Liturgical Doggerel?: Pope Francis’ Mass Appeal

“In Latin America,” so the joke goes, “a mass is not valid if a dog is not present.”

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Traditionalist websites are abuzz with doomsday scenarios because it seems the new Pope’s liturgical style is, well, too simple, too minimalist.  There is outrage and concern being expressed, and not without a bit of arrogance.  A Washington Post article quotes a canon law professor at Catholic University, who points out that “even small changes to the visible, symbolic parts of Catholic worship are noticeable to traditional Catholics, who treasure them.”  Point well taken, but he continues by saying of himself and other of said “traditional Catholics” (in charity, I hope that he was misquoted): “This is the group that is the most faithful.”

I have no problem with people having misgivings about the new Pope’s liturgies.  I, too, prefer a more elaborate liturgy, but, let’s face it, that’s not what most people get.  And I would never presume that my preferences with regard to liturgy somehow count me among “the most faithful.”

Indeed, some of the most faithful people I know have never experienced a high liturgy, and some perhaps never a mass in which a dog was not present!  The poor of Latin America, at least in my experience there, take what they can get as far as liturgy is concerned.  They don’t have the luxury of driving to the nearby parish where the liturgy is celebrated just the way they like it.  And, indeed, they probably would never think to do it, because for them the mass is as much about the people there to celebrate it as it is about the visible symbols, and whether they are precisely right.  In fact, in Latin America I rarely experienced what I would consider great liturgy, and I can count on one hand the number of masses I’ve attended there that I would consider “high mass.”  Masses there generally are more simple, especially where the poor live, and this, it seems to me, is what is reflected in Pope Francis’ liturgical style.  Maybe he’ll have to step it up a bit, now that he’s on the world stage.  But might we consider that the more simple kind of mass we’re seeing from Pope Francis is the more common experience for the majority of Catholics in the world?  And let me be the first to admit that a lot—if not most—of them are far more faithful than I, despite my liturgical taste.

In fact, I may hate the liturgical experience, but I’ll take a mass with God’s faithful poor—and even a dog thrown in—over a high mass with smells and bells and great music celebrated with people who think that because their liturgy is more beautiful, more symbolic, in a word, better, that means that they are more faithful.

Like I said, I hope that person was misquoted.  But perhaps our misgivings about Pope Francis’ brand of liturgy is an invitation to ask whether we do indeed think that our higher liturgical preferences somehow make us more Catholic than those who prefer it more simple, or simply don’t have the luxury of the choice.

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Forgetting the Women

Today’s first reading tells the story of Susanna, from the book of Daniel.  Two old men corner Susanna as she was walking through the garden, and demand sex from her.  Should she refuse, they tell her, they will publicly accuse her of having sex with another man—not her husband—and she will face a penalty of death.  Susanna chooses to take her chances with their false accusations, rather than submit to their demands.  She will almost certainly die, but prays to God for deliverance.  God sends Daniel to rescue her, and expose the men’s lies.  The men are then delivered to the same fate that they would have visited upon the innocent Susanna-death.

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I couldn’t help but think, given the coverage of the rape trial in Steubenville, OH, what the reaction would be should the priest presiding at mass choose to preach about what a shame it was that the old men suffered as they did, with no thought to what they had done to Susanna.  That, essentially, was the perspective adopted by news agencies such as CNN in their coverage of the verdict in the Steubenville trial.  It was all about how the lives of the two young men found guilty were being ruined by this verdict, and the punishment that went with it.  There was almost no mention of the victim of the rape, and nothing in the way of sympathy for her suffering, how her life had been ruined.  And, while I certainly cannot be without sympathy for the dire consequences these men’s actions have led to, the lack of any sympathy expressed for their victim was more than disturbing.

I did not have the opportunity to preach today, but I would have felt myself remiss had I not made that connection, and I hope that some priests today had the courage to do so.

Indeed, when the story of Susanna comes up and the readings, as well as the story of the woman caught in adultery in yesterday’s Gospel, I can’t help but remember an “angry mass” that I experienced in my first year of priesthood, when both readings came at the same mass.  I wrote about it then:

As I considered what to say in my homily this morning, I realized that there was no way around it–today’s readings definitely had something to say about injustice against women. To avoid the issue, as some might have, seemed to me to be ignoring the elephant in the room. Today’s readings clearly had something to say to use about gender justice, and the injustice perpetrated against women by abuse of power and sinful double standards. That’s what I spoke about in my homily. I admitted that I myself haven’t exactly been the best advocate of gender justice, and have been known to roll my eyes at academic discussions of the evils of patriarchy, but that it was clear in these two readings that gender justice is something we are meant to be concerned about. We are called, like Daniel, not to stand idly be but to speak up when we see injustice being perpetrated against women. And, we are challenged by Jesus to examine the ways in which our own attitudes and opinions ignore such abuses of power, and conform to sinful double standards. And while we can often point to more egregious examples of injustice and violence against women in other countries, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing that there is plenty happening here, right in our own communities.

Honestly, this was a bit out of my comfort zone, and so I was pretty nervous. I wasn’t sure how people would react. I was pleased with the homily, though it took a lot out of me. And, as I reflected for a few moments afterward, I was confident that what I had said indeed reflected God’s concern.

And that was why I was so appalled and angered by the prayers of the faithful! Now, they come from a book which the parish bought, so no one there is to blame, but I couldn’t believe that after I had said all that, the first prayer was for “our bishops, priests, and deacons.” And it only got worse. There was not a single mention of women, never mind injustice against women. I wanted to scream! Instead, I did the more genteel thing, and added my own prayer at the end for women who are victims of sexual abuse and violence. I wonder if I should have said something more, but I always want to be careful not to distract people from the liturgy of the Eucharist (and I’d already said quite a bit). And, hey, I’m saying something more now.

But I was distracted, and I wondered if people noticed that I was angered by how the prayers had indeed managed to ignore the elephant in the room. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a deliberate omission, and whether the people who wrote the prayers had considered how out of sync that first prayer was likely to be with many a homily today. Sometimes at mass I’m taken by how well the prayers, usually written independently of me, fit with the subject of my homily. And sometimes when they don’t, I wonder if I missed something. But today was the first time that I felt the prayers didn’t seem to get it at all; that it wasn’t me who missed something . . .

These news reports coming out of Steubenville certainly missed something, and they should be ashamed.

A Palpable Papal Silence

Was the Pope’s silence a sign?

Much, of course, can be made of nothing.  But, in this case, that’s the point.

One of the first acts of the new Pope Francis was to invite the crowd gathered in Saint Peter’s square to silence, and prayer.

Monks are more known for their silence, and Jesuits for their bluster.  Yet, truth be told, if there was one moment where the new Pope’s Jesuit-ness shone through the most, it was this one.  In Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, one retreats from the noise of the world to encounter Jesus in silence.

We live in a world of ever-increasing noise, and information overload.  If we are to deepen our spiritual lives then, we need silence more than ever.  And so the Jesuit Francis may have given us a sign, and an invitation, by his early silence.

True, the new Pope might still go on Tweeting.  But I suspect he might also, as Saint Ignatius would, urge us to unplug and go retreating, meeting God in prayer, and silence.

The New Pope’s a Jesuit: How Do You Feel?

Since the election of Pope Francis I the first yesterday, I can already predict what the number one topic of my conversations will be in the coming days, weeks, months perhaps.  It will begin something like this: “How do you feel about having a Jesuit Pope?”  Though at this point we are only a day into this new reality, I find that my reactions fall into at least four categories.  First, I was—and still am—surprised.  Second, I feel delight, and a sense of pride.  Third, I find myself conflicted.  Finally, I am apprehensive.  I can’t speak for all Jesuits, but my sense is that many of my Jesuit brothers are experiencing similar reactions, to varying degrees.

Why am I surprised?

“They would never elect a Jesuit Pope!”  We Jesuits have always taken it as something of a maxim that a Jesuit would never be elected Pope.  I said as much to several people who asked me recently whether I thought the new Pope might be a Jesuit (they have been quick to point out that I was wrong).  There were many reasons for this presumption.  Most obviously: In the more than 400 years that it had been possible, a Jesuit had never been elected Pope.  It was also thought that since the Jesuits are and have long been the largest single religious order of men in the Church (though the different Franciscan families, if added together, would be larger in number), that having a Jesuit Pope would skew a presumed balance of power between the “white Pope” and the “black pope,” as the Jesuit superior general is sometimes called.  Such a vision, however, seems to be the product of a bygone age when the papacy was understood differently.  Nevertheless, we know that in the Church former ways of thinking sometimes die hard, and many of us presumed that this way of thinking was still alive and kicking.  So, give the current college of Cardinals—and the Holy Spirit—credit for overcoming a long-standing prejudice!

Why delighted and proud?

The new Pope is a Jesuit!  Members of a religious community, no matter how different they may be individually (and individual Jesuits can be very different), share a unique kinship founded in their order’s charism (that is, unique characteristics), traditions, mission and spirituality.  We speak the same language.  We understand each other.  Also, our shared identity as a community of men devoted to a common mission in service of Christ and the Church results in a collective sense of pride in our accomplishments, and sorrow over our failures.  What one Jesuit does, for good or ill, somehow reflects upon all of us.  So, just as I feel proud when I see I Jesuit I live with act heroically in support of someone in need, I also find myself feeling proud to be a Jesuit when one of my brother Jesuits becomes Pope.

Why conflicted?

A Jesuit is not supposed to be Pope!  Here, I’m not repeating myself, but saying something about Jesuit legislation, tradition, and self-understanding, as well as the intentions of our founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola.  Dismayed by the distasteful actions by many Catholic clerics of his day in pursuit of advancement, power and prestige, Ignatius was determined that such ambition not infect the Society of Jesus.  Therefore, it was clearly specified in the founding documents of the Jesuits that Jesuits were not to become bishops.  Indeed, it is even forbidden for Jesuits to aspire to most positions of authority within the Society of Jesus itself.  Should a Jesuit mount a campaign to be a Provincial or the General Superior of the Jesuits or even express a desire to hold such a position, that very act would disqualify him!  Being a bishop also makes it essentially impossible for one to be fully a Jesuit, in a sense.  Integral to Jesuit identity is apostolic availability, meaning that a Jesuit should always be prepared to go at a moment’s notice to answer the greatest apostolic need, anywhere in the world, especially if the Pope asks!  Being a bishop doesn’t allow for that kind of availability.  So, I suspect that Saint Ignatius would be strongly opposed—if not horrified—at the election of a Jesuit as Pope!  However, this all also points to a question within the Society of Jesus as to how Jesuits are to understand availability, and their vow of obedience to the Pope.  Shouldn’t a Jesuit’s availability also include being available to serve the Church as a Bishop?  And, a matter of some dispute among Jesuits, given that we have a specific vow of obedience to the Pope, does this include a Pope’s request that one become a bishop?  This question came up during Ignatius’ lifetime when some in the Church wanted to make the Jesuit Francis Borgia a cardinal.  Ignatius made known his strong opposition to the proposal (especially because in this case it was about giving honor to a member of a prominent family), but he also acknowledged that should the Church insist, and Borgia accept, he would have to respect the Church’s decision.  Borgia was never made a cardinal, and instead became the third general superior of the Jesuits.

Why apprehensive?

A Jesuit Pope surely spells disaster for the Church!  Or so many might say.  While many in the Church have no idea what a Jesuit is, or that there are priests of a different sort than the ones that they know, those more in the know have strong opinions about religious orders like the Jesuits.  There are those that love the Jesuits with great passion, and those who hate the Jesuits with equal passion.  Both these camps are likely to harbor unreasonable expectations for a Jesuit Pope, both positive and negative.  Pope Francis will most certainly disappoint both, not being as progressive as some would expect of a Jesuit, and not being as disastrous as others might expect.  One of the main problems is that the most commonly held view on both sides is that the Jesuits are liberal.  The fact that this isn’t an accurate representation of the diversity of the 19,000 Jesuits around the world, doesn’t stop our lovers or haters from seeing us that way.  So, those who hate the Jesuits, but love the Church will make peace with themselves by saying things like, “but he’s a good Jesuit,” or “the right kind of Jesuit,” to distinguish him from the vast majority of Jesuits who are “bad Jesuits.”  I can’t tell you how maddening, and I must say ignorant, such comments are.  When he’s not progressive enough, Jesuit lovers will accuse him of not being Jesuit enough, or of betraying the Jesuits, or the Jesuit spirit.  And though we certainly prefer the criticisms of those who love us, such comments will also be rooted in a similar ignorance of the expansive richness, diversity and fidelity to the Church that the Society of Jesus represents.  When the Pope fails, as he certainly will from time to time, you might hear expressions of contempt such as “what do you expect from a Jesuit.”  But I pray that both Jesuit lovers and haters can see beyond their expectations and find the wisdom of the Church and the will of the Holy Spirit in this surprising choice.Image

An Early Review

Ignatius Loyola–The Spiritual Writings has been out about 4 weeks, and “Prints of Grace” has been kind enough to offer a review.  Here’s an excerpt:

“I didn’t realize how much of modern day spirituality and prayer practices came from this particular saint and his prescribed methods of growing closer to the Lord.  Now that I have read excerpts from his memoir as well as his letters within the context of explaining certain passages of The Spiritual Exercises, I have a far greater appreciation of the wealth of wisdom he provided through his writing.”

Read the rest here.

Saint Ignatius: “Sticks and Stones . . .”?

“For at the moment you decide, will, and strive with all your strength for the glory, honor, and service of God our Lord, at that moment you join battle and raise your standard against the world, and prepare yourself to cast away lofty and embrace lowly things, resolving to treat equally the high or the low, honor or dishonor, wealth or poverty, love or hatred, welcome or rejection—in short, the world’s glory or all its abuse.  We cannot pay much attention to insults in this life when they are no more than words; all of them together cannot hurt a hair of our heads.  Deceitful, vile, and insulting words cannot cause us pain or contentment except as we desire them; and if our desire is to live absolutely in honor, and our neighbor’s esteem, we can never be solidly rooted in god our Lord, nor can we remain unscathed when faced with affronts.”

Letter to Isabel Roser

Saint Ignatius: What Have I Done For Christ?

“Imagining Christ our Lord present and placed on the Cross, let me make a Colloquy, how from Creator He is come to making Himself man, and from life eternal is come to temporal death, and so to die for my sins.

Likewise, looking at myself, [ask]:

What I have done for Christ? What I am doing for Christ? What I ought to do for Christ?

And so, seeing Him such, and so nailed on the Cross, to go over that which will present itself.

The Colloquy is made, properly speaking, as one friend speaks to another, or as a servant to his master; now asking some grace, now blaming oneself for some misdeed, now communicating one’s affairs, and asking advice in them.”

How do I use imagination in prayer?  What’s a colloquy?

Meet the Author

Recently, I appeared on Radio Maria’s “Meet the Author” program.  

The host, Ken Huck, and I spoke about living a spiritual life in contemporary times, my book Already There, and briefly about my new book, Saint Ignatius Loyola–The Spiritual Writings.

You can listen to the interview here.

Saint Ignatius: On Dealing With Distractions In Prayer

“Even very devout servants of God complain about wanderings and instability of the mind, and we read that St. John occasionally relaxed his contemplations by lowering his attention to a bird he held in his hand, saying to a follower of his who was disedified that, just as the bow cannot remain always bent, so neither could the understanding, etc.  It is true that sometimes, even many times, numerous servants of God have a great and vivid awareness, quite certain and stable, of his eternal truths; but for them to remain permanently in this state is impossible to believe.”

Letter to Francis Borgia

Looking for more advice from Saint Ignatius?  Image

Order Saint Ignatius Loyola–The Spiritual Writings: Annotated & Explained Today!

Find Answers to the questions: Who was Francis Borgia?  And, was he related to that awful family on TV?

Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and My Friend, the Atheist

So, while I wasn’t looking, a friend of mine has become a somewhat notable neo-atheist (I’m not sure if it’s fair to call him that, but that’s how he’s being perceived, at least).  He’s a philosopher, and we both met while teaching philosophy, and sharing an office.  We live on opposite coasts now, so I don’t see him very much.  I don’t think he was exactly a believer when we were in the same city (New Orleans), but his ideas have certainly gotten more radical—and more public—since then.  He’s always been a provocative teacher, and that’s one of the things that I like about him.  I like that he challenges students to make reasonable arguments.  After all, in many ways that’s what philosophy is all about.  And I know from my own teaching how hard it can be to get students to risk making any argument sometimes!

From what he’s been saying lately, it seems he’s coming down quite hard on students who make arguments based on faith (though precisely what he means by faith, I can’t be sure).  I don’t object to that.  I have done the same myself, not in a dismissive way, but in a way that I hope helps them make more coherent arguments.  After all, Christianity has long held that faith and reason are by no means incompatible.  I suspect my friend would agree (or at least he would have in the past).  What I fear, though, is that those who listen to him will get the impression that this is not the case.  And that is a disservice to them.  The Letter to the Hebrews says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for.”  Do we really want to rob people of hope, in the name of truth?  And, can I really rid my life of what might be called “reason informed by faith”?  It would certainly make life more difficult.

I would have to stop introducing my parents as my mother and father, since I have never seen a DNA test proving that I’m even related to them.  Barring that, I can only offer faith-based arguments that they are, indeed, my biological parents.  Indeed, I might need to go so far as the philosopher David Hume to contend that I really have no way of knowing, despite the fact that it has always been my experience, that if I drop something heavy it will fall down instead of up.  For isn’t there a “faith” involved in assuming things simply because we have never experienced things otherwise?  Yes, we might find ourselves escaping Plato’s cave one day and finding that things are far different than we ever thought.  But does that mean that I should live my life in constant anxiety that my experience of it may not be what it seems to be?

But one might object.  That after all is “trust,” not faith.  A rose by any other name?  And, besides, what is objectionable is not that kind of faith (if you want to call it that), but religious faith.  How is it different, as my friend put it in a recent talk, than believing in the Easter Bunny?  Well, for one thing, I know now that the things the Easter Bunny was once credited with doing were actually being done by the people I call my parents.  But were they?  Why should I believe that what they have told me is true, and that they are not just trying to protect me from the reality that there is indeed an Easter Bunny?  But I have never seen the Easter Bunny, and I have seen and learned to trust those who claim to be my parents, so the truth of their assertion is at least more probable.

But here’s where they’ve got me!  Since I have never seen God, isn’t he just as ridiculous a notion as the Easter Bunny.  Well, it depends again whether you are willing to trust what people have told you.  I come from a tradition that descends from the historical encounter of a people called Israel with a real God.  I come from a tradition that believes that God also entered history in another way in the person of Jesus Christ, a human person who lived, whom other people experienced, who died, and who, according to their accounts, visited some of those very same people after his death and rising from the dead.  I have to take their word for it.  I also have to take the word of the millions of people who have also experienced God in a variety of ways over the centuries.  Sure, some of them were probably crazy.  But even crazy people can argue from experience.  I may be one of them.

But I don’t just have to take their word for it.  I have experienced God for myself.  Anyone can say that I’m just making it all up, that I’m delusional.  Certainly, if there is no God, I have made a joke of my life.  I can say that.  But, interestingly, I’m pretty sure that’s something my friend would never say to me, or even believe of me.  He has experienced the concrete effect that my belief in God has on who I am, what I do and why I do it.  He knows that much of my life is based on reason, informed by faith, and that some of my life rests on faith alone.  He objects to what a lot of “faithful” people do—and so do I.  But that doesn’t make faith objectionable to me, it just means that people can mistaken conclusions based on faith, as they can commensurately so based on reason.  And life is a mixture of mistakes and successes based on both.

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It’s Holy Week.  And this week that is the story we remember.  A story of mistakes and successes, of friendship and betrayal, and a love that expresses itself in a way that is both reasonable and which transcends reason.  It’s a story that we know really happened—people experienced it, history records it.  Yet it is also a story that for those of us who believe, who have faith in Jesus Christ, happened once and for all time.  It is no less real today than it was on the historical date that it happened.  And it demands something of us that is not reasonable.  It demands that we give our lives to over to the mission and the person of Jesus Christ—completely.  In doing this, we do not ignore the fact that people have and continue to do hateful things in the name of Jesus Christ (which is one of the atheists’ favorite bludgeons), or that peopledo amazing, loving and heroic things also in the name of Jesus Christ.  Or that people do both, without believing in Jesus or God.  They can be as heroic or fallible as those of us who do have faith.

I’m not offended by the offense they take at my faith.  I am, however, concerned that in championing the truth, they might, even if unwittingly, take people’s hope away.  Especially because I suspect that, ultimately, they are looking for “the substance of things hoped for” too.  Their substance is just different than mine.  Mine is Jesus Christ, who I have experienced, and who calls me, guides me, lives in me and loves through me.  Theirs is, well, I’m not sure.  Hope in Jesus may be as ridiculous to some as the Easter Bunny, but it is everything to me, and the community of faith to which I belong.  It’s just how we roll . . . (if we can say for sure that anything, in fact, rolls.)