Thursday, December 26, 2013



Christmas Vigil
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 1-5
Reading II. Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25
Gospel. Matthew 1:1-25 (Genealogy of Jesus Christ).

Christmas Midnight
Reading 1. Isaiah 9: 1-6
Reading II. Titus 2: 11-14
Gospel. Luke 2: 1-14 (she gave birth).

Christmas Dawn
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 11-12
Reading II. Titus 3: 4-7
Gospel. Luke 2: 15-20 (the shepherds).

Christmas Day
Reading 1. Isaiah 52: 7-10
Reading II. Hebrews 1: 1-6
Gospel. John 1: 1-18 (the Word was with God).

There are four Masses that we could attend on Christmas. There is the Vigil Mass celebrated in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Then there is the Midnight Mass. There is a Mass celebrated at dawn. Finally, there is the Mass for Christmas day. Each Mass has a different set of readings and so unless we get to church real early and read them all in the missalette, we will never hear the whole story.

All of the Masses begin with a joyful, exuberant reading from the prophet Isaiah. The reading from the Midnight Mass is typical:

            The people who walked in darkness
            have seen a great light;
            upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
            a light has shone.

In the gospels we hear the story of the birth of Christ as told by St. Matthew and St. Luke. Little by little the characters in the Nativity scene are introduced. In the vigil Mass on Christmas eve, Matthew presents us with Mary and Joseph and tells us of Joseph's decision to take Mary into his house after finding her pregnant. In the Midnight Mass we find the stable and the manger, and the angels appear to the shepherds. At dawn, the shepherds go down to Bethlehem to find the child "lying in the manger." 

Finally, the gospel on Christmas Day is the famous beginning of the gospel of John, where John tries to explain the significance of the great event. In the beginning was the Word,

            and the Word was with God,
            and the Word was God.

No matter what Mass we attend all the readings testify that something unique and earth shattering occurred 2000 years ago. From Isaiah to John we hear that at that moment the darkness was pierced by a shaft of light and that because this tiny shaft of light entered the world, the world would never be the same.

Years ago I remember reading a novel by a little known Russian author about a day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet concentration or prison camp. The book was written by a man who had himself spent 20 years in camps such as the one he described. He wrote the book secretly while in prison on little scraps of paper which had to be carefully hidden from the watchful eyes of the prison guards. The book was called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" and its author was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would go on to become one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.

When Solzhenitsyn's book first appeared, it was like a shaft of light cutting through the darkness of the vast Soviet empire. Until that time there were still those who defended that empire as a noble undertaking, or as the dawn of a new era in human history. Once the light appeared it exposed the rottenness, corruption, and brutality of that regime. The world would never be the same. Twenty years later the whole edifice came crumbling down.

Whatever Mass we attend today the readings all say the same--the light has come into the world and the world will never be the same. For each of us this Christmas it can be the same. A light can come into our hearts and we might never be the same. In the Vigil Mass we heard how Joseph after his dream, "did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." For each of us who will take Mary and her child into their house this Christmas there is the possibility that our world will never be the same.

Below find two paragraphs on the significance of the Christmas tree from "the Owl, the Raven, and the Dove", a wonderful study of children's literature by G. Ronald Murphy, S. J.

"In a northern world in which every cold and snowy winter could be seen as a dangerous and prophetic vision of the end of the  world, it is not surprising that trees which could remain perceptibly alive and green, all through the cold of winter would be regarded as sacraments, visibly containing the real presence and life force of the unseeable Tree of Life. One tree, down to our own day, has retained in its very name in English the sacramental reverence that the Germanic people of England, Germany and Scandinavia had for it: the holly. "Holly" is, of course, "holy," and thus it was known as the "holy tree," since its holiness enabled it to keep itself alive--green--all through the time of winter cold. All the evergreens in the forest, including the more lowly ivy and laurel, must have been regarded with the same reverence.

The evergreen tree has found its most lasting and most emotional place in our culture, without a doubt, in the Christmas tree, an amalgam of Germanic legend and the Cross. In December of every year the tree comes into the house. A tree inside the home after all the centuries that have passed is quite miracle enough. To glorify and celebrate its ancient, compassionate magic power, it is decorated with lights (with burning candles in Germany!) and with tinsel, to make sure it looks radiantly stolid and happy despite the cold and ice. Then a star is placed at its peak, since Wise Men must surely find their way to this tree. Below the tree, as if he had just emerged from its trunk, the true source of the warmth of the Tree of the Universe and its power to renew life, encouragement, and protection against all the kinds of cold, is lying in a manger: the newborn child.

                        O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
                        how faithful are your leaves.
                        you are ever green, not only during the summer,
                        but even during the winter when the snow falls.
                        O Tannenbaum, O tannenbaum,
                        how faithful are your leaves."

From "The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove," by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Immaculate Conception of Mary

Immaculate Conception
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*

On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Pope did not declare this doctrine out of the blue. It was promulgated only after years of study on his own part and on the part of learned scholars; centuries of debate among some of the greatest theologians in the Church; and almost a millennium of popular devotion to Mary on the part of the Church faithful.

Although immediately accepted by the faithful, the doctrine was a source of controversy in the time of Pius IX and today remains an obstacle to ecumenical efforts. Before we can discuss the doctrine and its meaning we have to clear up a basic misconception. The Immaculate Conception does not refer to either the conception of Jesus in Mary's womb or the subsequent birth and delivery of Jesus. In other words, it should not be confused with the virgin birth. Nor does it refer to Mary's own birth. She herself was begotten like any other child. Simply, the doctrine affirms the preservation or freedom of Mary from original sin from the first moment of her conception.

To understand the meaning of the doctrine we have to examine the concept of original sin even though in our time the notion of sin, especially original sin, has fallen into disfavor. Today the only sin our culture seems to recognize is smoking. Concurrently, the very notion of evil has fallen into disfavor. Until the September 11, 2001 tragedy
the only people we were likely to recognize as evil were Nazis or people who behaved like Nazis. For our purposes then let us use the word imperfect rather than sin or evil. Instead of calling ourselves sinful or evil, let's just think of ourselves as imperfect.

To say that we have not been preserved from original sin means that all of us are merely imperfect--something few of us would deny. Where did this notion come from? Theologians and philosophers throughout history have tried to deal with humankind's imperfection. Some have called it the problem of evil. You can pick up a newspaper on any given day and never fail to be shocked by the evil in the world. War, terrorism, murder, rape, sexual abuse, theft of all kinds, lying and deceit on every level of society, all confront us daily. Where does it come from? Who or what is responsible for the world's imperfection or evil?

It is safe to say that in the Judeo-Christian tradition the origins of evil were to be found in each of us. As Shakespeare said, the fault lies in us, not in our stars. In this tradition it is clearly understood that there is something wrong with our nature. Although created in a state of perfection or good (another word for perfect is good), mankind has fallen into a state of imperfection.

In the story of Adam and Eve we find an attempt to explain the problem of evil. God is good; God is perfect; and His creation had to be good. It had to be perfect. Yet, when the biblical authors composed the Book of Genesis they lived in a world as full of evil and imperfection as ours. And so we have the story of the temptation and fall of our first parents to explain how we have all inherited a fundamental flaw, a kind of genetic defect. It had to come from our first parents because it is observable in all of us.

Long before Sigmund Freud wrote of the "ego" and the "id" and the psychic warfare that goes on in all of us, biblical authors like St. Paul and St. James alluded to this "psychomachia" and called it the source of all evil. What are the effects of this psychic or spiritual warfare? Basically, we have a divided nature--we lack integrity in the true sense of the word. We have knowledge of both good and evil. We can admire Mother Teresa but at the same time know that we are capable of understanding and committing the worst crimes that we read of in the newspapers. There but for the grace of God go we!

What is the cure for our imperfection? How can we attain perfection? As the song says, "We've got to be taught.” We've got to be taught not to hate and fear but to love and trust. Our first teachers are our mothers and fathers; then our extended families; then our customs and traditions, chief of which is our religion with its guidelines or warnings which we often mistake for rules and regulations; and then our governments and their laws that are supposed to keep us at peace with one another. This is why these institutions are so important and why when they become corrupted or perverted there is literally "hell to pay." Jesus always called himself teacher and promised that if we would follow Him, peace would be with us.

A few hundred years ago this Judeo-Christian tradition of original sin came under serious attack during the period known as the "Enlightenment" that immediately preceded the French Revolution. Philosophers during that period came to believe that human nature was perfect, that man had begun as a kind of "noble savage" who had become corrupted by human social institutions.

For the intellectuals and the revolutionaries who followed the teachings of the Enlightenment the source of evil was not in man but in institutions like motherhood, fatherhood, the family, religion, government, and the rule of law. In particular, they singled out the Catholic Church with its sacramental system, especially the Sacrifice of the Mass. They sought to destroy these institutions and build a new perfect society which they believed would be based on reason rather than on custom, superstition, and ignorance. Despite over two hundred years of horror and bloodshed these "enlightened" ideas live on today, and those institutions that are the sole protector and defender of mankind are still under attack by those who cannot accept the idea of original sin.

Ironically, those who do not believe in original sin unwittingly believe that they and the rest of mankind must have been conceived immaculate. The only person that they will not allow to have been immaculately conceived is Mary. On the other hand, for those who do believe in original sin and accept its corollary, the need to attain perfection or redemption, Mary is the Immaculate Conception.

If we view Mary in this way then her role takes on new meaning. The Church has always regarded her as the new Eve free from the knowledge of evil. We believe that through God's grace she was created without that fatal division in her being. She had integrity and she knew inner peace not war. This is why the angel at the Annunciation called her full of grace. This is why her assent at the Annunciation was so meaningful. She who through her nature could know no pain or suffering was asked to experience all the pain and suffering that a mother could know. At the Presentation Simeon said to her that this day "your soul a sword shall pierce." Since we've also forgotten the meaning of the word "soul" today, modern translations say that her "whole being" would be severed. Imagine a person created without flaw or imperfection living among us.

      In the Gospels the Apostles represent us with all of our faults and failings. Some were silly, some were vain, some doubted and disbelieved, and even St. Peter denied the Lord three times. They were what we are. When the Church proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, however, it was saying that Mary is what we once were and could be again through the grace of her Son, Jesus.


**Photo image by Melissa DeStefano

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Christ the King

Stained Glass window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*

The feast of Christ the King marks the end of the church year. Although Christians have always believed in the Kingship of Christ, the feast is a relatively recent one dating only from 1925. At a time when the very idea of Kingship was on the way out, the Pope chose to emphasize the Kingship of Christ.

The Second Vatican Council reemphasized the importance of the feast when it moved it from the last Sunday in October to the very last Sunday of the church year. Naturally, the theme of today's readings is Kingship. The first reading presents us with David, the greatest of the kings of Israel. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them. It says, "You shall shepherd my people Israel."
In America we have never been partial to kings or the idea of Kingship. We pride ourselves on being a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people." It wasn't only that our founding fathers revolted against King George III of England but their aversion to kingship went even deeper.

Kings were supposed to be God's divinely appointed representatives on earth. Their coronations were religious ceremonies where the new king would be anointed with holy oils by a religious leader. Political philosophers spoke of the "divine right of kings" to justify their power. Old traditions held that the King even possessed miraculous healing powers. It was believed that merely touching his cloak could cure many physical maladies.

By the time of our revolution it was clear that most kings were not what they were supposed to be. Many had come to their thrones not by divine right or election but through violence and usurpation. Many did not behave like representatives of God especially when it came to being good shepherds. A King was supposed to be the best and noblest man in the nation but often he seemed to be the worst. Even if they started out with good intentions, power corrupted them.

But what if there was a person whose teaching was both simpler and wiser than any of the world's great philosophers? What if this same teacher was able to calm storms at sea and even walk on the angry waters? What if there was a person who did indeed possess miraculous healing powers? -- if merely touching his cloak could cure both physical and spiritual ailments? What if there was a person who could feed the multitudes not only with bread for a day but with the bread of everlasting life? What if there was a person whose power was so great that he could even bring the dead back to life? Finally, what if there was a person who rather than being corrupted by power, surrendered his own life for his people? Shouldn't we call that person our King?

In St. Paul's letter to the Colossians we hear that God has "delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son." He enabled us to enter the Kingdom "by the blood of His cross." We do have a shepherd king who was willing to lay down his life for us.

In the gospel of St. Luke we see our King on this last Sunday of the Church year dying on the cross. The crowd is jeering at Him and the soldiers taunt, "If you are King of the Jews, save yourself." Even one of the criminals dying next to Him reviles Him. How fitting it is that the whole cycle of readings ends this year with the "good thief," who only asks, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

All year we have been reading St. Luke's account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem.   We've followed Him on the journey, heard the famous parables, witnessed the miracles and healings. He asked us to take up our cross and follow Him and promised that if we would do so we would enter into His Kingdom. Actually, He said that His Kingdom would enter into us--that the Kingdom of God would be within us.

We end this Church year by visualizing the scene on the Cross. Let's imagine that we are one of the thieves being crucified along with Jesus and that our own journey through life is coming to an end. Wouldn't we want to hear the last words in our gospel when the King turns to us and says,

            Amen, I say to you,
            today you will be with Me in Paradise.


*Image by Melissa D.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Assisi: Feast of St. Francis

                                              Assisi: A Religious Experience

October 4th is the Feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Below is a little account of a visit to Assisi a few years ago.

Italy is one of the most popular travel destinations today. Besides its many attractions it has for the Catholic traveler a special significance. When my wife and I travel we like to go to Mass every day. Not only does every little Italian town have its own church, but each little district in the town will have its own church. Of course in the larger cities you can hardly cross the street without bumping into a Catholic church which is still functioning as a center of worship.

For a Catholic the spiritual benefit of attending Mass even in Italian is immeasurable. Still, I have to admit that for a tourist there are some ancillary advantages. First, it is a pleasure to observe Italians at worship. On Sundays the churches are well attended and Italians attend with gusto. They sing out the hymns more so than we do here in America.
At a daily Mass attended by half a dozen elderly women, they sang an a cappella version of the Ave Maria that was as good as anything I've ever heard.

Secondly, even though most of the precious art works that were originally in these churches have been removed to pinacotecas and museums, there is still plenty to see although the churches are extremely dark except when services are being conducted. In some churches if you drop a coin in a box, you will get a couple of minutes of light illuminating some masterpiece. Any tourist can do that but sometimes a Mass goer can get a special perk. If you attend the 10:30 daily Mass in the Baptistry in Florence, you will be allowed inside before the mob of tourists is admitted. Before and after Mass you will be able to walk around observing the incredible ceiling and walls virtually alone.

One year my wife and I happened to be in Assisi on October 4, the feast of St. Francis. Assisi is a special town on any day but it was really something that weekend. The day before was a Sunday and we attended Mass in the magnificent lower church of the Basilica of St. Francesco. The Mass was packed with pilgrims from all over come to honor St. Francis.

Assisi is a hill town with panoramic views over the surrounding Umbrian countryside but to me the most wonderful thing about Assisi is the sounds. Monday morning we were awakened by the incredible bells of San Francesco which rang steadily for more than five minutes at 7:00. Two hours later a procession from the town's central square, the Piazza del Comune, wound its way down the via di San Francesco to the Basilica. Every year a different region of Italy is represented in the procession. That year it was Abruzzo from the South. People marched  in their native costumes behind their local banners down to the Church to attend Mass.

Loudspeakers broadcast the proceedings for the thousands who couldn't get inside while `some politician gave a speech, and then gaily dressed singing groups performed traditional songs from Abruzzo. Finally, the crowd began to disperse for lunch and siesta.

That night after dinner my wife and I were walking back to our hotel. By then even the area around the Basilica was deserted. Yet as we passed the doors of the lower Church, we heard a small group of Americans singing the hymn of St. Francis.

            Make me a channel of your peace…###

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Mass: Holy Eucharist, Holy Thanksgiving

The Mass: Holy Eucharist, Holy Thanksgiving

The word eucharist is a Greek word that means thanksgiving. Its root, from which our word charity is derived, literally means a gift of love, in particular a gift of divine love. The earliest Fathers of the Church used the word Eucharist to describe the Sacrifice of the Mass. Holy Eucharist means Holy Thanksgiving.

We call the first part of the Mass the Liturgy of the Word. After a brief introductory rite this part of the Mass centers around readings from Scripture. The early Christians believed that not only was it important to hear the Word of God, but also that it was a sacred duty to remember the words and deeds of the Lord as they had been passed down to them from generation to generation from the time of the Apostles. In turn, it was their duty to preserve this precious inheritance and pass it on intact to their descendants.

We have four major readings every Sunday. The first reading is usually from the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. This reading is followed by a recitation from one of the Psalms, those famous hymns which celebrate the constant activity of the Word of God in our world. Next we have a reading usually taken from the pastoral epistles or letters of St. Paul. We call them pastoral because St. Paul tries to deal with actual problems faced by the first Christians—problems and concerns that we still face today in our own lives.

Finally, we come to the gospel. As we go through the cycle of the liturgical year we revisit the life of Christ from His Birth to His Passion, Death and Resurrection. We have His words, His parables, His actions, and His miracles continually before us. Not only do we celebrate great feasts like Christmas and Easter every year, but even on ordinary weekdays in Ordinary time we can encounter parables like that of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, arguably the two most well known stories in all of world literature.

The readings are followed by a homily delivered by the celebrant or deacon. The theme of the homily should derive from the theme expressed in the day’s readings and be a reflection upon that theme. Next, the priest and congregation bring the Liturgy of the Word to a conclusion by joining together to proclaim the Creed. We remember, we believe.

The second part of the Mass is called the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It begins with the Offertory. Members of the congregation, representing the entire congregation, bring up the gifts of bread and wine that will be offered to the Father. What is the purpose of the procession? What is the nature of these gifts?

It is a natural thing for people who have been blessed or gifted to want to give back. As the Psalmist says, “What return shall I make to the Lord for all that He has given me?” Here we have the basic reason for our attendance at Mass. We come not to get something out of it but to try to give thanks to the Lord for all that we have been given.

What can we give back for all we have been given? A few dollars? A tenth of all we earn? What do a few coins or pieces of paper matter to the Creator who has given us every good thing? The only thing we have of any real value is our immortal soul. Again the Psalmist says, “a soul contrite and humble You will not spurn.” Ultimately, the gift that we bring to the altar at the Offertory is the gift of our very selves, the promise that we will give our whole life in service to God and our neighbor.

After the Offertory procession the priest goes up to the altar for the preparation of the gifts. He prays that the bread might become “the bread of life,” and that the wine might become “our spiritual drink.” The he says the ancient prayer, called in Latin the Orate Fratres, which introduces all that is to follow.

“Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be
 acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”

Please note that it is “our” sacrifice. The priest acts as our agent, our representative, our ambassador in presenting our offering to the Father. But it is still our offering. Will the offering of ourselves be acceptable? We answer the priest,

“May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands
for the praise and glory of His name,
for our good, and the good of all His Church.”

After the completion of the Offertory, the priest begins the Eucharistic or Thanksgiving prayer. Using a prayer that is one of the oldest in the Liturgy he asks, “lift up your hearts.”  We reply, “We lift them up to the Lord.” He says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and we reply, “It is right to give Him thanks and praise.”

Thanksgiving is the theme of the Preface. “Father, it is our duty and our salvation…to give you thanks through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.” Although there are different versions, each Preface ends by taking us into the company of the angels and saints at the heavenly altar where they surround the Lamb of God and sing His praise: “Holy, holy, holy…”

Here we are now at the Holy of Holies but what right have we to be there in such company? Will our gift be acceptable? The priest understands his own unworthiness and introduces a new ambassador. “We come to you Father, with praise and thanksgiving, through Jesus Christ your Son. Through him we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice.” In other words, our gift, our sacrifice, the gift of our very selves must be merged with the gift of our Lord, His own Sacrifice and Death on the Cross in order to become acceptable.

We then proceed to the Consecration of the Mass. The words of Consecration in our missals were being used by the earliest Christians even before they were written down by the Evangelists and St. Paul. Our Lord had said to “do this in remembrance of Me.” When we hear these words we are taken back to that first Eucharist which our Lord celebrated on Holy Thursday.  When the priest pronounces the words of Consecration not only does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, the celebrant becomes Christ. We believe that at every Mass it is our Lord himself who is the celebrant, our agent, our ambassador.

If we believe this, we have been given a great gift, the gift of faith. Indeed, at this point we proclaim the “mystery of faith.” Now the heavenly and the earthly altars are one and we join with Mary, the apostles, and all the saints to give praise and glory to the Lamb of God. At the end of the Eucharistic prayer we join in the acclamation or “Great Amen.”

“Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
 all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.”

The prayers before Communion are a form of penitential rite with the dual objective of creating peace both within ourselves and with our neighbors. We have brought our gifts to the altar. The sacrifice has been offered and accepted and now we publicly prepare to receive back more than we could ever give—the Body and Blood of the Lord. Holy Communion is a sign of God’s love for us. God’s love is unconditional and unbounded but we realize that we must prepare ourselves for the reception of the Sacrament.

When we recite the Lord’s Prayer we recognize that since we all have the same Father we are all brothers and sisters. Moreover, we ask not only that we be forgiven and healed but also that we might forgive those who have offended us.

The Lord’s Prayer is followed by the Rite of Peace.  We ask our Lord to grant us “peace and unity” and the priest prays that the “peace of the Lord be with you always.” He offers us Christ’s Kiss of Peace and asks us to pass it on to our neighbor as a sign of reconciliation. The Church has restored this ancient practice in its fullness. Some may remember that in the past the priest would frequently kiss the altar—itself a symbol of Christ—and turn to the congregation to say “Pax Vobiscum”—“Peace be with you.”

Just before the reception of Communion we say two more prayers asking for peace and forgiveness. First, we say the ancient Agnus Dei or Lamb of God, where we ask for Christ’s mercy and peace. Second, we paraphrase the words of the Roman centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Now we are ready to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.

After Communion there is very little left to be done in church. Our Eucharist or Thanksgiving has been accepted. Our gifts have been returned to us a hundredfold. The priest dismisses us telling us to “Go in the peace of Christ to love and serve the Lord.” We have been transformed and now we are dismissed to go and transform the little corner of the world in which we live. ###

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

Fairfield, CT