Replacing Marxism

pope francisPeople say Francis is a Marxist, but he says something more interesting.   He says Marxism stole away a traditional Catholic issue.  (I defy you to find a canonized saint who wasn’t radically “poor and for the poor.”)  Marx has it wrong, because he doesn’t think like a Christian.  We have to recover the Christian view.

One of Francis’s addresses from his recent trip to Latin America gives a good starting point.

The piece is clearly organized.  The first section says, “we want change” in society.  The second says, “you are sowers of change.”  The third talks about what kind of change.  One large section talks about an economy at the service of people, the second opposes kinds of “colonialism,” and a third short section mentions the environment.


When he says, “we want change,” he lists various forms of exclusion.  The problem isn’t exactly poverty or income inequality.  The problem is the hopelessness of feeling like you are not even part of society: not part of the educational system, not equally protected by the laws, not wanted.  I think of inner city black kids.  Poverty is one thing; exclusion is much worse.  Previous Popes have said this, Francis says it more directly.

This is hard reading for some religious Americans, because Marx talked about exclusion too, and we tend to expect that the kind of change he proposes must be Marxist change.

But Francis quickly makes one of his central points, and it is anti-Marxist: “Yet there is an invisible thread joining every one of those forms of exclusion,” he says.  “An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind.  Capital becomes an idol.”  This is, in fact, the language of Scripture and the Tradition, though we don’t like to hear it.

Much of our political dialogue is about how to get money: either through the free market or through government redistribution.  Francis’s answer is that both are wrong, because both focus merely on material acquisition.  The real problem cuts through the human heart.

The real problem requires conversion, from love of money to love of neighbor, and love of God.  That’s Gospel stuff.  Marx does not tell you to love your neighbor.  He tells you how the poor can steal money from the rich.


The second section, “you are sowers of change,” adds a key point.  It is not government that can cause this cultural change.  We are not looking for new laws – though a converted society would have new laws.  What we are looking for is cultural conversion.  And that begins at home, and with the people around us.  We are talking about evangelization and repentance, not politics.

He says, “don’t expect a recipe from this Pope.”  He is not proposing public policy.  He is proposing “genuine interpersonal encounter” with our neighbor and “daily proximity to their share of troubles.”  One of his examples is “working generously in the fields of health, sports and education.”  Sports!  Working to make a happier, more human world, by the way we treat our neighbor.  Also helping them make a home, founding “cooperatives”, “favoring businesses.”  This isn’t Marxism.  It’s working together, loving our neighbor.


In the third section he talks about economics.  “The economy should not be a mechanism for accumulating goods, but rather the proper administration of our common home.”  Those are strong words, but what do they mean?

We return to the love of money vs. the love of neighbor.  Obviously we need to make enough money for our families.  But obviously, too, we can think about our jobs only in terms of how much stuff we can get, or we can think instead about how we can serve.  Don’t think about how high taxes should be.  Think about your job.  Your friends’ jobs.  How can we make our work into a way to make the world a better, more loving, more beautiful place?

Think to about our neighbor’s needs: “those needs are not restricted to consumption.”  We don’t serve merely by being “economically productive.”  We serve by treating people well.  This requires “being creative. You are social poets,” says the Pope.  Government can’t do that.  It’s about us using our jobs and free time well.  (Though he does say we should ask for laws that allow that creativity.)


Finally, he talks about “colonialism.”  This sounds like Marxism, but again, his answers end up being anti-Big.

One of his examples is “communications media,” which create a kind of “cultural uniformity.”  We lose the richness of local culture.  We lose the richness of being outside with our neighbors, and sharing our creativity.  That’s what he means by “colonialism.”

He talks about the dangers of “transnational companies.”  This is something Pope Pius XI was saying in the 1930s: huge corporations just can’t exercise that “social poetry” like small businesses and “local economies” can.

Neither can Big Government.  He talks about distant powers who trample on local people’s “culture, their language, their social processes and their religious traditions,” which ought “to be respected”

It is true, he says, that we live in a world of “interdependence.”  We can’t wish globalization away.  Interdependence means big businesses, too – some things require the complicated cooperation that Big Business and even Big Government is good at.  “Interaction, however, is not the same as imposition.”  Just because we have cooperation doesn’t mean we have to stamp out local creativity.


We should work for that local creativity, local color, local cooperation.  We should work, above all, for a world where neighbors promote one another’s whole good – not only economic, but also social and cultural and religious.  Only neighbors can see what that good is.  Only neighbors can love one another.

That affects how we vote, yes; we want governments that allow neighbors to love one another.  But this isn’t about government programs.  Fundamentally, it’s about repentance – and the richest kind of repentance, from the mindlessness of mere acquisition into the creativity of loving our neighbors.

Where do you see people creatively loving their neighbors?  What could you do?

Seventeenth Sunday: The Multiplication of Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

2 KNGS 4:42-44; PS 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18; EPH 4:1-6; JN 6:1-15

In this Year B we are reading Mark’s Gospel.  Year A is Matthew, Year C is Luke; John, more festal and less parallel to the others, gets read throughout all of them.  But since Mark is short and John 6 is important, we read John 6 during Mark’s year.  Last Sunday, Jesus went to a deserted place.  The next reading in Mark would be the loaves and fishes – but the Lectionary switches over to John 6, which begins with John’s account of the loaves and fishes.  We don’t read all of John 6, but we get most of it; we skip, for example, Jesus walking on the water, on the way from the loaves and the fishes to Capernaum, where he will give the Bread of Life discourse.

Meanwhile, we have been reading Ephesians.  The Sunday Lectionary runs more or less continuously through the Gospels, and picks Old Testament readings to match.  But the Second Reading, the Epistle, goes on its own cycle; for two weeks we have been reading Ephesians, and we will continue for the next five weeks, as we finish John 6.  Since Ephesians is about the divine unity of the Church, it’s not a bad match.  We don’t read all of Ephesians on ordinary Sundays, but we get about one third of the verses.


We know the Gospel reading well enough.  “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  5,000, five barley loaves, two fish, twelve baskets.

The most important lines in our liturgical context may be the conclusion.  “Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king.”  The Bread of Life discourse that we will begin next week touches often the problem of consumerist religion.  Jesus will begin, “You seek me because you ate of the loaves and were filled.”  He will respond, “Work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that abides unto eternal life.”


The Old Testament reading, from Second Kings, amplifies the Gospel.  “A man came bringing food from the first fruits to Elisha, the man of God: twenty loaves of barley.”  His servant asks, “How can I set this before a hundred people?”  But “the servant set it before them, they ate, and had some left.”

This reading brings our Gospel reading into focus.  It’s the same barley loaves.  But with Elisha it’s 20, with Jesus it’s 5.  And Elisha miraculously feeds 100, Jesus feeds 5,000.

The numbers in the Elisha story are small enough to think about.  20 loaves for a 100 people . . . that does seem thin – especially when you realize the thickest loaves they made were just one inch.  So here we have a story of how God provides: “for thus says the Lord,” says the prophet, “They shall eat and have some left.”  God takes a little and makes it enough.

But Jesus takes the same story, the same principle, and makes it ridiculous.  We are beyond mere provision.  We are into the divine.  Mere provision might still let us think of God as a mere provider.  This kind of miracle makes us think about him as God.


The reading from Ephesians helps us apply this to our lives.

“I, the prisoner in the Lord,” says Paul, “beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  The insertion, “prisoner of the Lord,” puts a point on it.  We are not called to comfort, but to radical discipleship.

As throughout Ephesians, the emphasis is on unity: “one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  “One body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”  Notice there is a repetition here, a formula, something drilled into them.  Notice too that all of this unity is divine – we are only one body because of the divine Spirit, divine hope, and faith, and baptism.

We are called “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”  Now, there are human elements here.  Humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance: those are things we can put effort into.

But our effort is a participation in something divine.  Our contribution is not just twenty loaves multiplied to a hundred, but five multiplied to five thousand.  We are called to try, to pitch in – but we are called, more, to let Jesus build up the unity of the Church – and of our family, and neighborhood, and parish – with all his divine miraculousness.  That is the calling to which we are called: to let Jesus work miracles of love in us.

Where are you being called to let Jesus multiply your love?

Laudato Si and Romano Guardini

Lake Como, "Bellagio 2" by Joyborg - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Lake Como, “Bellagio 2″ by Joyborg – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A key to understanding Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment is Romano Guardini’s book The End of the Modern World.

Guardini was a major writer on Catholic spirituality and culture in the first half of the twentieth century.  Though his parents were Italians, his father was a diplomat, so Guardini grew up in Germany, and became a priest and professor there.

His importance to Francis is obvious to anyone who knows the biography of this pope.  Then-Fr. Bergoglio wanted to write a doctoral dissertation on Guardini in Germany in the 1980s, though he did not finish the degree.

But Guardini was important not only to the not-so-academic Pope Francis.  He was also a major influence on the professor-Pope Benedict.  In the introduction to one of Josef Ratzinger’s most important and influential books, The Spirit of the Liturgy, he says the book is named after Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, and credits Guardini with being the key player in launching the “liturgical movement” that culminated in Vatican II.  Ratzinger says one of his greatest hopes is to relaunch that movement.

It is no surprise, then, that Guardini first appears in a papal encyclical in that “work of four hands” (on two keyboards), Lumen Fidei, partly the last encyclical of Pope Benedict, partly the first of Pope Francis.  It is hard to say which pope added the Guardini footnotes.


The great popularizer Fr. Robert Barron wrote a helpful piece explaining Laudato Si in light of Guardini’s brilliant and accessible piece Letters from Lake Como.  In that book, Guardini talks about a trip to his ancestral homeland, in the lake country in the north of Italy.  The old architecture blends in with nature.  The new architecture jars against nature.

Guardini sees this as a metaphor for modernity.  Once we understood that we were part of God’s creation.  Now we see ourselves as conquerers.  From gay marriage to contraception to ugly architecture to deforestation, modernity can be defined as the great rebellion against Creation, the great rejection of Nature and Nature’s God.  That doesn’t mean deforestation is the same kind of sin as sodomy – but it does give insight into the deeper loss of vision.


In Laudato Si, though, Francis does not quote from Letters to Lake Como, but several times from Guardini’s The End of the Modern World.

The title might sound apocalyptic at first, but that isn’t the point.  Guardini is not talking about the end of the world; he’s talking about the end of “modernity” – and the beginning of a “post-modernity.”

Unfortunately, the book is a bit of a slow go.  In order to make his point in the second half, he spends the first half trying to explain what he means by “modernity”.  And in order to do that he begins by trying to explain how modernity was different from the ages before it.

His point is that modernity, roughly the period from 1500-1900 – or from Columbus to World War I – was a time of wild optimism about the powers of man.  Human reason could do no wrong.  We were the victors, the conquerors, the improvers.

The twentieth century blurred that optimism.  Oh, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is still a “modern” in this sense, confident that anything we think up must be wonderful.  But from the trenches of World War I to the gas chambers of World War II, the nuclear terror of the Cold War, and the torching of Vietnam, from the devastation of the sexual revolution (do you ever talk to your clerks, Justice Kennedy?) to the banality of pop culture, we are slowly realizing that human reason seems more likely to create a hell on earth than a heaven.

“The End of the Modern World” is the end of that optimism.  What comes next?


Guardini’s answer is a line Spiderman picked up: with great power comes great responsibility.  The power is now in our hands.  To an extent unthinkable in former ages, we can do whatever we want.  We can walk away from our families and communities, reshape our landscape, immerse ourselves in visual worlds of our own creation.  The pre-modern world had its own problems – but the reality of creation was always clear.

The strange thing about our post-modern world is that people think there is no such thing as human nature, even no such thing as reality.  Modernity taught us that we can create our own world.  Post-modernity realizes that we can create our own hell.

Guardini’s answer is responsibility.  Yes, the power is in our hands.  No longer does sex have natural consequences, most of the time.  No longer are we forced to live in community.  No longer do we have to spend more time in reality than in the imaginary world of our screens.

Now we have to choose it.

And that’s not such a bad thing.  It just makes more obvious what was always the case: the choice is ours.


Laudato Si is not an encyclical about global warming – in fact, global warming is a pretty minor part.  Laudato Si is an encyclical about responsibility, about choosing to embrace creation rather than to destroy it, choosing to embrace God’s beautiful, wise plan rather than replace it with our own, choosing to find ourselves in God’s wisdom rather than substitute our own foolishness.

Like Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como, and like Benedict XVI, it uses the language and imagery of nature.  But environmentalism is just one part of this vision.  The bigger point is not just that our architecture fits into the landscape, but that our behavior fits into our own nature.

In what ways do you see the world forgetting the reality of Nature?

Sixteenth Sunday: Contemplative Shepherds

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

Jer 23:1-6; PS 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; EPG 2:13-18; MK 6:30-34


Our Sunday readings this week take us deep into the connection between contemplation and shepherding.  They show us why our shepherds need to be contemplatives – but they also show us why we who seek the spiritual life need also to seek our neighbors, and children, and families.

Our reading from Mark states the theme.  Jesus’s words to the apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” are a classic call to the contemplative life.

But those whom he calls are apostles (just “returned from their mission”) and “many saw them going and recognized them,” even “arrived ahead of them.”  My children seem to do the same, every time I pick up my spiritual reading.

But the next sentence is a classic call to the apostolic life: “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”  Is this how I behave, when my children interrupt my prayer?


The other two readings take us deeper into the Gospel image.

The reading from Jeremiah opens with a roar: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”  Later he says, “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.”

The last clause is the key: “and you have not attended to them.”  How do the shepherds “destroy and scatter the sheep”?  How do they “drive them away”?  A flock of sheep does not need to be driven away.  They need attention.  They need to be gathered.

In short, the shepherds are guilty not because of what they have done, but because what they have not done.  He who does not gather, scatters.  The shepherd who neglects his flock is guilty of driving them away.


So God goes on, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.”  (Notice that the sheep will be alright –it’s those who ought to be shepherding them who will suffer most.)  God will do what they did not do: gather the sheep.  “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them”: he will gather them by gathering gatherers.

Then the metaphor shifts, from shepherd to king: “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  Jesus and David are shepherd kings.  But the true shepherd of men does more than gather: he deals wisely with them, brings justice and righteousness, acts like a king.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, defines our own moral life as participation in Jesus’s kingship.  We are called to help Jesus bring wisdom and justice and righteousness to the world.  If we don’t, we are like shepherds who scatter their flocks – and like sheep who fail to follow their good shepherd.


Jesus calls us to share in his care for his people, to enter deeply into his heart.  Our reading from Ephesians takes us into that heart.

“He is our peace.”  He “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  Ephesians is about the unity of the Church.  It illustrates that unity by the unity between Jews and Gentiles; in our reading, too, it sees the ultimate peace as the possibility of these two enemies becoming one Church.

But the point is not merely the unity of Jew and Gentile, but the unity of the heart of Christ itself.  If even they can be united, Ephesians argues, we are all called to the unity of Christ.

“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances,” says Paul, “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” This sounds subversive.  Is Jesus doing away with the Law?

Of course not.  He is fulfilling the Law.  But the point is, mere commandments are not enough to make peace.  Jesus calls us not just to follow his Law, but to see the very heart of the Law, which is his heart – to go beyond Thou Shalt Not to love, and purity, and spiritual freedom.  He calls us not just to grudgingly do what we are told, but to embrace the fullness of his will – and he makes new hearts in us, so that we may love with his heart.

“Through him both of us,” Jew and Gentile, and every kind of enemy, “have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

This is the real key to action and contemplation, coming away to a deserted place and having compassion on the sheep.  What we seek in both is union with the heart of Jesus.  Without contemplation we cannot receive that heart – but without compassion, our contemplation is proved false.

Where is Jesus calling you to receive his heart?

The Vespers Apostlate

vespersI was going to send this idea to a Dominican friend, but I’ll post it here:

If I could ask for one great pastoral initiative (especially from the Friars Preachers), it would be sung Vespers, with benediction and good preaching, and a priest in the confessional the whole time.

This idea especially struck me on a recent vacation, in a parish with pretty bad liturgy and preaching.

Lots of little points:

  1. What strikes me, first, is that the problem is more a lack than any positive evil. This is a disputable point, but this is how it seems to me. Yes, yes, there are many evils taught in our society.  But the key point is, people don’t know what prayer is, what liturgy is, what the Gospel is, or what Catholicism is really about.  They need someone to show them.
  1. Fixing parishes is a huge problem. It requires a huge work of priestly education – a work many of us are involved in (I teach in a seminary – and perhaps you just support your priests), but it will take a long time (since the men we educate now will not be pastors for a long time) and a huge cooperation (since none of us alone can change everyone). But even good pastors are up against hugely complicated parish situations, with all the complications of hundreds of malformed parishioners.  These are things we should work on – but the danger is that, seeing such a huge work, we are tempted to give up and do nothing.  We should all do our best to improve Sunday Mass, but honestly, most of the work has to happen somewhere else. That’s why I propose Evening Prayer, Vespers.  It doesn’t have to involve all the parishioners.  Lay people can go to Vespers at a different church from their parish, and come back refreshed to renew their parish.  Priests, or even lay people, can lead vespers even if they are not pastors.
  1. Another danger is trying to convert everyone at once. Often it means watering things down, to try to win people who aren’t much inclined to be won. To the contrary, I think we can do a lot more by supporting those who are actively seeking.  If people want to pray, if they want good preaching, if they want to go deeper, give them the opportunity.  Rather than watering things down so that no one will be much converted, we need to help create the saints who can be real apostles – to their neighbors, to their family, to their coworkers.  And if those apostles get people interested, we need to have somewhere good to bring them.


  1. But we don’t want to take people out of their parishes. We need those apostles everywhere. They are the force for renewal in parishes.  One danger is that we can form separatist parishes, so that everyone serious about their faith leaves behind the parishes and pastors that so desperately need them – and think of the need: yes, there are a lot of confused people in those parishes, but they are interested enough to get there on Sunday morning.  This is fertile ground.  We need apostles in the parishes.

Another danger is that we nurture a spirituality that has nothing to do with Sunday Mass.  The first problem with this is for those we preach to: Sunday Mass is the source and summit of our faith; we need to teach people to benefit from it, not lead them away.    The second problem is for the other people at Sunday Mass: what the parish needs most is people who can show what Sunday Mass is all about.  To nurture parish apostles, we need to teach people how to pray Sunday Mass better.

The Liturgy of the Hours is a great way to do that.  Show people what real liturgical prayer is about.  Nurture their liturgical spirituality.  With adoration and benediction, teach them to long for the Eucharist.  With the Psalms, teach them to cling to the words of Scripture.  With good preaching, teach them what everything else is really about – teach them how to listen to Scripture at Mass, how to sort out the good points in the often confused homilies, to receive the Eucharist with the fervor it deserves.


My proposal can be broken into parts.  I would be happy if priests just sat in the confessional, without preaching, vespers, benediction, or good music.  We can pray the liturgy of the hours even without priests, in our homes and communities, with or without serious liturgical music.  And we can preach elsewhere – this web site is one effort to preach the Gospel outside the liturgy.

But wouldn’t it be better if communities could form around all of these things at once?  Vespers Sunday evening, or midweek.  Morning Prayer for mothers.  All done well, prayerfully, beautifully, with serious preaching, and confession, and benediction.  Liturgy will save the world.

What elements of this plan could you implement?  What alternatives can you suggest?



Sts. Peter and Paul: I Will Build My Church


peter and paulA great Quebecois Thomist used to talk about the “scandal of mediation.”  Really, everything offensive about Catholicism comes down to God’s choice to work through human instruments.  “Why do I have to confess to a priest?”  The scandal of mediation.  “Why do I need the Pope to help me read the Bible?”  The scandal of mediation.  For that matter, why do I need to worry about the natural law, about my human nature, and not just the freedom of my soul?  The scandal of mediation.

Ironically, deeper down, these things that scandalize Protestants are the same things that scandalize non-Christians about even Protestant Christianity.  “Why can’t I go to God without Christ?  Why do I need the Bible?”  The scandal of mediation.  God works through human instruments – instruments like Peter and Paul.

But the deeper scandal beneath mediation is the scandal of grace.


Our Gospel for today’s feast is Peter’s confession.  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

But Christ’s words that follow are really the key – not the ones about the rock and the keys, but the words that precede those: “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

This is the mystery of grace, which happens first in and through faith.  Peter did not deduce the divinity of Christ from his miracles, or from some calculation of “liar, lunatic, or Lord” – at least not if we believe the words of Christ.  This was not revealed to him by flesh and blood, nor by human reason, but by the light of faith, the divine gift of the Father in heaven.

Peter knew because God gave him the supernatural light to know.

This is key for the Church.  How does the Pope know the truth of faith?  By the supernatural light infused into him by the Spirit of Christ.  When we trust the Pope, what we really trust is God himself.

Oh, the Pope works with the information he has, just like Peter did.  But he can see the truth only because God gives him the light to see.  Faith, in orthodox Catholic theology – and certainly in St. Thomas – is a grace.


The key word in what follows, then, is “I.”  “On this rock I will build my church.”  “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

And yet, the other key word is “you.”  “You are Peter.”  “I will give you the keys.”  “Whatever you bind.”

That’s the nature of grace: God gives it, but we truly receive it.  This is the deeper truth of the scandal of mediation.  What Peter does matters, because God works in him.  It is truly God who works – and it is truly in and through Peter.

Without getting too technical, this is actually a key point in the Thomist understanding of faith.  We don’t believe the Church, we believe God, who speaks through the Church.


The first reading for the feast, from Acts, is humorous in its insistence on God.  God sends his angel to Peter in prison – Peter is sleeping.  What does Peter contribute?  Nothing.  God sets him free.

Peter follows the angel out.  Peter is truly liberated.  And eventually, Peter, Peter himself, truly understands what God has done, and makes another profession of faith.  But it is God who does everything for him.  The iron gate “opened of its own accord” – or, rather, God opened it.

This is an allegory of grace.  It is God who sets us free.


The second reading was about Paul.  “I am already being poured out as a libation,” he says.  Suffering is an interesting part of this dynamic of grace.  What does Paul do?  Suffer.  Receive.

And yet, what else does Paul do?  “I have kept the faith,” he says.  He has stayed true, hung on through the suffering.  That really happens in Paul.  It is he who stands true.  Though notice – he stands true to faith, to his trust in God.

And his profession of faith is, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”  Paul has the strength to stand firm – but it is God, the Lord who is with him, who gives him the strength.  That is the mystery of grace.


It is Christ who builds the Church.  It is utterly supernatural.

Why then the Church?  Why doesn’t Christ just work in us individually?  Two answers.

First, so that we will know, so that we will see that the strength is not our own.  How good it is to lean on the Lord, to lean on his work in the Church, and know that I am nothing, but Christ gives me everything.

Second, because he wants to – because Christ wants to build up not just a bunch of individuals, but a body, his body, the Church.

Where are you called to trust more deeply in God’s work in the Church?


Praying for the Virtues with the Hail Mary

Hail Mary ImageThere is a tradition of praying for the virtues with the Rosary.  It makes sense: what we should pray for more than anything is personal transformation.

Sometimes people have a virtue for each mystery, like poverty for the Nativity.  Or you could make the first three Hail Mary’s be faith, hope, and charity, and the next seven be the Beatitudes or the Gifts of the Spirit.

There is also a tradition – John Paul mentions it, and Louis de Montfort makes it almost normative – of naming the virtue or the mystery, or both, within the Hail Mary.  This is a way of focusing ourselves on the words of the Hail Mary.  The Hail Mary isn’t there just as a timer – it’s not replaceable with the ABCs.  It’s there so we can pray it.


Hail Mary – of charity (or whatever virtue).  First we say, “look at Mary.”  Now, the point of everything – in Christianity, in the rosary, in Marian devotion – is that Christ is the source of all that is good.  Mary is not good by herself, Jesus makes her good.

But see how important it is to begin by looking at Mary.  If we turn it around, and say, “the Lord is with you – and you have charity,” the danger is that we can think she, and we, don’t really have charity, it’s really just him nearby.  The point of the Lord’s gift, of grace – and the point of Marian devotion – is that when Christ gives the grace, we really do receive it.  Mary really is charitable, Our Lady of Charity.  First we look at her: see Mary, full of charity.

And we always recall: “Hail” (Latin Ave, Greek Chaire) is a joy word.  We start by saying, “see Mary; she is charitable; and how happy!”

Full of grace.  Ah, everything about her is a gift from God.  This happiness of Mary, this virtue of Mary: it is grace.

The Lord is with you – at the Baptism in the Jordan (or whatever mystery).  The mysteries make vivid a key point about grace and Christian virtue: it is given to us through the Incarnation of Christ, to unite us to himself.  So we think not just vaguely and generally about the Lord’s presence: we think of him in a particular mystery.  And we see, as it were, the virtue (charity, or whichever) drawing Mary to him.  In every situation, he gives us the grace to live virtue there.


Blessed art thou among women.  Now we look around.  What distinguishes Mary?  What makes her different from all the other women, all others “like” her?  It is the virtue that Christ gives her.  Here, at the Jordan river (or at the Crowning with Thorns, or wherever), there are many women: and what makes Mary stand out is her charity (or poverty of spirit, or wisdom, or whatever).  Virtue is what sets her apart.

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb.  We named Jesus “Lord”; now we name him “the fruit of your womb.”  In the first, we speak of his divinity – radiating grace, and drawing her to him.  Now we think of his humanity: he too has these virtues, though in a special way.  See him there, in that mystery, with his own super-abundant meekness, or hope, or fortitude.

Jesus.  Jesus means savior.  He is savior because in his blessed humanity he has the virtues that our humanity needs.   His divinity fills his humanity with exactly what we need to be united to him: grace, and love in general, but also all the specific virtues we pray for.  He is savior because he carries the “blessing” that we need.


Holy Mary.  Now we turn to the petition.  First we point out whom we are addressing.  It is as if we say, “virtuous Mary”: what am I going to ask of the virtuous one, but virtue?  “Dear Mary, who are poor in spirit, please give me a car?”  No.  But instead of virtuous, we say “holy”: Christian virtue, the virtue that unites to Christ.  That’s the person we are addressing, that’s what we are talking about.

Mother of God.  We invoke her authority.  It is an authority of grace.  It’s not that God “has to” listen to her.  It’s better than that: God chooses to listen to her.  He made himself her child, chose to be obedient to her.  Really, we invoke the whole mystery of the Incarnation: God has chosen to come close to us, and it is in this mystery – a mystery summed up in the womb of Mary – that we beg for grace.

Pray for us sinners.  Ask for us what we need.  And what do we need?  Not to be sinners.  To be holy (like Mary).  Christian virtue.

Naming ourselves as sinners also names the reason for God’s grace: not because we are good, but because he is.  Many of our intercessions point this out: for the sake of your name, though I am miserable.  I am not demanding, I am asking, as a beggar – and in the order of virtue, the name for a beggar is sinner.

Now and at the hour of our death.  We have seen in what situations Mary received the grace of the virtues.  In what situations do I need it?  I need it now.  And always I consider that I will need it in the final test, in the final moment, at the hour of my death.

How do you use the Hail Mary?

Twelfth Sunday: Which Raging Sea?

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JB 38:1, 8-11; PS 107:23-24, 25-26, 28-29, 30-31; 2 COR 5:14-17; MK 4:35-41

During Sunday Mass this past weekend, my ten-year-old son leaned over to me during the Psalm and mused, “I wonder who it’s talking about?”  I think it was during this verse:

“They cried to the LORD in their distress;

from their straits he rescued them,

He hushed the storm to a gentle breeze,

and the billows of the sea were stilled.”

It’s a remarkable question for getting at the “four senses” of Scripture.


My first answer was on the level of what the Tradition calls, “the literal sense.”  When the Tradition talks about how we read Scripture, “literal” doesn’t mean, “without metaphor.”  It means, “what did it mean to the human author at that time?”  So I pointed earlier in the Psalm:

“They who sailed the sea in ships,

trading on the deep waters,

These saw the works of the LORD

and his wonders in the abyss.”

“Trading on the deep waters”: This is interesting.  The people of the Bible are mostly land-bound.  It is more their pagan neighbors, the Phoenicians, who “traded on the deep waters,” doing commerce throughout the Mediterranean.

But the people of the Bible were familiar with the Phoenician business, and sometimes used it as a metaphor for themselves.


This takes us to the first “spiritual” or “mystical” sense of the reading, what is called the “moral” or “tropological” sense.  Here, “moral” doesn’t mean, “what rules are we breaking?”  It means, “how do we live our own lives?”

My son’s question puts it better: whom is the Psalmist speaking about?  Well, on one level, the Phoenician trader.  But on a deeper level, he’s talking about “us”: us now, and even the us of then.  The Phoenician trader is a symbol of the Israelite’s own life.  Even if he doesn’t go on the waters, he sees in that ship an image of himself.

Our first Sunday reading works this way.  The Lord asks Job:

“Who shut within doors the sea,

when it burst forth from the womb…

When I set limits for it

and fastened the bar of its door,

and said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stilled!”

Now, Job was not a sea-faring man.  The sea only appears in this book in these big general kind of statements.  But the sea is a potent symbol: first, of our own helplessness, as we feel threatened by the impending storm; then, of the power of God, who made those crashing waves, and has the power to get us through them.

Whom is the Psalmist talking about?  Job.  Me.

This is the “moral meaning.”

(But notice that this symbolic reading is rooted in the literal meaning.  Unless you clearly see the image of the Phoenician trader, you have no symbol to apply to yourself.)


Who else is the Psalmist talking about?  Obviously Jesus, who in this week’s reading was “asleep on the cushion” as “a violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat” – not on the “deep waters” of the Mediterranean, but on the See of Galilee, not with “traders” but with fisherman, but still the same idea.  That’s how metaphors work – different situations can still be basically the same.

But this Gospel reading itself works on multiple levels.  First we see the historical, “literal” meaning: Jesus with the disciples.  Once we have that image, we can see the “moral” reading: this Gospel reading, too, is about me.

On the stormy sea of my life, I too say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” and Jesus responds, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” and now and then I have the wisdom to say, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey,” who can actually bring me safe through the mess of my life?


But here we see, too, the “allegorical” or Christological meaning.  Paul takes us deeper into this in our reading from Second Corinthians, where our image of the tossing sea leads us to the Cross.

“We have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died.”  The boat can be an image of fallen humanity.  Christ has entered in with us, experienced the very depths of our stormy sea – even unto death – and so we are no longer alone on that sea, no longer alone in the terror of this valley of tears.

This changes everything.  Now those who live in this life – and face death – “no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”  Now we are “a new creation.”  Because now we are out on the sea with Jesus.

Whom is the Psalmist talking about?  Jesus, who calms the storms by becoming flesh, even unto death.


Finally, a brief word on the “anagogical” or eschatological sense.  Whom is the Psalmist talking about?  Whom is the Gospel talking about?  It is also about heaven, where finally the winds will cease and we will know the perfect calm of the infinitely powerful God.

How could you use the four senses of Scripture – literal/historical, “moral”/practical, Christological, and eschatological – in your own prayer life?  How could it help you understand your own stormy seas?

On Not-so-Good Music

Graduale_Aboense_2Everyone seems to be confused about the liturgy these days.

Con-fused literally means fused together; to be confused is to mix up things that are not the same.  The classic image is throwing out the baby with the bath water.  It is confusion because you don’t realize that the baby is something very different from the bath water.  It is a problem because bath water needs to be thrown out, and babies need to not be thrown out.


You probably recognize “liberal” confusions with the liturgy—though sometimes we do well to state the obvious.

Some people think that if liturgy “accommodates” us by being in our language, it should accommodate us by changing the message spoken in that language—by replacing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with something more modern.  But those are not the same things.  In fact, they are opposite things: the liturgy is translated so that we can hear the original Gospel, not so that we can replace it.

Some people think if the liturgy changes at all, then everything should change.  But there are things that can change and things that can’t change.  That Christ is Lord, that he comes to us in the Eucharist, that he speaks to us in Scripture, that we fully find him only in the Church: these things don’t change.  What reading we read on which day, what language it is in, etc., have always varied, through time and place.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  These are different kinds of change, different things.


But “conservatives” are often confused about liturgy too.  Today the liturgy is often banal; therefore, many say, the way to be sacred is to go back to the Tridentine Missal.  This confuses all sorts of issues.

Granted that modern liturgy is often very bad – I grant that – what about it is bad?  Is it that it’s in the vernacular?  That some of the the prayers have changed?  What precisely is the problem?

Here’s my thesis: the real problem has nothing to do with the Vatican II Missal, nothing to do with English, nothing to do with a whole lot of things that people confuse.  The central problem (as St. Pius X pointed out at the beginning of his pontificate, over a hundred years ago) is bad music.

I could say things about the texts of our hymns.  But here, that’s not my point.  I mean the music, the tunes.


To understand this problem, first consider the tone in which you say something, and how much it affects what you’re saying.  “I?  Love you?”  “[Well] I love you.”  “[Sigh, mumble] I love you.”  “I love you!!!”  “I love you!!”

“[Little] Lamb of God [isn’t he cute?], you take away the sins of the world!”  “[Bleeding, sacrificial: raise your eyebrows] Lamb of God, you take away the SINS of the [evil] world.”  “[Bored mumble:] Lamb of God . . .” etc.

“Lo-ord have mercy!”

The way you say something has an awful lot to do with what the words mean.  That’s the biggest reason music really matters.


A very little theory.  Modern music is almost exclusively in what we call “major” and “minor” keys.   Major keys are – take my word on this – rooted in mathematics.  They sound pleasant because in fact they resonate with themselves – we’re talking the wave lengths of vibrations.  Dissonance sounds harsh not just because of culture, but because the waves that carry sound are jarring against one another.  Major keys sound nice because they are nice.  It resolves to something genuinely peaceful.  This is physics, and the musicians of the ancient world knew it.

Minor keys are more complicated – and thus a little more jarring – but fundamentally mimic major keys.

Here’s the interesting thing: until the modern period, almost every major musical system, worldwide, explicitly banned these simple, pleasant keys precisely because they’re so pleasant, such easy listening.  They lull you to sleep, make you feel too comfortable, don’t stimulate you or make you think.

The theory of Gregorian chant is complicated, but, seriously, here’s the most basic rule: you’re never allowed to sing in major or minor keys.  The music is supposed to be more challenging, more stimulating than that.


Now, the issue is complicated because in the early modern period, musical geniuses like Bach started doing really complicated things: counterpoint, harmonization, and lots of key changes and chromaticism.  Because the music was so complicated, they resorted to the simple keys: major and minor.  But they only used those keys because they were doing such complicated things with them.

Notice, in the small print of your hymnal, how many traditional hymns are “harmonized” by people like J.S. Bach and Isaac Watts.  Traditional hymnody can be in major keys because there’s really complicated stuff going on; these hymns teeter on the edge of over-simplicity, but guys like Bach could save it, through rich harmony.  (This might explain why African music and African-American spirituals are rich, but dumbed-down white versions are not: serious harmony.)


The biggest problem in liturgy today is that we sing our Psalms at Mass, and all of our hymns, in musical keys that lull us to sleep, pat us on the head, tell us to be comfortable and complacent at just the moments we ought to be called out of ourselves into the mysteries of faith.  There are plenty of problems with our texts, but first of all, musically, we are putting our souls to sleep.

Jesus is just our cuddly little lamb.

Fix this one problem – first, by singing the Psalms in serious tones, then by reintroducing serious hymns, whether the old major-key ones with serious harmonization, or even by setting your favorite texts to old Gregorian tunes (any halfway serious church musician knows how to do this) – and you have solved the banality of the modern liturgy, without getting into Latin, the Tridentine rite, bad lighting, girl altar boys, ad orientem, or any of the host of issues that get confused in most conversations about the Mass.

Listen to the Psalm tone next Sunday.  Does it urge you to meditate on the mysteries of God – or just make you feel comfortable and complacent?

Eleventh Sunday: The Power of the Gospel

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

EZ 17:22-24; PS 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; 2 COR 5:6-10; MK 4:26-34

At last we return to Ordinary Time and our orderly reading through Mark’s Gospel.  Appropriately, this week’s readings give us a straightforward account of the power of clinging to the Gospel.

The Gospel reading is direct.  The Kingdom of God is compared to seed sown, “as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.”  And then again it is compared to a mustard seed: “once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants.”

The point is simple and profound: the power of Christ is beyond our imagining.  We see something small and weak; we tend, sometimes, to diminish our faith, and look for salvation from something stronger.  But what appears to us like nothing has the power to “put forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade” – far beyond what we can accomplish.


Now, we can say “Gospel” in two ways: we can mean the message itself, or the books that contain it.  In both senses, the Gospel is powerful.  When the message is planted in us, when we receive it with faith, it grows up into that great tree.

But the Alleluia verse makes reference to another similar parable, saying, “The seed is the word of God.”  Here too is the power of the word, the Biblical texts that carry the Gospel to us.  Traditional Catholic spirituality above all allows the Biblical word to be planted in our soul.

And indeed our Gospel reading ends with a reference to this: “Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.”  Christ’s words themselves are like the seed: parables that seem pointless, but when received into our heart, when planted in the depths of our souls, infinitely powerful.  Let us put ourselves at the feet of Christ, and listen to his words.


The Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel, gives another variant on this theme of the power of the Gospel: “I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom.”

We should hear allusions to Our Lady’s song, the Magnificat:

“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones

And has lifted up the lowly

He has filled the hungry with good things

And the rich he has sent away empty.”

God is more powerful than human strength.  He has power to cast us down, but thank God if he does, for then we might be weak enough to let his power lift us up.  This is the fundamental message of the Gospel.


But our reading from Ezekiel has two other interesting parallels to the Magnificat.

Mary goes on, “He has come to the help of his servant Israel.”  In Ezekiel, God says of his little plant, “on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.”  The mountain heights of Israel is where Jerusalem is.  God does not just push people around.  Above all he builds his people, builds his Church – all this use of power is at the service of building up the true Israel.  Let us find ourselves in that Israel, locate ourselves always within the Church.

Mary concludes,

“. . . Remembering his mercy

The promise he made to our fathers

To Abraham and his children forever.”

And Ezekiel concludes, “As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.”  Again, it is not just a matter of power; God uses his power to be faithful to his promises.  The Gospel is the promise.  Let us listen to that promise, let us trust in it, let us stake all on believing his word to us.  That is where the power is.


Finally, Second Corinthians is all about encouragement in suffering.  But our selection this Sunday says, “we walk by faith, not by sight.”  It uses other language about being “at home” in the body, or in the Lord – at home is a loose translation, but the point is where we find ourselves.  Here we find ourselves in the land where God’s power seems weak, where the Gospel seems hard to understand, hard to believe, where human power – Egypt – seems  more reliable.

We need first simply to recognize this fact: the Gospel is fundamentally about living by a power it is hard for us to see.


But we need also to strive forward, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”  Well, again, “judgment seat” is a loose translation: we will stand at the feet of Christ, stand before him.  One day, we will see that he alone is strong.  Let us, on the one hand, tremble before that day, realize that nothing can matter but aligning with his strength, weak though it may seem in this land of faith.

But let us, too, take consolation in knowing that one day the veil will be torn away, and we will see the truth of our faith, the truth of the Gospel, the truth of the promises and the power of Christ.

Where are you being called to walk by faith?