, some might say, "colorful" (in more ways than one). We "hear" that culture in the chords of Mexican mañanitas; we see it in the way the Sign of the Cross is made (with the thumb and forefinger forming a cross that is kissed at the "Amen"); we touch it in the textiles with woven patterns that often go back centuries; we feel it in the heat of a thousand candles burning not only in shrines before fully-clothed statues, but in home shrines (fire hazard be damned). In the most middle-of-the-road parish in Brazil on the most ordinary Sunday in Ordinary Time, the proclamation of the Gospel is preceded by a festive procession with loud and joyful acclamations, song, full-bodied movement through which every member of the assembly welcomes the Word of the Lord and declares his or her readiness to hear and obey that divine message.

For the Latino Catholic, the liturgical assembly is a community in a real sense of the word: the family does not go to Church simply to fulfill an obligation to go to Mass. Going to Mass is gathering as a family to hear the Word of God and respond together; to receive Jesus and to spend time, even a lot of time, with his people. The children run freely and play together after Mass (often during the Mass they are left free to walk the aisles and look at the statues, or visit another family in their pew); the adults are glad to share traditional food and drinks afterwards, catch up on news and ask or receive needed assistance. There is no rush to return home.

Heading to a Día de los Muertos
parade in Albuquerque. 
These are aspects of "popular" religious culture in the sense that it is imbued with the native spirit of the various indigenous societies that first encountered the Gospel in the 16th century: it bears the mark of the ordinary "people" (populus) and their history, purified of elements that were found directly contrary to the Good News. (Where things were ambiguous, that ambiguity was taken in the most positive sense and steered toward the Gospel...as much as possible, as with the Día de Muertos.)

North American Catholics who live in areas like San Antonio, Southern California, Miami, Chicago, parts of New York City are familiar with these living cultural traditions. Outside of these areas, they may seem like artificial add-ons, especially when they touch the liturgy. But for Pope Francis and other Latin Americans, these are normal and authentic ways of celebrating the liturgy and living parish life, not forced efforts at local color or "inclusivity."

But there may be a bit more, because...
Pope Francis is Argentinian.

This summer I learned a little something from an Argentinian sister about her co-nationals. "Generally, Latino people are demonstrative," she said, "but we Argentinians tend to be more reserved. As a culture, we are not emotionally expressive." I suppose I would say that this makes the Argentinians seem more sophisticated. And Argentina's 20th century history was ... interesting, to say the least.

At any rate, Pope Francis' Argentinian culture might be important for another reason than people thinking he might be aloof when he is really just in "neutral." But Pope Francis's words have been unusually harsh when it comes to one group. He will "encounter" anyone and everyone, and is willing to "dialogue" with all types. Yet he seems completely unwilling to engage with priests and seminarians who promote what many North American Catholics think of as "solemn" liturgies, especially the Latin Mass according to the 1962 missal. (There is official dialogue with the breakaway traditionalist group started by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.)

What gives?

As archbishop, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio had a strong track record of being with, for, and among the poor. It was his responsibility to provide for basic instruction in the faith, offer the sacraments, console the sorrowing, support the weak in a major city in which millions barely survive in a completely broken social order, and he was known for having time for the city's poorest.
This is just speculation on my part, but what if in Latin America the population that tends to favor solemn high Latin liturgies has also tended to be comfortable enough to have liturgical preferences in the first place, whereas the majority of people are barely getting by? I can see that Pope Francis would not be particularly interested in what might seem to be arcane in-house matters when as a bishop he had to deal with the moral and pastoral implications of overcrowded slums, drug (and human) trafficking, and the desperate lives of the hopelessly poor in a country with rampant political corruption--all things that he can now see on a much vaster scale now from Peter's chair.

There is also the unfortunate reality that hypocrites like the disgraced founder Marcial Maciel (and other moneyed [politically-aligned?] parties sponsoring "pious" organizations) with large numbers of followers in Latin America seem to have cultivated qualities that we can see make Francis bristle with irritation: "rigidity" in manners, impeccably high taste, scrupulous observance in liturgy and traditional piety. It could be that Francis is personally impatient with preoccupations that seem to him, from his experience of specific cases, not matched by authenticity and a serious commitment to social justice and which may be tainted (even if third-hand) by the grossest betrayals possible*.

I am not saying that concern for justice is not there, just suggesting that the Pope's personal experiences in the Latin American context may have something to do with his apparent disinterest in church traditions (small "t") and the concerns of people who are passionate about them.

So what I am getting at is, if you are one of those high-liturgy-loving Catholics (I am!), or a Saturno-wearing priest (not me!), don't take it personally that the Pope doesn't have time for your special interests. Don't wince at the brusque remarks about rigid seminarians or clericalism. This is not about you or us (he doesn't know you, right?). If he doesn't engage in dialogue with this one sector of the Church, it is perhaps because he feels he has already experienced enough of it for a lifetime. Jorge Bergoglio may have been as burned by his experience 30 years ago as some of us were by the liturgical opposite. (Hey, we're in the Northern Hemisphere, so things get reversed!)

Tune in later this week for another key to understanding Pope Francis!


Here are all the "5 (More) Keys" posts:
Key #1 (Pope Francis is Latin American)
Key #2 (Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos)
Key #3 (Pope Francis Trusts in the Holy Spirit)
Key #4 (Pope Francis is Catholic)
Key #5 (Pope Francis is the Pope


*Several less famous but popular religious communities and movements founded over the last several decades in Argentina, Peru and Brazil have recently been suppressed or are currently under investigation for all manner of sexual abuse and malfeasance, including money laundering for drug lords. Some of these groups were (are?) noteworthy for their outward asceticism.

Friday, October 11, 2019

We're b-a-ck!

Well, sort of. Still a bit jet lagged, to tell the truth. The plane got in Tuesday night, with six Daughters of St Paul on board: we picked up an extra sister while in Rome. Sister Andrea, from the Czech Republic, will be in the US for a good part of the year working on her English skills and taking part in the Media Literacy course (put on by our Pauline Center for Media Studies). But one of the six will be returning to Rome sooner than anticipated.

Our provincial superior, Sister Donna Giaimo (third from left in photo), was elected to our congregation's general government
as a councilor to the new Superior General, Sister Anna Caiazza. So Sr Donna (a former member of the Daughters of St Paul Choir) will be moving to Rome at the end of November to serve a six year term, along with two re-elected councilors and three other newly elected councilors (from Korea, Italy and Kenya--the first African sister in our general government). For us (and, I'm sure, for our sisters in Korea, Italy and Kenya) this is case in which the greater good of the worldwide congregation is asking us to sacrifice an "Isaac" whose capable service we have really appreciated and hoped to benefit from a bit more ... directly. It is a real test of faith!

Our new Superior General, Sr Anna Caiazza, introducing me to the Holy Father.
In order to strengthen our faith in the face of that sacrifice in accord with the mandate given to the successor of Peter to "strengthen the brethren," we were given a special private meeting with Pope Francis the day before our General Chapter ended. I had been doubtful that non-delegates would be able to participate in this audience, but we were included, and even our sisters who work in a nearby Vatican office were allowed to sit in for the Papal address and one-on-one handshake with the Holy Father. His talk was practically a confirmation of everything that had been discussed during the long Chapter, and when he reached the point of saying "We don't have time to lose," he looked up, raised his hand in that characteristic teaching gesture of his, pointing to the sky and repeated: "There's no time to lose." You can read his whole talk here; in fact, I recommend it!
Outdoor art in Albano. The bucket says, "Laudato Si"; the tag is #exemplumomnibus
Speaking of Pope Francis, in late September he visited the nearby town of Albano (location of our hospital), where the local bishop commissioned an outdoor art piece (unveiled the day of the papal visit). The following Monday I had an errand to run in town: a perfect excuse to see the painting for myself! It is located right across from the Cathedral entrance, on the outside wall of a building. There was a big truck in the parking lot when I got there, so I took a few pictures and then went to visit the Cathedral. When I came out, the driver had pulled the truck several feet forward, giving me an unobstructed view of the painting, which really is charming. I got a very strong sense of how intensely Europeans feel the environmental issue; by addressing it, Pope Francis is establishing a sense of common ground with people who may not share our appreciation of creation as coming from a loving and provident Creator. I came to understand that this gives him the kind of credibility that grounds his proposal for a "human ecology": If people do not feel that Catholics respect the environment, our calls to respect human life seem hypocritical to them.

Back to the Chapter and elections: right before the elections were to begin, the translators had been sent away from the retreat house to leave the electors as free as possible. That gave us extra and unexpected freedom, too: free time in Rome! (Granted, I got called back the very next morning for one more day's service, but I still had two free days in Rome I hadn't been counting on at all.) This was my chance to see things I had never seen before, and to have new experiences in the Eternal City. For the first time ever (it took a bit of work to find it, too!), I visited the ancient church of St Lawrence in Lucina (that is, on the grounds of Lady Lucina's property), where the gridiron on which the famous deacon was martyred is preserved in a glass urn under an altar. The relics of Pope St Alexander are in a glass urn under another altar, and there is a fabulously carved 13th century Easter candle holder in the sanctuary. One thing we did not see was the papal throne from the 12th century; except for a few days each year it is kept in a hidden chamber behind the altar.

The standing figure on the far left in San Marco's half-dome
is Pope Gregory IV, Pope from 827-844. The square halo
means 
he was alive when this mosaic was made.
I made it back to the Gesù to light a candle at the tomb of St Ignatius (whose altar was being covered in scaffolding as we arrived). After that, since we were near Piazza Venezia, we went around the corner to see if perhaps the ancient Basilica of San Marco was still open. This was question, because by then it was noon, and I remembered from my earlier visits to Rome that most of the churches were locked between noon and 4 p.m. daily, leaving only tourist sites and the major Basilicas open for visits. Surprisingly, the "paradise" (the gated vestibule) of San Marco was unlocked, so in we went, going down several steps to the marble-floored area where catechumens were once relegated. Then we went down several more steps (with each step going down a few centuries further back in time) until we entered the Basilica itself. As we opened the doors, the sound system began playing Bruckner's incredible "Locus Iste" (listen below). We had all the time in the world to wander up the darkened aisle and put a euro in the box to light up mosaics that date to the early 800's.

Another church that has learned the pastoral value of staying open all day is the ancient church of St Marcello, one of Rome's original parishes--and so exceptional that it even had a baptistry: one which Sr Julia and I were privileged to see in a private visit below the streets of modern Rome. Our guide explained that the baptistry predated not only the church, but Christ: it was originally an ordinary Roman bath, connected to the famous water system that fed the Trevi fountain and other Roman water sources with exceptionally pure water from 15 miles away. We climbed back up, and more than halfway to street level we saw the marble facade of the ancient church.

We also made it to the grandiose "Chiesa Nuova" (New Church) built by St Philip Neri. (I prayed at his tomb--see left--for my great niece and nephew who attend St Philip Neri school.) Of course we also got gelato at every opportunity! The Church of St Ignatius (near the Pantheon) was also newly accessible during lunch hours. We visited twice. I lit a candle there for my brother-in-law Robert and nephew, Chase Robert, at the tomb of their patron saint, Robert Bellarmine (the saint's body, in his cardinal's robe's, is in a glass urn; photo on the right). Nearby, I discovered the hitherto unknown-to-me chapel of St Francis Xavier, now used only on Sundays for Mass in English. And just up the street (alley?) is a restaurant (Il Falchetto) where, on Sunday, eight of us met for a solemn high pranzo worthy to be remembered. (Sister Margaret Joseph brings all her visitors here and says she has never seen anyone disappointed.)

Following that pranzo, Sister Margaret took us on a private tour of the excavations below the Church of Santa Maria in Via Lata, where an ancient tradition says St Luke once lived (and with him, of course, St Paul during his Roman imprisonment). That it was the site of Roman shops and dwellings is clear from the archaeological evidence. It was also the site of at least two different Byzantine monastic communities in two different eras. Most of the frescoed icons had to be removed to a museum for restoration and safe-keeping, since once the area was excavated they began to deteriorate rapidly. (In fact, there is a well at that deep level from which you can still draw water). Still, there are remnants of icons, presumably past the point of restoration, which gazed upon us from the damp walls. (The picture here was enhanced so you could see a bit more of the facial detail than is immediately evident.)

That left us one more day--a rainy day, as it turned out. I made plans with one of the American delegates to spend the afternoon visiting the Basilica of St Paul-outside-the-walls. Providentially for the Daughters of St Paul, a relatively new bus line that goes all the way St Paul's burial site now has its "capolinea" (end station) right by our Generalate. We managed to time things perfectly so that we arrived just as the bus was ready to depart. I even practiced live-streaming via Twitter as we lit up the Basilica's apse mosaics, and then signed off to pray at the Apostle's tomb, leaving a small donation so that "Nunblogger's" readers could be remembered in a Mass by the Benedictine monks whose abbot (Ildefonse Schuster, now Blessed) had welcomed Blessed Timothy Giaccardo and the first Pauline community in 1926. On the way home, we got off the bus a few stops early so we could get a last, "Arrividerci, Roma" gelato at the local gelateria.

And then it was time to pack, adding in as many of the little gifts we had received from the chapter
I'm ready for my Golden Jubilee
(or my funeral, or both).
delegates as possible. (I especially appreciated the tote bags, pens, and the 1 TB drive with all the talks, slide programs and photos that had been shared during the month!) With the weight limits on international flights down to 23 kg, that meant I had to leave behind not only some of the gifts I had received, but also the jar of chestnut spread I had bought on my first day in Rome as a treat to bring back...small as it was, it was heavy enough to make a difference. (I didn't even think about it until later, but the real culprit was my holy card supply: I had stocked up on my favorite icon of Jesus!)

And so here we are: overcoming jet lag one day at a time. Ready to return to "ordinary time" in the service of the Lord and his Word.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Italy Update



We've really settled into the General Chapter lifestyle after two weeks. (I even started translating in my sleep shortly after the work began.) On my rosary walk (when the meeting schedule allows enough time for a walk!) I am really enjoying the wild flowers, especially the cyclamen, which are popping up everywhere now.

One of the things we were alerted to early on was that we should not walk the grounds after dark (or before sunrise) (or, for that matter, around 10 a.m., as one sister found out by surprise). There are herds of wild boars on the property, which is surrounded by woods. Just before dawn they come out to shovel the lawn with their tusks, in search of grubs and other delicacies. I keep trying to set up a web-cam to catch them in the act, since one of their favorite patches of lawn is within sight of my room (it's just that it's...so dark!). The brother who takes care of the grounds sighed that between the wild boars and the moles it is impossible to keep the gardens in some kind of order, but he keeps trying! And just today we had wild boar for lunch!!!

Sr Julia and I are trying to get some of the music for the psalm-tones that are used for Evening Prayer; that will really add to our community repertoire back home! Each day, the liturgy readings and music, and the assembly's prayers, are led by the sisters from a different part of the world. (Too bad I didn't have my phone with me when the African sisters sang at Mass the other day! It was amazing!) We from the US were assigned two days: the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and the upcoming feast of St Francis (which coincides with the day of our scheduled private audience with Pope Francis).

Yesterday's presenter explained that the odd name for this meeting (a "Chapter") comes from the custom in the early monasteries of gathering for community meetings that would typically start by reading aloud a chapter from the Rule (or a chapter, once there were "chapters," from the Gospel). Eventually, the meeting room was just called the "chapter room" and the gathering itself a "chapter." That has lasted a thousand years, and here I am today, serving the "capitular" sisters in a General Chapter.

The talks that we are translating have been very rich. Yesterday's was especially enlightening for today's feast of St Matthew. It gave me a whole new insight into God's way of working with our darkness. The speaker told the story of a religious order priest who had, without any authorization, just taken off on a personal adventure in Eastern Europe. I suppose he was trying to find himself, getting on a train without a particular destination without even having made plans for accommodations. When he got off at a remote location and inquired about a place to stay, he was advised that there was a group of religious people that would probably take him in. It turned out to be a kind of inchoate religious community who had not had the Mass in years. The first thing they begged him for was to celebrate the Eucharist. And with that, the rebellious, runaway priest found himself calling his Father General, confessing his whereabouts, and asking for authorization to establish their congregation in an outpost that none of their long-range plans had ever foreseen. From renegate, he became a missionary founder. In his very act running from his community and whatever responsibilities or relationships he had there, God met him face-on and gave him a new degree of commitment to his congregation and a new level of trust! No one in that man's order would have entrusted him with the establishment of a far-off mission, but God did. That is what the Feast of St Matthew is about.

As I prayed over today's Gospel, the words of Psalm 139 came to mind: "Even darkness is not dark to You." That is why I need to remind myself not to focus on the dark place where a person might be when I meet them (or have to deal with them!). God can work in the dark. Even in the darkness he finds in me.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Smiling in despair

For some time now I have been an avid follower of Humans of New York, an online introduction to people around the world, through the photojournalism of Brandon Stanton. Entries (you can find them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) usually consist of a photo and a paragraph or two in the subject’s own words about themselves or their life. A few of the stories encompass three or even four episodes. It has been amazing, sometimes exalting, other times gripping, even distressing. (Stanton created a Patreon account so that people can send regular donations that allow HONY at times to provide desperately needed material or educational goods.) Most of the time it is heart-warming. 
Today was more heart-warning.
HONY has been in Amsterdam lately, and this week we “met” an older gentleman who seems to find life basically meaningless. 

As you can see from the write-up, he didn’t seem to mention any relationships at all, unless you count the chairs he dropped off for refinishing. He sees his life in decline, and, living as he does in a society that legalized euthanasia twenty years ago, sees a solution for the meaninglessness of existence in giving everyone a kill pill to take at age 60 or so. (Excuse me!!!!)
What an empty existence his comments reflect. I don't think I've ever used the phrase "existential despair" in this blog (correct me if I'm wrong), but here it is, with a smiling face and a cup of coffee.
But it’s not life that is meaningless: it is this lifestyle. He still seems to have health, but nothing worthwhile to do with it (he's right that the chairs don't count). He seems to be without any reference point outside of himself. And that is meaningless. 
My first reaction to this post was precisely the thought that he must not have anyone to love, or anyone who loves him, because if you love, you want to live for the beloved, right? To do things that make them smile, or at least give them what comfort is possible...to find your joy in their joy at being loved. To live for and with them, simply because to love is a good in itself.
Blessed James Alberione used to say, “Preaching the Gospel is an immense act of charity.” It  reveals even to people who may find themselves unloved in human society that they are known and infinitely loved. It opens the horizons of this world, a world that may not offer everyone the feeling of being loved or needed, the truth that love is the origin, goal and meaning of life. And it constantly challenges the preacher to make sure that he or she is actually representing the love of God in a concrete way and not only in empty words.
If there really is no one in all of Amsterdam who knows and loves this person, it would still do him much good to “go, sell what you have, and give” the rest of his life to using his expertise (whatever it may be) in a part of the world where his skills and knowledge are needed and appreciated; where he could again feel himself to be a contributor to society instead of just a retired, bored gadfly. He could die feeling that he was a person again, instead of a hunk of vegetative matter waiting to nourish the soil. Because the meaning of life is love. And the fundamental quality of love is the “freedom of the gift” of self.
I spent a good part of my prayer time holding this man up to Jesus, along with the many commenters who agreed with his assessment of life. There's a plea in there for the new evangelization, but it has to be really new: so alive, such a bearer of life that it cannot be ignored but must be dealt with (even if that means nailing it to the nearest cross). Because in one way, the man is right, as the youthful Jacques and Raissa Maritain intuited: a meaningless life is not worth living. They began to discover the meaning of life through a novel by Leon Bloy. Now, 100 years later, what might be some ways to help awaken dulled hearts to the meaningfulness of existence?

Monday, September 09, 2019

Bella Italia!

Pardon me a moment while I pick up my jaw from the floor, where it keeps falling...

Detail from the top of the stairs at San Marco Friary.
We’ve been in Italy just over a (very full week), having spent the first three days in Florence. The three of us walked everywhere, and no matter where we went, as soon as a door opened, so did my mouth, “Ohhhh!” Many of the most significant sites in Florence, even though they are churches (heck, even the Cathedral), require tickets, but religious sisters generally get in free (and even the tickets are works of art). The Cathedral ticket is valid for 72 hours, which is a good thing, because it covers the Cathedral museum, the Cathedral itself, the crypt, the bell tower and the Baptistry. We only managed to see the Baptistery and the bell tower, though we did go to Sunday Mass in the Cathedral, so we saw that much. The Cathedral museum is one of the best-curated museums anywhere. I missed most of it and I was still blown away. So there is enough left for another trip, should God provide that opportunity! 

Florence was on my must-see list because of Fra Angelico. I had been on several day trips to this magnificent city (including my first visit when I was still a college student only considering religious life), but I had never seen the Dominican friary where the saintly artist lived (and where he painted each brother’s little cell). With almost three days there, I finally had my chance. (Unfortunately for me, the friary-turned-museum is closed on the first Sunday of every month, and September 1 was our only full day in town!) We visited the monastery Church of San Marco on Sunday and saw some of its jaw-dropping splendors (like the ancient mosaic of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a Byzantine Empress: a mosaic that had been in the Constantinian Basilica of St Peter’s in the Vatican circa 705 AD, and when that was being torn down to make way for the new Vatican Basilica was cut in half and transported to Florence by a really smart Florentine cardinal).

We learned that Florence with its famous leather industry is the (only) place in Italy where you want to get a steak. And another culinary specialty: lampredotto. 
Lorenzo, the lampredotto vendor.
Note his name! It's a popular one in Florence!
We saw food stands and mom-and-pop restaurants boasting the availability of this unknown foodstuff (which we assumed to be eels or something lamprey-like). Finally we had to break down and ask what it was. This we did in the old produce market, now a combination marketplace (downstairs) and upscalish food court (upstairs). Lorenzo (he with the smiling face) ran a stand that featured something you can get nowhere else but in Florence: a cow stomach sandwich. Two of us were willing to give it a try (at least to split one). With artichokes. The portion of cow stomach (looked like tripe, but not tripe) was pulled from a pot of broth and chopped up; then the artichokes were chopped. These were piled onto a roll, topped with a thin parsley pesto and cut in half for us. Lorenzo was so pleased that we were trying the local specialty he gave us a discount. The flavor was very mild; so mild that it was really like eating an artichoke sandwich to which the meat gave only a bit more substance than the chopped vegetable. Don’t be afraid to try it. (Tell Lorenzo the Sisters sent you.)

Every night in Florence and for our two days in Rome my phone congratulated me: You have taken 15,000 steps today! You are taking more steps than usual! Keep it up! (Not going to happen…)

Sunset view from my room.
Right now we are currently immersed in a retreat experience—appropriately enough, at a retreat house. In fact, this is Pope Francis’ favorite retreat house: The Casa Divin Maestro, established by none other than Blessed James Alberione as a retreat house for the Pauline Family back in the 1950’s when he was at the height of what some members called his “brick fever.” (Always thinking ahead, he was buying properties right and left; this property is just a couple of miles away from the land he bought as a clinic where not only Paulines but any priests, brothers and sisters could be treated while offering their sufferings as a form of prayer that the media would be rightly used.)

Close quarters in the translators' booth.
At any rate, Sister Julia and I won the room lottery. Or maybe they just gave us the best views in the place because we were destined to be in the translation booth all day, every day. But our teeny, tiny bedrooms overlook Lake Albano, and as the sun begins to set, it lights up the Tyrrhenian Sea—highlighting Italy’s west coast. Since we are on the edge of a mountain (a volcano, which I sincerely hope is extinct), there is generally a cool breeze all day, so there is no AC (no screens, either). 

The first part of this month long meeting we are here to translate consists of a retreat with two hour-long conferences daily. (They are outstanding!!!) The “meetings” will begin on the 12th. That's when our translation work will really get intense. Aside from high-level input from Mother General and reports from the treasurer, there will be talks from experts in various fields. Then every day, our sister-delegates from around the world will present short (10-15 minute) reports on the Pauline mission and the needs of the people of their area. This can be especially challenging for the sisters who represent communities that serve more than one country! For example, our East Asia delegate represents communities in four very different counties, with more than four languages; similarly for the sister who represents Central Europe, where she must communicate the situation of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. These reports will help the assembly get a handle on the needs around the world so that the members will be better able to discern the direction the Lord wants us to take for the next six years (and the people he wants at the helm of the congregation for that timeframe, too).

The Chapter Hall, as seen from the translators' booths.
Overall, this is a young assembly. 27 of the 60 members have never attended a General Chapter before. (One of those 27 is also the eldest elected delegate!) I believe that this is also the first General Chapter in which all our African communities are represented by African sisters. At the last Chapter (I was a delegate) there were still missionary sisters representing East Africa and South Africa. And just Saturday night, as if truly passing the torch, one of our great missionaries to Africa died in our nearby hospital (the one founded as a clinic by Blessed James and Mother Thecla back in the 50’s). I don’t believe I have ever done this, but as soon as the English translation comes in, I am going to post her death notice so you can read about this apostolic woman who joined the Daughters of St Paul when she was just eleven years old, established our community in Angola and, before that, in Mozambique (she was kicked out of the country twice during times of political upheaval), and lived long enough to see the Pope visit her beloved adopted land. (One of them: she also served in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria.) She was a writer, teacher, novice director, publisher, cheerleader for the evangelization of Africa. And when it was not possible, because of political tensions, to carry out the media mission of the Daughters of St Paul, she found a way to stay with the people of her adopted land and share the Word of God with them in any way that was available, including parish work, until the way was clear to take up the publishing apostolate and welcome Pauline vocations once more.

Sister Maria had been in Italy getting some medical attention, and had accepted with a spirit of sacrifice and real oblation a new assignment that did not include a return to her missions. However, she did have permission to go back to Mozambique one more time: for the Papal Visit. Instead, when Pope Francis landed there, Sister Maria, still in Italy, had landed in our hospital in Albano. So when the delegates from Africa began to arrive for the General Chapter, she sent them a message, "Please come and see me before the meetings start." The Mozambican sister told me that on Saturday evening, despite the retreat, she found herself turning on her cell phone, and there was an email from her novice director, Sister Maria: I am thinking of you and praying for the General Chapter. That night, the younger sister found it impossible to fall asleep. She tossed and turned, until late in the evening there was a knock on the door. It was Mother General, informing her of Sister Maria's sudden death.

How can we not see this missionary’s departure as a providential sign that, just as she went ahead in so many countries to prepare the way for the Pauline mission, she would be going ahead of the work facing the assembly in the coming weeks so that “the word of the Lord will speed on and triumph” through our mission in the future? 

I am counting on your prayers to help me and Sr Julia translate as well as possible the remainder of the (excellent beyond words) retreat conferences and to communicate accurately the content of the Superior General's report and the expert's input without stumbling too much along the way.... and counting on your prayers to the Holy Spirit to truly guide our Sisters in this most important month of discernment. (A General Chapter is the highest governing body in a religious congregation, even if its authority is only temporary. So it's kind of like a conclave that not only elects a Pope but gives him marching orders!)

Thanks a million!
A domani--or whenever! (Until tomorrow, or....)


Monday, August 26, 2019

Getting ready to go

It has been an intensely busy summer, and today , with the weather in Boston already hinting at Autumn, I have only four days left before departing for Rome for a biblical 40 days. My work there will be to serve as one of two English language interpreters (Sr Julia is the other) for a month-long international meeting of the Daughters of St Paul. Superiors and elected delegates from every part of the world will come together to elect our new Superior General and her council, and to establish the priority areas for our life and mission for the next six years. When I was first asked to perform this service, I reminded the provincial that while I can translate from Italian into English pretty well in real time, my spoken Italian is execrable. Functional, but "cave man Italian" nonetheless. I was still asked to go. (Good for humility!)

Packing has been going on a little bit at a time since I got back from my annual retreat. That is because I have also been involved full-time in the music apostolate during that same time. We learned and recorded several songs for a new Christmas concert CD and are now preparing for the concert itself, doing a kind of rough outline of the program and staging. Trying to follow Sr Nancy and Sr Tracey as they describe the pattern of steps and hand motions is good for warding off dementia, they tell me. It is certainly good for humility!

I also started facial neuromuscular retraining in mid-July, to try to gain more control of the left side of my face after an attack of shingles left the nerves to regrow in a weird tangle that is good for...humility. (Are you beginning to sense a pattern here? Because I sure am!!!)

Anyway, one thing for you to look for on the new Christmas CD is a song that will be "premiered" at our concerts.  Listen along with the sisters in the control room to one of the "takes" of a piece of this new song. (This is a very rough recording! It took us a while to get this very lovely song right.)

 
Mary Had a Son was written by Randy Cox, the music director who first heard our music playing in the gift shop at Gethesemane Abbey. He felt inspired to ask if there was a way he could work with us, just as we were praying for someone who could help us bring our music to a new level. Randy has helped us connect with a phenomenal arranger who has crafted settings made for our voices (not just generic "women's voices," but our own, having listened to our recordings to get a sense of our range and style). This has made it so much easier for us to sing, and made recording faster, too! Anyway, this beautiful new Christmas meditation which will be inaugurated this season was written by Randy Cox with music by Phillip Keveren, and is dedicated to the Daughters of St Paul. We think that is a first, too.

pauline.org/concerts
Speaking of firsts, this year we will offer our first-ever concert in Orange County, CA and our first concert in Mascoutah, IL (Belleville diocese, within driving distance of much of Illinois and Indiana).

Please look at the concert venues and dates and see if there's a way you can make a family event out of one of our Pauline Christmas concerts this year!

I hope to have a moment or two while in Italy to update you on things and share a few pictures... Two of us have permission for a quick trip to Florence (we'll be accompanied by an American sister who is stationed in Rome, and with whom I shared a year of novitiate). Then, after the mid-point of the meeting, we are promised a kind of field trip to a to-be-announced Marian shrine. (I'm hoping it will be a new-to-me shrine of the Blessed Mother!)

And speaking of Our Lady, today we welcomed the Pilgrim Virgin, not of Fatima, but of Aparecida (the Patroness of Brazil). This tiny statue (about 20" high) is a replica of the one in the national shrine, and usually visits the parishes of Brazil. She is truly a pilgrim, because some of those parishes are quite remote. Even now when she goes home to visit (every other year) it takes our Sister Liria three days to get to her parents' house from the nearest city. (She grew up without Sunday Mass: a priest would make the rounds of the villages, coming to her farming community every two months or so. The leading families would simply take turns hosting prayers on Sunday so that the Lord's Day was duly observed and his Word received with reverence.)

Anyway, for the next two months, Our Lady of Aparecida will be visiting the Brazilian immigrants in North America, a good many of whom are in New England, and she started her visit in our home!


Thursday, August 01, 2019

TOB: As Timely as Ever

In the week since I've been back from the retreat house (and before I go back again, next time for my actual retreat), Theology of the Body issues have been back in the news.

Marc Chagall, The Four Seasons, det. (Chicago)
There was a veritable storm on #CatholicTwitter over changes at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome, which as of 2017 is being completely restructured (under a Motu Proprio from Pope Francis). In fact, the Institute founded by Pope John Paul has been dissolved, and a new one with a slightly broader name and mission (John Paul II Theological Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science) has been established in its place. Students who were already enrolled in studies will be able to finish their degrees according to the former program ("if they wish"!), keeping their same doctoral advisors.

At this stage, all of the earlier Institute's professors have been terminated, a few positions and one major course area eliminated, and there is general consternation over the future of the Institute. Those changes will obviously also eventually affect the Institute's branches in other parts of the world (including the US). Current and prospective students are in dismay. Since very little was coming from the official media office (at least in English), this left a lot of room for speculation, most of it on the negative side. I must confess that the response from the official media office in answer to the criticisms on social media did not really encourage my confidence, but it has increased my prayers. In the end, God is always in charge, no matter the human machinations.

Then there was the story of the baby on the doorstep. Ten days ago, a Florida man answered a knock at the door, and found the police there with a newborn baby. The infant had been left on the doormat of his apartment. A note with the child gave the time and place of birth (5:45 pm, in the bathroom) and asked that the baby be taken to the hospital, a safe haven. (Unfortunately this was not done, since neighbors had heard the baby crying and called 911 earlier.)

That mother, a victim of domestic violence, gave birth alone and unaided.  Alone and unaided, still under threat of unspeakable violence, she tenderly washed her baby and fed him, swaddled him in a t-shirt, and when the coast was clear, brought him to the attention of a neighbor she hoped she could trust with the baby's life. The note explained that the father "is a dangerous man" who "tried to kill us both," and asked that everything be kept secret.

And then there is the story of the sixth wife of the fabulously wealthy Emir of Dubai. According to yesterday's news, she asked a British court that a "forced marriage protection order" be applied to one of her two children, and that both children be made "wards of the court."

Pope John Paul said over thirty years ago: Woman is "the master of her own mystery" [TOB 110:7-9].

With the Bible, Pope John Paul insists that "The 'language of the body' reread in the truth goes hand in hand with the discovery of the inner inviolability of the person." This is precisely what we see those two women in the news intuitively and so rightly defending. The Pope goes on: "When the bride [in the Song of Songs] says, 'My beloved is mine,' she means at the same time, 'It is he to whom I entrust myself'... The freedom of the gift is the response to the deep consciousness of the gift expressed in the bridegroom's words" which had acknowledged her self-possession: "A garden closed, you are, my sister, my bride; a garden closed, a fountain sealed" (Songs 4:21). "One can say that both metaphors express the whole dignity of the woman, who, as a spiritual subject, possesses herself and can decide not only the metaphysical depth, but also the essential truth and authenticity of the gift of self that tends toward the union about which Genesis speak" [TOB 110:4].

Clearly, as in the two women's stories, this is not the way the world actually is. But the Pope's words are more than wishful thinking or the theme of the next Disney princess story. According to Pope John Paul, who clearly remembered the scores of couples who had bared their souls to him across the decades, this is the way we were made: this is God's real plan for us. To the extent that we live according to it, the family and society flourish. The farther we depart from it, the more the family (and each member of it) suffers.



How can we help society awaken from its delusions about atomized, individualistic freedom (apart from the "sincere gift of self" that is the secret of human fulfillment) and from the loss of a sense of the reality of the body?