Sunday, November 6, 2016

Feast of All Saints

                                    All Saints Day

The month of November is sometimes called the month of the dead. As we look around we see the leaves falling from the trees, the sun riding lower in the sky and setting earlier and earlier. Animals are preparing for the long cold winter. The Church year also follows the cycle of nature. We begin this month with the great feast of All Saints, and then remember all the departed on All Souls day. Throughout the month we will remember our beloved departed and at the end of the month we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King where we will come face to face with the end of the world and the Last Judgment.

This weekend’s two great feasts deal not with death, however, but with triumph over death. The first reading for All Saints day is taken from the Book of Revelation. In his vision John sees an angel who holds off the powers about to destroy the world.

Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees
Until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.

John numbers these servants as 144000 but who takes time in a vision to count. Twelve is the mystical number that signifies completeness and 12 times 12 equals 144, as if to say completeness squared. Multiply 144 times 1000 and we realize that the vision includes a multitude. John says as much in the next verse,

After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
Which no one could count,
From every nation, race, people, and tongue.

The gospel for All Saints is the account of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus identifies the Blessed who will inherit the Kingdom. The are the poor in spirit, they who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

The second reading for All Saints is from the first Letter of John. John identifies the saints not as marble or plaster statues but as the children of God. He says “we are God’s children,” and as such holds out the hope that we all can become like our Father in Heaven.

High up on the wall in the back of many churches, we can observe a great stained glass window that is often called a rose window because it is shaped like a flower with a central core with twelve petals surrounding the core. In the core there will be either the figure of the resurrected Jesus, or the symbolic Lamb of God. Symbols of each of the twelve Apostles will be found in the petals. There is that number 12 again signifying that the Apostles represent all the saints. Like the Apostles the saints were ordinary men and woman who by the grace of God were able to overcome their weaknesses, and become good and faithful servants.

In a small chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome the great painter Caravaggio portrayed two of these ordinary men across from each other. He portrayed St. Peter about to be crucified at the end of his mission, and St, Paul at his conversion, the start of his mission. He portrayed them as ordinary human beings like us or our brothers and sisters being persecuted even today all over the world.

Reading 1. Revelations 7: 2-4, 9-14
Reading II. 1 John 3: 1-3
Gospel. Matthew 5: 1-12a (Blessed are the…)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Prayer to a Guardian Angel

Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom his love  commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide, Amen.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Sacrament of Marriage

                                                    The Mass on the Day of Marriage

The following "Instruction before Marriage" was included as a preface to a little missalette used for "the Mass on the Day of Marriage" published in 1962.

The union then is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future. That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so, not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.

Truly, then, these words are most serious. It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that, recognizing their full import, you are nevertheless so willing and ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life which you are to have in common. Henceforth you belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections. And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this common life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete….

No greater blessing can come to your married life that pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today, never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on.

Back then before the Second Vatican Council, there were two main scriptural readings at every Mass. The following were used for the Mass on the Day of Marriage.

Epistle: Ephesians 5, 22-33. (Husbands love your wives)
Gospel: Matthew 19, 3-6 (the two shall become one flesh)

The wedding vows were exchanged before Mass actually began. The priest asked the bridegroom and the bride this simple question: "Do you take each other for your lawful wife and husband according to the rite of our holy mother, the Church?"

In turn the bridegroom and bride vow to take the other "for my lawful wife/husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part."


Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

                                               Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Titian: Assumption
Frari, Venice

In 1950 when the world was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine which we celebrate today, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Now Catholics didn't start believing in the Assumption only in 1950. Think of how many churches were constructed before 1950 dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Belief in Mary's Assumption can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers and for centuries artists have delighted in rendering the scene of Mary being taken up into Heaven.

Of course, Catholics have always loved images of Mary. In today's first reading we have the famous image from the Book of Revelation of "the woman clothed with the sun" who was about to give birth to a son, "destined to rule all the nations." In today's gospel we have St. Luke's famous account of the Visitation. Almost immediately after the Annunciation Mary embarks on a journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is herself expecting. Artists have loved to portray this tender scene of the meeting of the two women. The young Mary, barely pregnant, greets her elder cousin whose pregnancy is well advanced.

St. Luke is the only evangelist to describe this meeting but, of course, he wasn't present. How did he get his information? It's possible that he was merely relating an earlier oral tradition and giving us an account of what the early Church believed Mary would have said on this occasion. Perhaps he talked with the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son. In that event, this passage would represent her profound recollection of the Visitation in the light of everything that came after.

Nevertheless, what image does St. Luke give us of Mary? We certainly can't take from his account that Mary was a bewildered, frightened teenager. The very name, Mary or Miriam, means "the exalted one." Scholars tell us that the expression "leaped for joy" is only used in the Bible when one is in the presence of the Almighty, such as the time King David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Elizabeth's greeting,

            Blessed are you among women,
            and blessed is the fruit of your womb...

which we repeat every day in the "Hail Mary," proclaims that from Mary will come the Savior of the world.

The beautiful prayer of Mary which we call the Magnificat is a collection of verses from many sources in the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms, those beautiful hymns of praise. We all know the beginning,

            My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
            my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
            for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
            From this day all generations will call me blessed:

This is the song of a great Queen who has accepted a great mission.

In artistic renderings of the Immaculate Conception Mary is portrayed as the woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, and stars in her crown. Her dress is white but she is covered with a blue mantle. Ordinarily, she is pictured with a red dress covered with the blue mantle. Now "red" is the symbol of earth or humanity but "blue" is the symbol of divinity. The artists follow the teaching of the Church. Mary is human but she has been cloaked with immortality. In the vigil Mass for today's feast, the words of St. Paul apply not only to Mary but to any who put on the mantle of her Son.

            When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
            then the word that is written shall come about:
            'Death is swallowed up in victory.
            Where, O death, is your victory?

            Where, O death, is your sting?'


Reading 1. Revelation 11: 19a; 12: 1-6a, 10ab
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 15: 20-27
Gospel. Luke 1: 39-56 (Visitation).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Annunciation

Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*
Feast of the Annunciation: March 25

St. Luke is the only evangelist to give an account of the Annunciation.  Obviously, he was not present when the angel appeared to Mary, but Luke was a good historian. Where did he get his information? It’s possible that he was merely relating an account of what the early Church believed, but I like to think that Luke talked to the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son.

St. Luke is very careful with words and he especially likes to use proper names. We see Gabriel, Galilee, Nazareth, Joseph, David, and Mary. These names are all very important. In particular, scholars tell us that Mary or the Hebrew Miriam means “the exalted one.” The angel confirms Mary’s elevated status when he calls her “full of grace.” Scholars have pointed out that the angel’s greeting implies in its recipient “the attitude of being so open to God that all of His love can stream unhindered into one’s life.”

Indeed, no one else in the Bible receives such a stream of beautiful salutations as does Mary. “The angel’s praise, in fact, echoed St. John’s words about Christ: ‘full of grace and the abode of God’s glory.’” So we see that the Lord is not going to dwell in a tent or house or a temple. The Church had always regarded Mary as the dwelling place of the Lord, the true Ark of the Covenant. Gabriel says to her,

            Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
            And you shall name him Jesus.
            He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High,
            And the Lord God will give him the throne of David…

What is the significance of the name, Jesus? We know that throughout their history the Jews have been reluctant to use the name of God. Whether this was due to reverence, awe, or fear is hard to say. Instead of naming God, they chose to refer to His activity in the world. Thus the word, "Jesus" literally means, as Matthew tells us, God saves. Similarly, the name, Emmanuel, means God is with us. The birth of the Child will mean that God has entered our world in a special way. He will become one of us and from that day forward we will be able to call Him by his real Name, and even call Him brother. He can no longer be viewed as distant or unapproachable. We cannot imagine Him as some angry old man in the skies waiting to throw lightning bolts at us when we step out of line. God is Love, and Love came into our world at the Annunciation.

No event in the gospels has ever been portrayed more than the Annunciation. Practically every great artist has depicted the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary. Depending on the artist the scene is more or less elaborate. Usually the Angel, the messenger of God, stands and Mary kneels. Sometimes, Mary stands and the Angel kneels as if he is a suitor proposing. Sometimes, they both kneel or stand. In most depictions there will be a flower between them. Scholars have disagreed about the flower but I believe that the flower is the symbol of Jesus. ###

Ghirlandio and Leonardo da Vinci: Annunciation

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas: Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds, National Gallery, Washington.

Scholars have expended more time dealing with the controversy that has surrounded the attribution to Giorgione of the so-called “Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds” than they have in trying to understand what is actually going on in the painting. Here I would like to deal with the subject and meaning of this famous Nativity scene that is now in Washington’s National Gallery.

The subject of the painting seems so obvious. It is a depiction of the adoration of the shepherds who have left their flocks to seek out the newborn Savior after hearing the angel’s announcement.
Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made know to us..” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
Luke’s account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds is the traditional gospel at the midnight Mass on Christmas . The actual arrival of the shepherds at the stable in Bethlehem is the passage used for the gospel reading for the Christmas Mass at dawn.
The relatively small size of the painting indicates that it was done not as an altarpiece but for private devotion. Although the subject is clear, there is a deeper meaning.* Why is the infant Jesus lying on the rocky ground and not in a manger or feeding trough? Why is he naked? Where are the swaddling clothes?

Actually the newborn infant is lying on a white cloth that just happens to be on the ends of Mary’s elaborate blue robe that the artist has taken great pains to spread over the rocky ground. Giorgione is here using a theme employed earlier by Giovanni Bellini and later by Titian in their famous Frari altarpieces. The naked Christ is the Eucharist that lies on the stone altar at every Mass. The altar is covered with a white cloth that in Rona Goffen’s words “recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.” In Franciscan spirituality Mary is regarded as the altar.
Clearly, the viewer-worshipper is meant to identify the Madonna with the altar and the Child with the Eucharist. Bellini's visual assertion of this symbolic equivalence is explained by a common Marian epithet. The Madonna is the "Altar of Heaven." the Ara Coeli, that contains the eucharistic body of Christ” Ave verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine.**
The “Adoration of the Shepherds” represents the first Mass. This is not such an unusual concept. Many years ago I attended a talk on the famous Portinari altarpiece that now hangs in the Uffizi. The speaker was Fr. Maurice McNamee, a Jesuit scholar, who argued that Hugo van der Goes had also illustrated a Mass in that Netherlandish altarpiece around the year 1475. His argument centered on the spectacular garments of the kneeling angels that he identified as altar servers wearing vestments of the time. He called them “vested angels,” and they are the subject of his 1998 study, “Vested Angels, Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish Painting.”

His Eucharistic interpretation explained the naked infant on the hard, rocky ground. The infant Christ is the same as the sacrificial Christ on the Cross. In a study of Mary in Botticelli’s art Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel referred to this connection.
it needs to be pointed out first of all that the Renaissance era saw the spread of practices of individual devotion to be carried out primarily in the home…From the theological perspective attention should then be drawn to the emergence of a new trend that…tended to identify the mystery of the Incarnation with the Redemption itself, focusing on the Passion with much less fervour than in the past: whence the growing popularity of  ‘incarnational’ iconographies celebrating the word made flesh, such as pictures of the Infant Jesus in his mother’s arms…while the demand for images with Christ on the Cross, very common in the fourteenth century was drastically reduced.***
It would appear that Giorgione has used the same motif although his angels have become little putti who hover around the scene. The shepherds represent participants in the Mass who kneel in adoration. 

There are many other iconographical details in this painting that could be discussed. Joseph’s gold robe indicates royal descent from the House of David. The ox and ass in the cave are symbols of the old order that has been renewed with the coming of Christ. So too would be the tree trunk next to the flourishing laurel bush in the left foreground. The laurel is a traditional symbol of joy, triumph, and resurrection.

Finally, it has been noticed that Giorgione has moved the main characters off to the right away from their traditional place in the center. Rather than diminishing their importance this narrative device serves to make all the action flow from left to right and culminate in the Holy Family.  Giovanni Bellini had done the same thing in his “St. Francis in the Desert,” and later Titian would use this device in his Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari. ###

*Two recent catalogs have offered interpretations. See Mario Lucco’s entry in Brown, David Alan, and Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006. Also see the very strange interpretation of Wolfgang Eller in Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.

**Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986. P. 53.

***Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel, “The Figure of Mary in Botticelli’s Art.” Botticelli: from Lorenzo the Magnificent to Savonarola, 2003. (ex. cat), p. 56.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book List: Catholic Church History


Here is a list of books that I would recommend for those interested in reading about the Catholic Church. For practical purposes I have tried to name only books that are currently in print. Of course, nowadays many out of print books can be found online.

The Bible is, of course, at the top of any list but special attention should be paid to the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul if you are interested in the history of the early Church.

The three great Christian apologists of the last century were Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. Belloc is not highly regarded by historians today but his historical works are full of great insight and passionate Catholicism. Chesterton's two great works were "Orthodoxy," and "The Everlasting Man." Both were written before he converted to Catholicism but were the source of many conversions.

C.S.Lewis never converted to Catholicism but no Catholic should be unfamiliar with his work, whether scholarly, apologetic, inspirational, science fiction, or children's fantasy.  Aside from his most well known works like, "The Chronicles of Narnia," or the science fiction trilogy, my personal favorite is "A Preface to Paradise Lost," (especially the latter half beginning with the chapter on "The Unchanging Human Heart"). I also recommend his contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature entitled, "English Literature in the 16th Century." Catholic readers will enjoy the book's introductory essay, "New Learning and New Ignorance," as well as his discussion of the first translations of the Bible into English. Finally, if you can only read one book on this list, read his, "Mere Christianity."

For the early history of the Church I recommend "The Ancient City," by the great French 19th century historian, Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. Read the first 100 pages for an understanding of the real religion of ancient Greece and Rome, and then skip to the last chapter,"Christianity changes the Condition of Government," where Fustel brings out the radical effect of Christianity on the Ancient world. A modern book that does much the same thing is Rodney Stark's," The Rise of Christianity," an extremely readable and provocative sociological study of the reasons for the success of early Christianity.

For the Middle Ages I can think of no better introduction than the work of another outstanding 19th century French historian, Emile Male. In three great works on the religious art of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, Male rediscovered the meaning of Medieval art. The second volume in the series is in paperback form under the title, "The Gothic Image." I would also highly recommend Dorothy Sayers' translation of Dante's Divine Comedy for her brilliant introductions to the three paperback volumes. Even if you find it difficult reading Dante, it would be worthwhile to read her footnotes. By the way, Sayers was an equally gifted contemporary of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and her detective stories are still worth reading. Monasticism was a central feature of the Middle Ages and a careful reading of "The Rule of St. Benedict" is the best place to start for an understanding of this institution.

For an introduction to the Renaissance and Reformation I recommend the essay by C.S. Lewis," New Ignorance and New Learning," mentioned above. For the Reformation read "The Imitation of Christ," the great spiritual classic usually attributed to Thomas a Kempis. This little book became the world's first best seller after the invention of the printing press and influenced reformers both Catholic and Protestant For the Catholic reformers see "The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila," and "St. Ignatius Loyola, the Pilgrim Years," by Fr. James Brodrick, S.J.

The great central issue in the Reformation was the Mass. For an understanding of the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent see "The Mass of the Roman Rite," by Fr. Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J. For a shorter overview of the Tridentine Mass I recommend the introduction by Fr. F. X Lasance to "The New Roman Missal," one of the best of the Latin-English missals that became so popular in the first half of the 20th century.

For other controversial issues of the Early Modern era, see B. Netanyahu, "The Spanish Inquisition," a balanced and exhaustive study by a great Jewish scholar. I also believe that George Bernard Shaw's introduction to his play, "St. Joan," gives some valuable background on the Inquisition. Arthur Koestler's, "The Sleepwalkers," is a readable account of the beginnings of the conflict between science and religion. The chapters on Copernicus and Galileo are eye opening.

The era of the American and French revolutions was not a period friendly to Catholicism. In Ireland and England Catholics were brutally suppressed. The French revolution sought to destroy the Church in France and in conquered Italy. Catholic Poland was partitioned by powerful enemies. As usual the conquerors wrote the histories. One has to read between the lines to discover the real state of the Church during this era. Unfortunately, one of the best sources for Catholic history and biography is now sadly out of print. I am referring to the great "Catholic Encyclopedia," published in many volumes in the early part of the 20th century with extremely learned articles on every aspect of Catholicism. However, it is available on line.

The Age of Revolutions was followed by the so-called Romantic era, a political, cultural, literary, and artistic reaction against the excesses of the revolutionists. Christianity, especially Catholicism experienced an explosive recovery. Literary giants like Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoyevsky turned to religious themes. Hugo's "Les Miserables" has become a classic but I must confess that I like the Broadway play better. Dostoyevsky was not a friend to Catholicism, but his novels, "Crime and Punishment," "The Idiot," and "The Brothers Karamazov," should be on any reading list for Catholics.

For the American Catholic experience I recommend another provocative sociological and extremely readable work by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, "The Churching of America." The chapters on Catholicism are especially interesting. For missionary activity in America see Paul Horgan's, "The Great River, the Rio Grande in American History," a study of the American Southwest. His chapter, "The Desert Fathers," details the incredible work of the early Franciscan missionaries.

Finally, let me conclude with a short list of 20th century novelists. From America I like Walker Percy, especially," Love in the Ruins." The two outstanding English novelists were Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," was made into an excellent TV miniseries. I don't know if Greene remained Catholic to the end but his early Catholic novels like "The Power and the Glory," are extremely powerful. On the lighter side I heartily recommend his "Monsignor Quixote," which was made into an outstanding film starring the late Alec Guinness. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the greatest writer of our time and his novels and histories should live forever. As an historian I found his "August, 1914," incredibly moving. Italy has also produced a great Catholic masterpiece. Eugenio Corti's, "The Red Horse," set in Italy during the Second World War can stand in comparison with Tolstoi's, "War and Peace." Sadly, I believe that another Italian masterpiece is now out of print. I am referring to the series of books written after the War by Giovanni Guareschi about the most lovable priest in all literature, Don Camillo. If you can find these at library discard sales the first in the series, "The Little World of Don Camillo," and the last, "Comrade Don Camillo,"
 will bring tears to your eyes.