Archive for the ‘Holidays & Festivals’ Category.

Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche at the Met, 2016

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Catholicism in 21st Century America


When most Catholics think about Mary, we have one of two images in our heads: the virginal Jewish teen from Galilee who says yes to God’s plan; or the mother of Jesus, the woman of mercy and tenderness, “our life, our sweetness and our hope.” We can too easily forget that Mary is also the woman clothed in the sun who crushes the head of the serpent. She embodies in her purity the greatness of humanity fully alive in God. She’s the mother who intercedes for us, comforts us and teaches us—but who also defends us.

And in doing that, she reminds us of the great line from C.S. Lewis that Christianity is a “fighting religion”—not in the sense of hatred or violence directed at other persons, but rather in the spiritual struggle against the evil in ourselves and in the world around us, where our weapons are love, justice, courage and self-giving.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem described our spiritual struggle this way: “There is a serpent [the devil] by the wayside watching those who pass by: beware lest he bite thee with unbelief. He sees so many receiving salvation and is seeking whom he may devour.” The great American writer Flannery O’Connor added that whatever form the serpent may take, “it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country,” not to turn away from God’s story or the storyteller.

If our theme as a meeting this week is reclaiming the Church for the Catholic imagination, we can’t overlook the fact that the flesh and blood model for our Church—Mary as mater et magistra—is quite accomplished at punching the devil in the nose. And as Mary’s adopted sons, we need to be bishops who lead and teach like the great Cyril of Jerusalem.

Having said all that, my thoughts today come in three parts. I want to speak first about the people we’ve become as American Catholics. Then I’ll turn to how and why we got where we are. Finally I’ll suggest what we need to do about it, not merely as individuals, but more importantly as a Church. We need to recover our identity as a believing community. And I think a good way to begin doing that is with the “catechetical content” of our current political moment.

. . .

Americans aren’t fools. They have a good sense of smell when things aren’t right. And one of the things wrong with our country right now is the hollowing out and retooling of all the key words in our country’s public lexicon; words like democracy, representative government, freedom, justice, due process, religious liberty and constitutional protections. The language of our politics is the same. The content of the words is different. Voting still matters. Public protest and letters to members of Congress can still have an effect. But more and more of our nation’s life is governed by executive order, judicial overreach and administrative agencies with little accountability to Congress.

. . .

Let me put our situation this way. The two unavoidable facts of life are mortality and inequality. We’re going to die. And – here I’m committing a primal American heresy — we’re not created “equal” in the secular meaning of that word. We’re obviously not equal in dozens of ways: health, intellect, athletic ability, opportunity, education, income, social status, economic resources, wisdom, social skills, character, holiness, beauty or anything else. And we never will be. Wise social policy can ease our material inequalities and improve the lives of the poor. But as Tocqueville warned, the more we try to enforce a radical, unnatural, egalitarian equality, the more “totalitarian” democracy becomes.

For all its talk of diversity, democracy is finally monist. It begins by protecting the autonomy of the individual but can easily end by eliminating competing centers of authority and absorbing civil society into the state. Even the family, seen through secular democratic eyes, can be cast as inefficient, parochial and a potential greenhouse of social problems. Parental authority can become suspect because it escapes the scrutiny and guidance of the state. And the state can easily present itself as better able to educate the young because of its superior resources and broader grasp of the needs of society.

. . .

So it is with our Catholic understanding of God. Every human life, no matter how seemingly worthless, has infinite dignity in his eyes. Every human life is loved without limits by the God who made us. Our weaknesses are not signs of unworthiness or failure. They’re invitations to depend on each other and become more than ourselves by giving away our strengths in the service of others, and receiving their support in return. This is the truth in the old legend about heaven and hell. Both have exactly the same tables. Both have exactly the same rich foods. But the spoons in both places are much too long. In hell people starve because they try to feed themselves. In heaven they thrive because they feed each other.

. . .

Optimism and pessimism are twin forms of self-deception. We need instead to be a people of hope, which means we don’t have the luxury of whining.

. . .

Serenity of heart comes from consciously trying to live on a daily basis the things we claim to believe. Acting on our faith increases our faith. And it serves as a magnet for other people. To reclaim the Church for the Catholic imagination, we should start by renewing in our people a sense that eternity is real, that together we have a mission the world depends on, and that our lives have consequences that transcend time. Francis radiated all these things during his time in Philadelphia.

If men and women are really made for heroism and glory, made to stand in the presence of the living God, they can never be satisfied with bourgeois, mediocre, feel-good religion. They’ll never be fed by ugly worship and shallow moralizing. But that’s what we too often give them. And the reason we do it is because too many of us have welcomed the good news of Vatican II without carving its demand for conversion onto the stone of our hearts. In opening ourselves to the world, we’ve forgotten our parts in the larger drama of our lives—salvation history, which always, in some way, involves walking past St. Cyril’s serpent.

. . .

Catholics today—and I’m one of them—feel a lot of unease about declining numbers and sacramental statistics. Obviously we need to do everything we can to bring tepid Catholics back to active life in the Church. But we should never be afraid of a smaller, lighter Church if her members are also more faithful, more zealous, more missionary and more committed to holiness. Making sure that happens is the job of those of us who are bishops.

Losing people who are members of the Church in name only is an imaginary loss. It may in fact be more honest for those who leave and healthier for those who stay. We should be focused on commitment, not numbers or institutional throw-weight. We have nothing to be afraid of as long as we act with faith and courage.

We need to speak plainly and honestly. Modern bureaucratic life, even in the Church, is the enemy of candor and truth. We live in an age that thrives on the subversion of language.

. . .

If we want to reclaim who we are as a Church, if we want to renew the Catholic imagination, we need to begin, in ourselves and in our local parishes, by unplugging our hearts from the assumptions of a culture that still seems familiar but is no longer really “ours.” It’s a moment for courage and candor, but it’s hardly the first moment of its kind.

This is why Mary – the young Jewish virgin, the loving mother, and the woman who punches the devil in the nose – was, is, and always will be the great defender of the Church. And so we can say with confidence: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us. And St. Cyril of Jerusalem, patron of bishops, be our model and brother in our service to Mary’s son, Jesus Christ.

Archbishop Chaput’s remarks at Notre Dame University

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In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence

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Happy Easter!

While the secular world is focused on chocolate Easter bunnies, colorful baskets, and marshmallow eggs, it is easy to forget that, in Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago, the first Easter Sunday changed the course of human history. Regardless of whether you believe that an itinerant rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on Friday and resurrected on Sunday, He has touched your life, in more ways than you probably realize.

Easter Touches You No Matter What Your Faith

Yet the final word remains hope. Not a self-centered hope, a private hope, but hope that’s radically communal, and hence truly Catholic. In words that still echo the discovery of de Lubac’s Catholicism, Benedict writes: “Our hope is always essentially hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.”

The great Eastern icon of the Resurrection depicts the victorious Christ who descends to sheol. He firmly grasps the hands of our first parents, liberating them from their self-imprisonment. But the Christian imagination can also envision the sequel. Having released them from bondage, Jesus now turns them toward one another so that, after such long separation and hostility, they may once again embrace. The silent embrace of Holy Saturday, before they ascend together to Easter joy.

Holy Saturday’s Silent Embrace


Tenderness, Compassion, And The End of History

Liberal pieties embrace the new age, fixate on a final transformative era of history at the hands of messiahs who promise hope and change, who will uplift us and inspire us to make the world into a better place. But history never ends. That is the lesson of the Holocaust, of Purim and of countless other horrifying intrusions of the old into the new. The shining new era that begins with grand public spectacles and displays of the power and might of an empire, ends with corpses and men and women fighting and running for their lives.

The Endless Ages of Purim

Flannery O’Connor wrote, “In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber.”


Here’s what she’s getting at: People who have left the Christian faith wish to retain the remnants of the Christian faith. They want beauty without truth. They want spirituality without religion. They want forgiveness without sacrifice and they want a life that has tenderness without toughness. They want Christianity without a cross, compassion without control and charity without discipline.

The liberal West has been driving on the fumes of Christianity for about a century now and the car won’t go much further.

How Tenderness Leads to the Gas Chamber

Think about the greatest crimes against human life today. Aren’t they cloaked in the language of compassion? “Every child has a right to be loved.” “A woman has a right to control her own body.” “The terminally ill should be able to die with dignity.” And yet, where does all of this compassion lead? To an unborn child being ripped limb from limb in a suction machine. To a disabled baby being neglected and left to die. To an elderly, depressed person who feels obligated to die before medical expenses eat through the family inheritance.

There’s compassion for you.

Compassion Leads to the Gas Chamber?

Dr. More is the one who exposes Comeaux and eventually works to dismantle these projects. But the prophet who goads him to see the wider implications on the insidious activities is the eccentric Father Renaldo Smith, who lives as an ascetic, a modern-day Simeon the Stylite, high in a forestry watch tower. When he was a young man, he tells More, he traveled to Nazi Germany where he encountered physicians and scientists, cultured men dedicated to the betterment of humanity. It was these same men, he reflects, who gave medical sanction to the Holocaust.

The Thanatos Syndrome, by Walker Percy

We are after all, human, and when the State attempts to substitute artificial “tenderness” and “fairness” for humanity, well, “that way lie the tumbrels and the guillotine.”

What Spock didn’t understand

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Masters in This Hall, and Ave Maria

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O Holy Night

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Handel’s “Messiah”

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Christmas 2015

According to the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus was born in a barn, there being no room for him and his parents in the inn at Bethlehem. His way of living forsook the acquisition of wealth and worldly goods. His message celebrated and elevated the poor, and he was quick to warn of the danger of materialism: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Two thousand years later, observe the Christmas celebration in our modern, capitalist culture: a shocking emphasis on gifts, material exchange and consumption. Christians believe that it is imperative to know Jesus and that to know him we have to live like him. It is very difficult to argue that the civic rituals of modern Christmas reflect Jesus’s way of living.

Christmas comes once a year, but it highlights a larger question: Does capitalism, and the consumerism it enables, have adverse effects on the moral character of individuals and society? Is modern capitalism incompatible with Christian living?

Here again, it is easy to argue that it is hard to live a deeply Christian life in a market economy. And not just because of the culture of consumption.
. . .
But the story changes if gifts are given and received in the service of love, in commemoration of what Christians believe to be the most important gift our creator ever gave us. If gifts are not elevated above their proper station, then they are perfectly compatible with celebrating the arrival of our redeemer — with hope realized, the waiting ended, the child in a manger, the star overhead.

Has capitalism devoured Christmas?

Rather than buy ourselves and our young adult children gifts this Christmas, we decided to walk the walk. You know. That walk where you stop indulging yourself with increasingly frivolous items and actually reach out to help others not as fortunate.

We bought several Walmart gift cards with funds we would have used to buy our gifts for one another and our kids. Then our daughter and daughter-in-law (who is pregnant with twins, our 10th and 11th grandchildren, so yes, we have more than enough blessings in our life), Mr. Wilkinson and I went to our local Walmart yesterday, a beautiful Sunday morning. Not quite knowing how to do what we wanted to do, just praying we’d get it right and not embarrass anyone or get arrested. Our girls decided on an approach, took the gift cards, and my husband and I stood at a distance, ready to help if needed.

The girls walked along and watched the check-out lines, and when they felt a tug at their kind hearts, they went up to people ready to check out and asked,

“May I buy your groceries?”

. . .

The initial responses were ones of shock and disbelief. No one was rude, or dismissive. They just wanted to know why. The girls answered that they were part of a family who decided this was the way they wanted to celebrate Christmas. Then a few asked if they were with a church or an organization. No, the girls said, we are just a regular family and this is our gift to you! No strings attached! From us!

Then the miracles came.

Walmart is a Holy Land

Christmas 2015

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Silence, and I Wonder as I Wander

An excellent method of preserving interior silence is to keep exterior silence. . . even in the world, each one of us can make his own solitude, a boundary beyond which nothing can force its way unperceived. It is not noise in itself that is the difficulty, but noise that is pointless; it is not every conversation, but useless conversations; not all kinds of occupation, but aimless occupations. In point of fact, everything that does not serve some good purpose is harmful. It is foolish, nay, more, it is a betrayal to devote to a useless objective powers that can be given to what is essential. There are two ways of separating ourselves from almighty God, quite different from one another but both disastrous, although for different reasons: mortal sin and voluntary distractions—mortal sin, which objectively breaks off our union with God, and voluntary distractions, which subjectively interrupt or hinder our union from being as close as it ought to be. We should speak only when it is preferable not to keep silence. The Gospel does not say merely that we shall have to give an account of every evil word, but of every idle thought.

St. Alphonsus Liguori

I Wonder as I Wander, by John Jacob Niles

1. I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor on’ry people like you and like I…
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

2. When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.
But high from God’s heaven a star’s light did fall,
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

3. If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God’s angels in heav’n for to sing,
He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.

In other words, Christ could have had anything, but what he chose was to be born as a man, and in choosing this, he chose to die. The “wonder” of the song is discerned in the startling revelation that the reason for the Lord’s decision to be “born for to die” was because of us. He did this all for us- not because he had to, but because we needed him to do it, an act of generosity that is made even more mysterious by the fact that there was nothing all that special about us that would have made us deserving of such generosity. Being high and mighty is really an illusion. We all are, as the song says, “poor ordinary people.”
. . .
The best of Christmas carols, which express not only the mystery of Christ’s holy birth, but also the total event of the Incarnation, are remarkably devoid of the sentimentality that has become synonymous with so many songs associated with the Christmas season. In respect to their theology, these carols are often extensions of the kinds of insights that one comes across in the Fathers of the Church who were able to correlate the events of Christ’s nativity to the Paschal Mystery; the wood of the stable foreshadows the wood of the cross and the swaddling clothes represent his burial shroud. We do not arrive at the scene of Christ’s birth and discover an event that can be abstracted from the rest of his revelation- what is presented to us in Bethlehem mysteriously contains within itself the events of Golgotha.

The Crib and the Cross

Christmas 2015