A St.-Andrew-Day Story to Tell

Old Cutlass Ciera

Fourteen years ago today, a seminarian sat before an ad hoc “board of inquiry” in a conference room at the seminary.

The board consisted of the seminary rector, the vocation director of the diocese, and two professors of Sacred Scripture. The question at hand: Should this young man be ordained?

In fact, the young man had already been ordained—a transitional deacon. The normal review process for ordination had already occurred. This was the young man’s penultimate semester; he had passed his comps; he was in the homestretch. But then two professors (not the ones in the room) had written to the Archbishop: This seminarian is a fundamentalist!

A course evaluation, naively signed by the seminarian, had led to the writing of the letter. The professor called the seminarian to argue about the evaluation. In the course of the conversation, the seminarian said, “I don’t see how you can say that the Flood certainly didn’t happen.”

One of the questions posed at the inquest was: “Was there a real Abraham?”

An older priest had coached the seminarian for this moment. “Just say you don’t know. Just say you don’t see how anyone could claim to know that there wasn’t.” That there wasn’t an Abraham, or an Adam, or an Eve. That there wasn’t a Noah who built an ark. That there wasn’t a miracle of loaves and fishes.

(The coach is now a titular Archbishop serving in the Roman Curia.)

The inquiry of St. Andrew’s Day, 2001, ended amicably enough, with no clear conclusions. The seminarian was neither cleared of holding the ostensible heresy of “fundamentalism,” nor found guilty.

A local parish priest had promised to take the deacon and his friends to supper after the meeting was over. The deacon drove to the pizzeria, in his trusty ’83 Cutlass Ciera. On the way he regaled his friends with the details of the inquisition. One of them had to ask him to pull over, because listening to the story had nauseated him, and he vomited into a gutter storm drain.

A week later the rector told the deacon that he was no longer welcome at the seminary. But, eighteen months after that, the deacon was ordained a priest anyway. Now, because God has His own ineffable sense of humor, the priest serves as the pastor of a beautiful parish under the patronage of his old friend from that fateful day, the Holy Apostle to whom he prayed on bended knee that the Lord’s will would be done—St. Andrew.

standrewI don’t mean to paint myself as some kind of martyr. God knows I was ten times more willful and difficult in 2001 than I am now, and everyone knows that I am a serious pain in the neck.

As the years pass, I have more sympathy for the other men in the room that day—and I had a fair amount of sympathy for them even then.

They knew perfectly well that the Catechism said one thing—when it comes to Adam and Eve, the Flood, Abraham, and the miracles of Christ (not to mention the Ten Commandments and the prophecies of the major and minor prophets)—while the seminary professors who wrote to the Archbishop tended to say another. The board of inquiry probably wondered if I had managed to get myself in trouble because, fundamentally, I am an arrogant SOB. (Which of course I am.)

I readily concede that only a numbskull could claim that the questions on the table that day have obvious answers. Abraham walked the earth over a thousand years before Socrates, and some reasonable people wonder if Socrates really existed. And when the Scripture says that the Creator worked for six “days,” the word day can’t possibly mean the amount of time between one sunset and the next. Because God didn’t create the sun until the fourth day.

If we try to read the Bible, but do not keep in mind the fact that human beings wrote these words, and they expressed themselves with poetical flourishes and idiosyncratic romanticism, just like we do—if we forget the human dimension of the Scriptures, then we effectively deny the central point of the whole thing, namely that God can—and has—united Himself personally with our incorrigible race.

For me, the joy of preaching homilies comes from the endlessly fascinating human dimension of the Scriptures. Without historical research to supplement the text of the Bible itself, it’s hard—at least for me—to capture that human dimension evocatively. If I had never read Creation, by Gore Vidal, for instance, I would have had one fewer paragraph in my homily yesterday. And Gore Vidal was hardly a fundamentalist.

But, IMHO, the questions that really lay on the table fourteen years ago were these: How much confidence can we put in our historical theses about the ancient world? (The au currant theories about the “Johannine community” that held sway in 2001 have long since been displaced by other theories.) Don’t we have to concede that, in fact, the books of the Bible themselves serve as our primary source of historical information about all the events they narrate? And, as historical sources go, aren’t the four gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the New Testament letters all about as solid as you’re going to get in the inexact science of history?

Let me put it like this: I was willing to get thrown out of the seminary, with my whole future hanging in the balance, for this idea (which maybe is a typical Generation-X type of idea): God’s revelation of Himself to the human race does not ultimately depend on the ingenuity (or lack thereof) of our generation. Sacred Tradition has delivered the truth to us. The Creed expresses it; the Holy Mass and the sacraments celebrate it; the Pope infallibly preserves it. Our job is to believe, and then take it from there.

Happy Feast of St. Andrew, dear reader! Somehow the Holy Apostle managed to keep me on the path, when other seminarians were reaching for their barf bags. I, for one, rejoice that things have worked out the way they have.

The Big Event

Frank Beamer retirement announcement

This time of year, people begin to look back and consider all the ‘big things’ that have happened in the past eleven months.

Like a change of pastor at St. Andrew’s in Roanoke–doesn’t happen every year.

Big events on the world stage: Terrorist attacks in Paris. New Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Pope Francis visited the U.S. Iran nuclear deal. Migrants flooding Europe, fleeing ISIS. USA won the women’s World Cup.

A little closer to home: The shooting at Smith Mountain Lake. Frank Beamer’s retirement. Cavaliers got knocked-out early from the NCAA tournament in March…

We keep the season of Advent for many reasons. One of them is to put all these events into perspective, to put history itself into perspective. Advent does not mean maxing out the credit cards on “The Force Awakens” merchandise. Or getting into cookie-baking battles with your mother-in-law.

No: keeping Advent means something rather radical. It means an intimate sharing in the thoughts, affections, hopes, and longings of one particular group of people. The “heroes” of Advent. The prophet Isaiah. Sts. Zechariah and Elizabeth. St. John the Baptist. The three Wise Men. St. Joseph. And the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Pope Francis UgandaInstead of going shopping, they visited the Temple. Instead of watching tv, they memorized the Psalms. Instead of playing video games or fantasy football, they gazed at the stars in the night sky. Instead of driving hither and yon in a frenzy, the heroes and heroines of Advent patiently waited, calmly waited.

Events happen. Campaigns, elections, birthdays, basketball seasons, Winter Sales Events, trials, tribulations, travels, transactions, treaties and treaty violations–they happen. Signs in the sun, moon, and stars. The anxieties of daily life. History constantly seethes with events.

But the heroes of Advent stayed vigilant while the world around them flimmed and flammed. The prophet Isaiah witnessed events that would make our heads spin–foreign armies over-running the land, the people dispersed in exile and degradation. St. John the Baptist saw the Romans take control, wrenching power from Herod the Great’s feckless progeny. Only the Lord knows all the things that the Wise Men saw, as they journeyed west across deserts and through huge ancient cities teeming with Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Greek-speaking self-help gurus.

But, through all this, one thing, and one thing only, touched their innermost hearts. The world turned, unsteady and confused–but one single sentence made its way into the epicenter of the bosom of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Behold. You will bear a son who will sit on the throne of David.”

The four weeks of Advent train our hearts and our minds to remember that all of history has one decisive event. One.

And He has a name.

Stay awake, “lest that day catch you like a trap.” What could ‘that day’ mean, other than when earth and heaven meet? ‘That day,’ when God opens Himself up as the temple of the city, His light shining as a perpetual sun. ‘That day,’ when truth and justice kiss, and all stolen goods get returned to their proper owners. ‘That day,’ when sick people heal, when blind people read the words of a book, and when the child and the bear cub frolic together. That day: when God and man are one.

El Greco AnnunciationAnybody know what continent Pope Francis is on right now? Africa. He traveled to Africa to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the canonization of the Martyrs of Namugongo, in Uganda. The African martyrs were tortured and burned alive because they refused to renounce Christ. They refused to give in to unchastity and corruption. “That day” came for them, and they were ready, because they had trained their hearts to focus on what Isaiah and the Baptist and St. Joseph and Mary focused on.

Yes, He was born in humble circumstances. He never wrote a book, got interviewed on “60 Minutes,” played professional football, or won a Nobel Prize. He never had a facebook or twitter, never ran for office, never made a lot of money. Never endorsed a product, did a tv spot, or conducted any kind of PR. We’re not even sure exactly what He looked like.

But: in the list of all the things that have ever happened or ever will happen, this is The Big One.

They waited. The ancient prophets. The devout foreigners longing to know God. The just man, living for love and a future that only God could know. And the lovely young woman who had become pregnant through an act of faith. They kept quiet and waited patiently, calmly. Awaited the birth of the man, the child, the baby boy Who is God.

Parrhesia, Part Two

The Lord Jesus’ discourse about the apocalypse ends with this consoling sentence: “When the signs begin to happen—” that is: tumult, terror, people dying of fright—when this happens, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is at hand.”

No panicking. No violence. God is greater. Christ has conquered; what is there to fear?

thanksgiving-BeverlyHillbilliesThe promises of Christ can offer us the serenity required to give faithful testimony. “I myself will give you wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.”

Not sure if he means conversational adversaries across a Thanksgiving-dinner table. But He might mean that.

Our Holy Father put it to us like this, one of the times when he used the word parrhesia—plain-spoken boldness:

The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you offer it.

The witness to Christ possesses the richest heritage of all, the heritage of God’s Incarnation. This produces a serenity which is more truly militant than any kind of aggression. Humility conquers. Humility means: I stand on a truth that even World War III could not disturb: Christ.

Luke 21: Crises are for Parrhesia

Holy Father at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, Sept. 23
Holy Father at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, Sept. 23

Christ has given us more spiritual benefits than we can reckon. One of them, certainly, is: That He has spoken calmly and reasonably with us about the end of our lives and the end of the world.

He foresaw that the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and it was. He foresaw that there will be wars and insurrections, nation against nation—there have been, and there continue to be. He foresaw that there will be earthquakes, famines, plagues, frightening portents in the sky—there have been, and there will continue to be.

But He insists: Remain calm through all of this. None of these events will prove ultimately decisive for you. “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” Crises will arrive, but they come for a reason. So that you may testify.

When Pope Francis came to visit us here in the US, he used a Greek word: parrhesia. He had used it before, and he will likely use it again. The word appears in the New Testament quite a few times (41 times, if you include verbs and adverbial phrases).

Parrhesia means bold speech declaring the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Apostles faced crises, wars, persecutions, certain death. They gave their testimony: God is greater. Jesus Christ has conquered.

More on this tomorrow.

Surfing the Gifts with the King


Christ is the faithful witness. (Revelation 1:5)

Jesus said, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37)

We need to grasp the truth of God, if we are to make any sense out of our lives. To obey God, to walk with Him, to hope in Him, to enjoy His friendship as His beloved children—that path alone offers true peace and the prospect of real happiness. This path lay hidden to the world. But then Jesus came and bore faithful witness to it, testifying to it Himself.

How? Christ has “testified” by obeying the Father in everything. The eternal Son submitted to being born of an obscure Jewish virgin. He submitted to growing up in a poor family and working hard, with His hands. He submitted to every jot and tittle of the Old Covenant, in order to fulfill it.

He undertook a hardscrabble, vagabond ministry of long wanderings and cold nights sleeping on the desert ground. He taught and worked miracles precisely as His Father would have Him do, not for His own personal adulation, but to glorify the One Who sent Him.

Christ chose Apostles and disciples, trained and instructed them, precisely as the Father willed. He instituted the Holy Sacrifice of His Church, and He gave Himself over as the innocent Lamb to reconcile mankind with God. He rose from the dead, walked the earth for forty more days, ascended to heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit—all in perfect accord with the Father’s plan.

xt-kingIn other words, Jesus Christ is the king of harmony with God. The world has no royalty as royal as Christ, and His royalty consists in this: Perfect obedience to the heavenly Father. Christ bore faithful witness and testified to the truth by His perfect harmony with the Father’s will.

Now, what, exactly, is the will of the Father? Christ has “harmonized” with an original melody, so to speak. The original melody is the plan, the truth, the love which directed Christ through His entire pilgrim life. This plan, this truth—the love with which the Father acts: that is the pre-eminent mystery of life, the secret of Divine Providence. We are like surfers. The Providence of God is the ocean.

Hopefully we memorized the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit when we prepared to receive Confirmation…wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, piety, fortitude, and holy fear. We may have memorized these words, but maybe we didn’t understand what these Gifts actually are.

All of them involve direct interior contact with the transcendent, invisible, unknowable God. The operation of these Gifts directed Christ through His entire “testimony” to the Father—His pilgrim life as a man. So, by the Gifts of the Holy Spirit we can harmonize, too–just as Christ has perfectly harmonized with the plan of Providence.

They are gifts because we ourselves, by our own devices, can neither see, nor know, nor grasp, nor domesticate, nor reduce to our level the Great Father of our existence. The clay cannot say to the Potter who molds us, “We’ve got you! We have your number! We know your game!” No. The ocean moves, and not at our direction. We surf on, by co-operating with the waves.

The “kingship” of Christ: Only He and His saints in heaven see the Almighty Potter of all this clay. The King of Harmony with the Creator has reached the final goal; He sees the very mind of God. He pours forth His seven-fold spiritual gifts upon us, so that, despite our human weakness and ignorance, we can have interior harmony with the unseen God:

Holy Spirit dove sunWe can understand and know God’s plan. We can hear His commands and deport ourselves as His children. We can have His strength to endure difficulties. We can truly fear the prospect of grieving Him. And we can grow wise with heavenly wisdom.

In other words, through faith and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, we can stand firmly on the Truth that nothing can rattle or shake, just like Christ always stood firm, even in the face of a cruel and unjust death.

Our spiritual houses can be built on that solid footing. We can make God our true “home.” –To the outside eye, a surfboard seems like a very small home. But the one on the surfboard of co-operation with God knows that his or her true home is not just the board, but the whole big wave, the whole big ocean.

Indeed, by faith and the gifts, we reign right alongside the eternal King. We can share the kingship of Christ. We just need to stay in the state of grace. Which means going to Confession on some kind of regular basis.

What is the pomp and circumstance of the true King? Spreading out His arms on the cross, out of love. We celebrate this very sacrifice, our King’s eucharist, at the holy altar—and all the spiritual gifts He gives us work their way to fruition in us by our constant celebration of the Holy Sacrifice.

We begin with the Mass. We bring it to fulfillment with the Mass.

All praise, glory, laud, and honor to the King, Jesus Christ, the perfectly obedient Son of the eternal Father!

What Makes for Peace

APTOPIX Turkey Syria

If you only knew what makes for peace. (Luke 19:42)

One of the genuinely heartbreaking ironies of our time: “martyrdom” and hope.

Every two years we read at Holy Mass the accounts of the heroes of the Maccabean revolt. The fidelity of the Maccabean martyrs inspires us. But Mattathias, and the Zealots who imitated him, did not fully reveal the face of the Father. Open impiety and irreligion moved Mattathias to kill. But open impiety and irreligion moved Christ to submit to suffering.

We do not know what makes for peace. But Christ teaches us. Holding fast to “the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, despising not its shame.” (Hebrews 12:2)

“The joy set before Him.” The fulfillment for which we were made, the kingdom of true happiness–it cannot be anything less than God. Christ teaches us that this kingdom, this happiness is real. We can, should, and must hope for it.

“He endured the cross.” Christ and the martyrs of Christ do not do violence. They endure violence. The holy martyrs whose memory the Church keeps alive through all the vagaries of history–they counted the joy to come more precious than this passing pilgrim life. So they submitted themselves to an unjust death.

We can and do say that the martyrs have held the world “in contempt.” But a true martyr’s contempt for the world aims only at the falsity and emptiness of a shallow life. In no way does this contempt move a true martyr to acts of violence. To the contrary, a martyr patiently and calmly awaits the coming of the Lord, living a genuinely spiritual life in this world. He becomes a martyr only when violence finds him.

Syria Patriarch YounanNow, if we think that only jihadists make a mockery of the word martyr, then we deceive ourselves.

The Catholic Patriarch of Syria said yesterday: “It is inconceivable to think that [ISIS] can be defeated with air raids: this is a big lie.”

Practically every time we Western powers drop a bomb from the sky, over the land where our father Abraham once walked–every time we do that, we make real martyrs. Innocent bystanders, patiently waiting on God, meaning no harm to anyone, get killed. ISIS is a bunch of unbelievable bad guys, to be sure. And the people who drop bombs that incur “collateral damage” as a matter of course: Also bad guys.

Christ teaches what makes for peace. Staring calmly at death, not to bring it about, but to accept it. Because the joy set before us is greater.

Our Long National Nightmare

JTIII Hoyas warm up
(photo credit: @casualhoya)

…of no college basketball is over.

Hoyas keep scheduling warm-up games against local southwest-Virginia faves. Today the Radford Highlanders square off against Georgetown at Verizon Center. Yeah, buddy!

We present a homily for the penultimate Sunday of the liturgical annum. I wrote it long before Friday the 13th turned into a nightmare in Paris. But hopefully it will help us a little–to pray soberly… (Esta disponible en español tambien! Haga clic aqui.)

Continue reading “Our Long National Nightmare”

Paris Posts

Rue du Bac Paris
Rue de Bac

Be My Speed (St. Denis), St. Denis, Beheaded

Light on the Rue de Bac

When I visited Paris in 2002, most of the churches seemed like museums. But not all of them. 1. At Rue de Bac, cheerful hymns and devout prayers. 2. At Basilique Sacre Coeur, all-night adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the largest monstrance I have ever seen, continuous since August 1, 1885.

Andrea Mitchell reminded viewers that France is the United States’ oldest and dearest ally. We would never have won the Revolutionary War without French aid.

But more than that: France is the Church’s eldest daughter. Let’s put our hearts in front of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacre Coeur, or in the Miraculous-Medal chapel on Rue de Bac. That’s where mine is.

Sacre Coeur from Arc de Triomphe
Montmartre, from the Eiffel Tower, with the Basilica of the Sacred Heart

Community in the 21st Century

Martyrdom of St. Josaphat by Jozef Simmler
Martyrdom of St. Josaphat by Jozef Simmler

God made us, the human race, for unity, communion, a common life. We all have unique endowments and irreplaceable contributions to make to our life together. No one should ever impede any individual’s right to make his or her unique contribution. But the individual is not the fundamental measure of humanity. We cannot survive alone. We cannot thrive alone. We cannot reach our destiny alone. Social animals. We need each other; each of us is made for communion with others.

During the twentieth century, people called Christianity an enemy of communal, social life, claiming that we have an overly individualized spirituality and concept of salvation.

That criticism strikes us as preposterous now. In the 21st century, the Church is practically the only vital multi-generational volunteer community organization left in most American neighborhoods.

If we desire communion; if we seek our true destiny as human beings, to share our lives with each other; if we want to live in a wider world, instead of just a cocoon—church is the place to do it. Church is practically the only place. The possible exception being good teenage athletes, who have other venues for communal life. And there are runners’ clubs and training groups for marathons and 10Ks. Otherwise, it’s either the weird world of socializing by staring at a little metallic nugget in your hand, or church.

No surprise, really. Christ founded the Church, and endows Her with His life, to overcome the divisions among men that sin inveterately causes. One Church, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all: this is how the human race achieves unity.

Three hundred ninety-two years ago today, St. Josaphat suffered martyrdom for the cause of true human community. He died rather than abandon the idea that God unites the human race in one family.

Our 20th-century critics would have scoffed at the idea that the Pope of Rome unites the human family as the one, true universal father. But now we can ask, with unassuming humility, as sons and daughters of the 21st century: Who, other than the Pope? To whom can we look, as the head of a genuine worldwide family of mankind—other than the Pope?

St. Josaphat recognized this, back in the 17th century. The holy Ukrainian martyr gladly went to his death in witness to the universality of the Church. I think we can say that the idea for which St. Josaphat died is even more urgent and necessary today than it was on November 12, 1623.

Pope St. Leo and Other Unprofitable Servants

When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.’
(Luke 17:10)

When you have done all that you have been commanded to do, say: Thanks for giving me something to do!

Leo the Great w tomeWhen he had finished all that he had been commanded to do, Pope St. Leo the Great said: Thank you, Lord, for sending the monophysite heretics, and the Pelagians, and Attila the Hun—to give me something to do!

That was 1,554 years ago today—when Pope St. Leo died and met the Master. 1,554 years seems like a long time ago. But for the One Who commands, a thousand years is like a passing day. The One Who commands has a vastly different concept of how long things take than we do. He works magnificent works that transcend our minds. Blow our minds, when we pause to consider.

How long does it take for God to accomplish His task? How about the entire length of the history of the world! But for Him, that’s no time at all.

Thanks for giving us something to do, Lord. As in: co-operating in the salvation of souls, building the Kingdom, participating in the fulfillment of Your plan for eternal beauty.

If we whine and grow impatient sometimes; if we take our aprons off prematurely, please forgive us. Give us a fresh start on our appointed tasks. Idling on our own just gets us in trouble anyway. Thank you for giving us something to do!