We Believe in God-Christ-Mass

st albans psalter road to emmaus

When the Lord Jesus walked with Cleopas and the other disciple on the way to Emmaus on Easter Sunday, He chided them for their lack of faith.  “How foolish you are!  How slow of heart to believe!”

[Click por Spanish: Tercer Domingo de Pascua 2017]

How foolish and slow of heart to believe. Let’s check ourselves against these words of Christ. What did He mean, when He criticized these disciples like this?

To believe means to trust, to accept completely.  We humble ourselves before the One in Whom we believe.  We submit ourselves to Him as His defenseless children.

When we believe in God Almighty like this, we achieve our true nobility as creatures made in His image and likeness.  If we put our deepest trust in anyone or anything else, other than God, we will be betrayed.  We cannot entrust ourselves with this kind of faith to another human being, or group of people, or gadgets or computers or anything else.

And, if we are not foolish and slow of heart, we believe also in God’s Christ.  We believe in the Son sent by the heavenly Father.  By virtue of our faith in God, we can behold Christ, our brother, for Who He truly is, the God-man.

holymassThe Christ offered Himself, in the sacrifice of pure divine love, for our sakes, on the cross. Then He rose from the dead. And He took His seat in the glory of heaven, where He reigns as High Priest and King. We do not hesitate to trust this King of Love as our true God, and to rely on Him completely.

Not only that.  We Christian believers, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, recognize this Christ in the breaking of the bread.

Our faith, therefore, involves a series of unbreakable connections, when it comes to what we believe in. 1) We believe in Almighty God, our Creator. 2) To believe in God is to believe in Christ.  And 3) To believe in Christ is to believe in the Mass.

The Church did not make up the Mass; Christ made up the Mass, and by doing so, He made the Church.  The Church did not make up the sacred priesthood; Christ made up the sacred priesthood, and by doing so, He made the Church.  The Church did not say ‘This is my Body,’ and ‘This is my Blood;’ Christ said ‘This is my Body,’ and ‘This is my Blood,’ and by doing so, He made the Church.

He gathered His Apostles, entrusting His divine Body and Blood to them by His infallible words, and then He offered that same Body and Blood on the cross.  His own words make clear the inseparable connection between the Mass and the cross:  “This is my Body, which will be given up for you;” “This is my Blood, which will be shed for you.”

In other words, to believe in the Mass is to believe in the Redemption, and to believe in the Redemption is to believe in the Holy Mass.  The Mass and the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus are the same thing.  The Church did not make this up; Christ made this up, and in doing so, He made the Church.

If we really think about it, we see that we need the Mass in order to understand the real meaning of Jesus’ Passion and crucifixion. That’s precisely what the dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus did not yet grasp.

They thought that Jesus’ condemnation and death involved a terrible tragedy. They didn’t realize that it was a sacrifice, the sacrifice of divine love. They thought their beloved rabbi had suffered a crushing defeat. They didn’t realize that, on the cross, love triumphed; Jesus gave Himself to the Father, for us, with perfect love. Christ’s crucifixion involved neither tragedy nor defeat, because He freely gave Himself in sacrifice as the consummate act of love.

We can begin to understand all this only when we see that Jesus’ offered Himself in sacrifice at the Last Supper, and on the Cross, and this is the sacrifice of the Mass: all together it is one sacrifice, Christ’s sacrifice, the sacrifice of true religion.

Pope St. John Paul II put it like this:

The sacrifice of our redemption is so decisive for the human race that Jesus Christ offered it and returned to the Father only after he had left us a means of sharing in it, as if we had been present there.

So: No, not foolish or slow of heart to believe; no. To the contrary: Lord, we believe! We believe in God Almighty.  We believe in His Christ.  We believe in the Mass.

Resurrection of Jesus: Knowledge and Faith

El Greco Christ in PrayerTwo quick points on today’s readings at Holy Mass

1.  How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead? We do not take it on blind faith. The key question is: How do we explain what the Apostles did in the ensuing months and years? First, two certain facts.

i. Christ certainly died.

Nonetheless, shortly thereafter, the Apostles themselves stared down death with supernatural courage; they testified in Jerusalem, and all over the world; they acted with utter conviction that the Lord Jesus had risen, had ascended into heaven, and had poured out the Holy Spirit upon His nascent Church. So, fact ii.:The Apostles certainly did all these heroic apostolic feats.

How do we explain it? Mass self-destructive, semi-suicidal psychosis among Galileans on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the spring of 33AD? No. The simplest, most straightforward, and creditable explanation is: Jesus rose from the dead.

But that brings us to point 2. We do have a kind of “blind” faith in: the mystery of the Trinity. Jesus declared that He is the One from heaven, to Whom the Father has handed over everything. Our eternal life depends not just on our reasoned conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. Our eternal life rests on our faith that He Who rose from the dead is the God-man, the eternal Son, the One Who has united His divine life with our mortal human nature by His Incarnation.

We cannot conceive of the triunity of Almighty God. But we can believe in it with a practical faith; we can obey Jesus, the Son Whom the Father consecrated and sent. When we submit ourselves completely to Christ, regarding Him as the Absolute Truth of life, in every respect, then the Trinity becomes not just something we cannot fully understand. It becomes the reality in which we actually live.

Human Means of Divine Communication

St Mark stained glass StA
St. Mark stained-glass window in the St. Andrew’s sanctuary, Roanoke

Today we keep the feast of my heavenly patron, who died 1,949 years ago today.

First reading at Holy Mass comes from the first letter of… St. Peter. He wrote the letter to… “The chosen sojourners of the diaspora” in Asia Minor (now Turkey.) He wrote to them from… “Babylon.” Literally, Babylon? No. In the New Testament, “Babylon” = Rome.

At the end of his letter, St. Peter sent the greetings of his “son”… Mark!

St. Peter, father; St. Mark, son. Not by conjugal generation, but by spiritual relationship. St. Peter accompanied the Lord Jesus through His saving pilgrimage on earth. St. Mark accompanied St. Peter during his time in Rome.

st-peters-sunriseAlso at Mass today, we read the end of St. Mark’s gospel. Lord Jesus entrusted His mission to His Apostles, and He ascended into heaven. A transition took place: Christ passed-over to a realm that we cannot now see. But His work on earth continues apace, through the ministry of those who believe in Him.

Some years later, another transition occurred: the Apostles who had seen and heard Jesus came to the end of their earthly lives. Someone needed to write down their accounts of Christ’s words and deeds. St. Mark wrote down St. Peter’s memories.

We love the New Testament, and the entire Bible. Not because it’s some kind of “magic book.” Reading the Bible gives us communion with God through the perfectly normal means of human communication.

The incarnate divine Son walked the earth, did things, taught stuff, accomplished His mission. People who loved Him saw and heard it. And people who loved those eye-witnesses took the trouble to write it all down for us.

Not magic. But wonderfully real; wonderfully human, and wonderfully divine, all at the same time.

Praise you, Lord, for communicating with us in this way! And thank you, dear St. Mark, for doing your part. May we have the grace to do our part, too.

Georgetown-Jesuit Apology, and Mine

Matthew Quallen at the GU teach-in on slavery
Mr. Matthew Quallen at the Georgetown University “Teach-In” on slavery

I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation. Deuteronomy 5:9 (See also Exodus 20, 34:7, Numbers 14:18.)

In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are on edge.’ Jeremiah 31:29. The son shall not suffer the iniquity of the father. Ezekiel 18:19

Last week, Georgetown University and the Jesuits apologized for participating in slavery.

The apology happened in the same beautiful hall where my dear historian mom delivered the commencement address, and then I received my high-school diploma. Footsteps away: the office in which, a couple years later, I first spoke with a Catholic priest. Across the courtyard: the chapel where I received Confirmation and First Holy Communion.

And GU/Jesuit history is our Richmond-diocese history, too. The same slave-selling Jesuit whose name they just stripped off one of GU’s oldest buildings also gave the Vespers sermon at the dedication of St. Peter’s parish church in downtown Richmond.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has an antebellum past. Before the mass migration from Europe that made us an overwhelmingly poor and urban people, we had an earlier chapter–which unfolded primarily in the south, with black slaves.

When I first began the path to the priesthood, I spent ten months in the novitiate of the Maryland province of the Jesuits. One of my brother novices wound up serving on the committee that prepared GU’s apology of last week. Here he is, reflecting on the committee’s work:

A young man named Matthew Quallen wrote a series of articles for the GU newspaper, The Hoya, skewering the university for having benefited from one of the largest slave sales in US history, in 1838. Maryland-province Jesuits had studied the business for years, and had tried to make some amends. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic certainly helped precipitate GU’s decision to address this issue in this way at this time.

In other words, Georgetown University has certainly achieved a great victory in political correctness. But: The way GU and the Jesuits have done it also rings with real, inspiring Christian integrity.

I think US Jesuit superior Fr. Tim Kesicki overstated himself a little bit, apologizing so profusely that his words manage to emphasize the us/them division that Christ came to overcome. Addressing the descendants of the slaves the Jesuits sold, Fr. Kesicki said:

…even with your great grief and right rage, with our sin and sorrow, all will be well…

But we must a. hand it to GU and the Jesuits for having the sobriety, learning, and guts to do this, and b. take up the matter ourselves, for the good of our souls…

Why exactly do we say that slavery is wrong? The Catechism puts it briefly:

The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold, or exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. (para. 2414)

The dignity of the person–revealed by Christ–provides the key concept. We cannot romanticize an abstract dream of absolute freedom, which no human being has ever actually enjoyed in this limited, creaturely life we live in the fallen world. But neither can we underestimate the genuine incompatibility between slavery and the Christian concept of man.

German bishop Johann Salier put it like this in his 1830 handbook of Christian morality:

The state of slavery, and any treatment of human beings as slaves, turns people who are persons into mere things, turns people who are ends in themselves into mere means, and does not allow the responsibility of people for what they do, or do not do, to develop properly, and in this way cripples them in their very humanity; hence it is contrary to the basic principle of all morality.

Helpful clarity: slavery is immoral because it destroys the moral independence of a human being. Our moral freedom is our distinctly human treasure.

Commonwealth Catholicism FogartyWhen, in the period of American history before the Civil War, Georgetown University, and the Maryland province of the Jesuits, found themselves on the altogether-wrong side of this moral analysis, we found ourselves there, too.

It wasn’t just GU; it wasn’t just the Jesuits, who have now apologized so profusely. It was us.

When I say “us,” I mean the Catholic clergy of the United States.

We had a duty to guide souls to the correct moral analysis of slavery as it was practiced in our lands. And we did not do that.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, we studiously misunderstood and misinterpreted the guidance given by the Apostolic See of Rome. Popes didn’t write encyclicals then, and priests and bishops around the world did not expect Roman guidance the way we do now. But the popes had written and taught a correct moral analysis of slavery.

In 1814 and 1815, Pope Pius VII wrote the leaders of Europe insisting on the unconditional abolition of slavery. He prohibited the clergy from making the claim that the slave trade was permitted.

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI wrote, in an apostolic letter to all Catholics:

We consider it our pastoral duty to make every effort to turn the faithful away from the inhuman traffic in negroes, or any other class of men. We vehemently admonish and abjure all believers in Christ, of whatever condition, that no one hereafter may dare unjustly to molest Indians, negroes, or other man of this sort; or to spoil them of their goods; or to reduce them to slavery; or to extend help or favor to others who perpetuate such things against them. No Catholic can defend such practices, under any pretext or excuse. (In Supremo Apostolatus)

But we American priests (and bishops) did not make the pope’s pastoral zeal on this matter our own.

Pius VII
Pope Pius VII

Now, we did, in fact, find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. No one can hold the Catholic clergy responsible for setting up the chattel-slavery system in America in the first place. The first bishop in the US, John Carroll, freed the slaves he had inherited from his family.

And, when the American bishops began meeting regularly to discuss things in the Baltimore basilica (built by the same architect who gave us the US Capitol)–the series of meetings which eventually gave rise to the greatest book ever written in English, the Baltimore Catechism; when the bishops met in Baltimore, they had some pretty tricky things to discuss, like: how to defend ourselves from the widespread belief that all Catholic priests secretly conspired in a plot for the pope to take over the country.

As Robert Emmett Curran put it in “Rome, the American Church, and Slavery:”

The nativism of the 1830’s through the 1850’s made the American Church all-too-conscious of its status as an alien minority in America. By 1850 Catholics were still less than nine percent of the population, but, having become the largest denomination in the country, were under stronger attacks than ever. Self-preservation became the priority. The bishops as a group concentrated on private behavior rather than social ethics. Except for the area of public education, the bishops foreswore any activity that could be deemed political.

We cannot, however, proffer any of this as a reasonable excuse. Because, in striving to protect our fledgling institutions, we missed the issue. Anti-Catholic bigotry in antebellum America did indeed cause us some problems. But the major problem for everyone in the United States was patently obvious: slavery. Slavery was simultaneously the great moral problem and the great political problem.

We were silent. Former-President, and Virginian, John Tyler wrote to his son in 1854, defending the Catholic clergy from the charges leveled by Know-Nothings. He damned us with this praise:

The Catholic priests have set an example of non-interference in politics which furnishes an example most worthy of imitation on the part of the clergy of the other sects at the North.

…Now, let’s not oversimplify. The North had racism every bit as vicious as the South. Many northern abolitionists insisted both that the Southerners must free their slaves and that those slaves should, under no circumstances whatsoever, come north.

Solving the great moral and political problem required more than slogans and self-righteousness. And the problem deserved a better solution than it got. If we think that the process of brutal Civil War-Reconstruction-Jim Crow-Civil Rights Movement-what we have now illustrates the MLK/Obama principle that “the arc of history always bends toward justice,” then we kid ourselves. Sin doesn’t go away on its own; racism gets born anew in every generation. We need heavenly medicine.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s plan for the Baltimore Basilica

But how can we Catholic clergy not acknowledge that we failed in the early nineteenth century? We failed to apply the principles of Christian morality properly, and we isolated ourselves by our obtuseness. Priests came from Ireland to the U.S. during that period, and they were appalled. Appalled that their brother priests in America tolerated slavery as practiced in the South, without a peep.

Roman authorities had tried to enlighten our consciences, but we knew better. We didn’t like slavery, but we did not regard it as our task to confront its evil.

What task, then, other than confronting such un-Christian evil, could we have claimed to have had? Or what task, other than that, do we have now?

We priests stand at the altar, and we read, and we pray. We must also apply all that we read and pray to the lives of our people, who do their daily business on the little stretches of earth that make up our humble parishes. We must know intimately the physical reality of those stretches of earth.

In one of his articles for The Hoya, Quallen described the lot of a slave that the Jesuits had sold down the river. Cornelius Hawkins wound up working the “fetid, unforgiving fields” of Iberville parish, Louisiana.

Quallen knows how to write. “Fetid, unforgiving fields.”

In the first part of the 19th century, we lost sight of that particular physical reality, and the moral evil attendant to it. It was an evil we had the duty to confront.

The question for us now is: What evils have we lost sight of in the early 21st century? What campus building somewhere will someday have to be renamed, because the honoree wouldn’t focus his or her mind on what an abortionist’s knife actually does? Or on what it’s like to wind up in an ICE detention center?

I am sorry that we failed so miserably in antebellum America. Please God we learn something from the mistake.







St. Peter, Fisherman and Priest

fishing1St. Peter figures prominently in both readings at Holy Mass today.

In the gospel reading, he announces, “I’m going fishing.” And his confreres reply, “We’ll go with you.”

Now, we might think of going fishing as a cheerful, relaxing occasion. A quiet day, away from the hustle and bustle. No Honey Do lists. Just the calming sound of water.

But St. Peter and the Apostles didn’t go fishing on the Sea of Galilee for a getaway. It meant something else to them. It meant: “Well, I guess our mission as apostles has come to an end. Let’s go back to our old way of life, and try to pick up where we left off, before we met our Teacher, Whom they crucified.” The Apostles’ fishing trip in John 21 didn’t mean relaxation; it meant disappointment, disillusionment, confusion, maybe even despair.

St. Peter’s speech in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles took place about fifty days later. And we hear St. Peter fearlessly preaching the Gospel in Jerusalem, having reclaimed his role as the heroic Prince of the Apostles.

bloody and unbloody sacrifice crucifixion massA startling change.

In the course of those fifty days, Peter and the other Apostles not only had seen the Lord risen from the dead. They also had heard His further teaching, enabling them to grasp the meaning of His Passion and death. We know that the Lord Jesus had to rise from the dead—for many, many reasons. But one reason why He had to rise was: simply to explain to the Apostles what His crucifixion and death had really meant. He had suffered no catastrophic defeat; His mission had not ended in failure. To the contrary, on the cross, He had triumphed. Omnipotent and eternal love had triumphed.

Now, we might wonder: What part of the Lord’s words at the Last Supper had the Apostles not understood? We might wonder that. But we have the benefit of hindsight, and our own years of participating in the Mass. The Mass that Christ gave to His Church on Holy Thursday offers the key to understanding His death on Good Friday. Jesus did not suffer a tragedy. He offered a sacrifice. The sacrifice by which God united Himself with all our suffering, and our own deaths, and has reconciled the world to Himself through the establishment of the new and eternal covenant.

So: What changed between St. Peter’s dejected fishing expedition in Galilee and his heroic preaching in Jerusalem? He came to understand the Mass that Christ had given him to celebrate. On Holy Thursday, Jesus had made the Apostles priests of His mystery. But it took them until Pentecost to understand that His crucifixion and death was not just a slaughter, but was in fact a mystery, the mystery of His life-giving Body and Blood, of which He had made them priests.

And when we understand this, we become true apostles, too.

The Corrupt Generation

After Jesus rose from the dead, He filled St. Peter and the other Apostles with courage. Then they declared to the world the resurrection and the triumph of Jesus. Some who heard the news, and believed it, asked them: “What must we do, then?”

Card Newman
John Henry Newman

St. Peter answered: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation…Repent and be baptized in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Now, what exactly does this mean? Should we translate it loosely as, “Run for your lives!” Maybe not exactly.

Is this particular generation more corrupt than any other? We might wince at the thought of the things they did at Woodstock, or during the reign of the Roman Emperor Caligula. But all of human history bears witness to the deeper meaning of this phrase, “corrupt generation.”

The corrupt generation is: Us. Mankind as a whole, the entire kit and caboodle; lock, stock, and barrel. The late, great Cardinal Newman put it like this:

We must each become a new creature; love, fear, and obey God; be just, honest, meek, pure in heart, forgiving, heavenly-minded, self-denying, humble, and resigned. Yes, man is confessedly weak and corrupt. But the Bible enjoins us strictly to be religious and unearthly.

Christ, risen from the grave, can make us serious. Serious about eternal life—the life He Himself now lives. He pours that life out upon us, through His manifold gifts. Jesus can make us holy. Then maybe we can eat a couple pieces of Easter candy and have some wholesome, uncorrupted fun.

Easter Exhortation

Velázquez cena in emmaus

Click HERE for Spanish.

Everyone remembers what happened when the Lord died? The disciples moped along, downcast and directionless. Jesus had been crucified. And the disciples did not understand.

As we recall, on the road, two of these disconsolate disciples met a mysterious stranger who wanted to know what was eating them. These two then expressed the thoughts and feelings of all of Jesus’ followers. “We thought he would redeem Israel. But now our hopes are dashed.”

Now, what kind of Messiah did they think was going to come? Was the Messiah going to redeem Israel without uniting Himself with the suffering of His people? Without offering Himself as the truly pleasing sacrifice to the Father? Without establishing the religion of the new and eternal covenant?

After all, the blood of bulls and goats does not atone for sins. Man, left to his own devices, stands helpless before inevitable death. Something that overcomes the separation between man and God had to happen.

resurrectionSo let’s say to these confused disciples: “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways not our ways! Human beings see crucifixion as the most shameful death imaginable. Human beings see what happened on Good Friday as discouraging, depressing, totally dispiriting. But God can turn a wooden cross into a gilded throne. God can turn heartbreak into triumph.”

Then Sunday came. The disciples, who had despaired only hours earlier, saw the Lord. And they probably began saying things like, “The heavenly Father has turned the Master’s cross into a throne of glory. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The grave could not hold Him, and He can turn bread into His immortal flesh!”

What kind of savior do we think we want? Do we want some pure spirit who has nothing to do with the trials and tribulations of our human pilgrimage? Do we want an ideal for a savior? Or a theory?

Or do we want some kind of human “savior” that grows up in a mansion and goes to Harvard? The kind that wins lots of prizes during an illustrious career and then retires to Cabo San Lucas? The kind that everybody feels comfortable with? So comfortable that, when he is confronted by contradictions and threats, he backtracks in a heartbeat, saying “Oh, no, when I said the Pharisees were a hypocritical brood of vipers, I didn’t mean you…”

No. To the contrary. I think we want the Messiah we actually have, the true Messiah Who has saved the world. The Messiah Who grew up a carpenter, suffered heroically for His beloved friends, conquered death by dying for the truth, and reigns supreme in a realm too sublime for us even to imagine.

That’s the real Messiah, foretold by the prophets, attested to by the Apostles, who lives with us in the breaking of the bread. The Messiah we never could have foreseen. But Who–now that He has done what the prophecies declared He must do–certainly is the best Messiah possible, the only Messiah possible, our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Christ Going Alone


Where I am going you cannot come. (John 13:33 and 36)

Lord Jesus said this at least four times. Where is the Lord going, anyway? Up to Jerusalem for the Passover feast? Yes. But He did not go alone on that pilgrimage; many Jews accompanied Him.

Up to the Upper Room for the Last Supper? Or up to the Mount of Olives to pray? He had fewer companions in those places. But, again, He did not go alone. He had company—His Apostles.

But then even His friends abandoned Him and left Him alone.

Lord Jesus went before the Sanhedrin, and before Pontius Pilate, alone, with no human advocate. And of course He spread out His arms on His cross alone.

Only the Christ, only the divine Lamb, could offer the sacrifice that restores justice to creation. And only the new Adam could go to the realm of the dead and liberate the ancient souls who awaited Him. And only the omnipotent Creator could rise from death in a human body with such power and life that no force of nature could ever drag Him back into the grave again.

No one can accompany Christ into the inner heart of the Paschal Mystery.

But, as He said to the Apostles, we can do His will now by loving Him and each other. And, as He said to St. Peter, we can follow Him to heaven later.

Bryson and Supernatural on Sunday Morning

Devil's Tower

Before he hiked the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson drove all over the continental U.S. in a Chevy Chevette. He left us a record of his travels, The Lost Continent.

I just finished reading it, having nursed it like a finger of single-malt scotch–taking little sips over the course of a few months. Now that it’s over, I want him to start driving all over again.

Bryson had one traveling ritual that struck me as particularly dramatic. He would check into a motel for the night, take his little pair of scissors out of his kit bag, proceed to the bathroom, and ceremonially snip the Sanitized for Your Protection banner on the commode, exclaiming “I declare this toilet open!”

But his travel narrative includes poetry, too. One Sunday morning he was driving east through Wyoming…

I drove through the drizzle to Devil’s Tower, the mountain used by Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the one on which the aliens landed. It is so singular and extraordinary that you cannot imagine what Spielberg would have used as an alternative if it hadn’t been available. You can see it long before you get to it, but as you draw nearer the scale of it becomes really quite awesome. It is a flat-topped cone of rock 865 feet high, soaring out of an otherwise flat and featureless plain. The scientific explanation is that it was a volcanic fluke–an outsized lump of warm rock that shot out of the earth and then cooled into its present arresting shape. In the moonlight it is said to glow, though even now on a wet Sunday morning with smoky clouds brushing across its summit, it looked decidedly supernatural, as if it were placed there eons ago for the eventual use of aliens.

Bryson drove for two months, thirty years ago–which is about when I got my driver’s license and dreamed of such adventures. I actually did do it myself, seven years ago, albeit for just two weeks. And I have an observation to make about the two ways you can drive across America, caressing God’s earth on our splendid, lonely highways. But first, Bryson’s experience of the Grand Canyon, and mine.


Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on this earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent.

Even children are stilled by it. I was a particularly talkative and obnoxious child, but it stopped me cold. I can remember rounding a corner and standing there agog while a mouthful of half-formed jabber just rolled backwards down my throat, forever unuttered. I was seven years old and I’m told it was only the second occasion in all that time that I had stopped talking, apart from short breaks for sleeping and television. The other thing to silence me was the sight of my grandfather dead in an open coffin. It was such an unexpected sight–no one had told me that it would be on display–and it just took my breath away. There he was all still and silent, dusted with powder and dressed in a suit. I particularly remember that he had his glasses on (what did they think he was going to do with those where he ws going?) and that they were crooked. I think my grandmother had knocked them askew during her last blubbery embrace and then everyone else had been squeamish to push them back into place. It was a shock to me to realize that never again in the whole of eternity would he laugh over “I Love Lucy” or repair his car or talk with his mouth full. It was awesome. But not really as awesome as the Grand Canyon.

bill bryson lost continentYour humble scribe, on the same subject, in a journal I kept:

God, of course, is free to do as He wills.  It is pointless to ask why.  Why would He hollow out an enormous scoop of His earth, delving a mile deep into a plateau in the shape of a 200-mile capital J?  Why would He make most of the world in one way, and this part in another?

You can stand on Bright Angel promontory and look out over a red, yellow, and brown expanse beneath you that is so great that everything you ever knew of the earth before could fit inside it.  And it would look small.  My beloved St. Peter’s Basilica, a climate unto itself:  small.  Old Rag Mountain, my favorite long hike of youth:  small.  Empire State Building, Sears Tower:  little sticks.

Forget it.  Manhattan Island could fit into one of the tributary canyons here.  These comparisons are not a reasonable exercise.  The Grand Canyon is simply a different realm of creation.  It is the place where creation occurred, according to the natives, which would put the canyon itself outside the confines of the created, on the divine side of the unbridgeable divide.  You can see why they would say this.

I had driven a great distance; it had taken me a week.  I had seen thousands of miles of the country, our greatest rivers, and some of our splendid cities.  But it was all nothing, reduced to absurd tiny-ness.

I had lived two score years.  Nothing.  I had seen many days in my life, many sweet evenings.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Tiny.  Ridiculously small. Who can even countenance such pettiness, trifles like the George Washington Bridge, Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls?  Leave it all alone; these are just miniscule particles of dust.

It really is true:  Looking at the Grand Canyon is a cruel blow to oneself. Every earthly thing is reduced to the size of plankton.  It is no wonder that people routinely ignore all warnings and railings and wind up falling to their deaths trying to get just the right photograph.  To see the canyon is a kind of death.  ‘If this thing is real, then everything else I have ever seen or done is a tiddly wink being flipped into a little plastic cup.  What have I been bothering about all this time?’

So I think Bryson and I had some similar experiences. But there are two ways of driving across America. Allow me to illustrate this with another citation, from a current periodical publication.

For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960’s and 70’s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.

Thus concludes Peter Beinart’s brief analysis in The Atlantic of how the decline in white American churchgoing has affected politics. He quotes a Notre Dame sociologist: “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” Beinart goes on to observe:

The most-committed members of a church are more likely than those casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices.

I think we unworthy “more-committed members” might offer an explanation for this, an explanation that a sociologist would consider outside his ken. Namely: When we receive the sacraments of the Church regularly, God’s grace fills our hearts. In other words, if we sinners who frequent church have any real love in us, there’s a genuinely supernatural explanation. Not having to do with aliens. But having to do with Christ. He reigns above, and He pours the love of His Heart into ours, through the rites of the Church.

On my cross-country drive, when I crossed the Mississippi River in my little 2006 Toyota, I made landfall at the enormous arch that marks the gateway to the West. I stopped in the original cathedral of Saint Louis, which stands on the riverbank, hard-by the Arch. I made a little visit to the Blessed Sacrament and said some prayers.

In his drive, Bryson found communion with his own childhood, and with his fellowman, in souvenir shops and diners. But his elegy of the American road, funny as it manages to be sometimes, winds up sounding a note of melancholy and loneliness.

The other way to drive across America is from tabernacle to tabernacle, from humble parish Mass to humble parish Mass, giving God the glory for making you, not a solitary wayfarer on the great ocean of existence, but  a member of the Body of Christ.

No Legions of Angels, But Some Vultures

Last Days of Jesus PBS

Do you think I cannot call upon my Father, and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must come to pass this way? (Matthew 26:53)

We thank God for bringing the Christian people together in church to commemorate all the details of Lord Jesus’ Passion. We praise the Lord for giving us the time and the opportunity to take part in the solemnities of Holy Week, the anniversary of the salvation of the world. And let’s thank each of our guardian angels, too, and all the glorious choirs of angels above, for making our sacred liturgy, here on earth, possible and fruitful.

Now, maybe you found yourself bored one evening this past week, and you did some channel flipping, and wound up watching “The Last Days of Jesus,” on PBS.

We know that weird vultures circle at this time of year, trying to convince us churchgoers that “intelligent people” don’t believe in things like Jesus rising from the dead and ascending into heaven. On PBS, a ‘Bible scholar,’ trying to give us ‘the historical Jesus,’ explained the Passion as a failure. He said, “Jesus expected for God to vindicate him with his legions of angels, and it didn’t happen.”

Now, I like Bible scholars perfectly well. But you have to start by knowing what the Bible says. And we read from St. Matthew’s gospel that Jesus explicitly did not expect legions of angels to save Him from death. Instead, He willingly accepted His Passion, in order to fulfill the Scriptures. What He expected was: to die in agony as the innocent Lamb, offered in sacrifice for all His sinful brother- and sister-human beings.

What the vultures don’t get is: this has nothing to do with naïve vs. critical. We Christians are not some tribe of knuckleheads who don’t know how to read. Faith in the divinity of Christ is the one thing that makes the Scriptures make rational sense. The books make perfect sense to us, because we believe in Him, in Christ, true man and true God. We believe that God died a human death, and rose again. Believing all this doesn’t make us naïve; it makes us consistent; it actually makes us much more reasonable than anyone who proposes to accept one part of the gospels, but not another.

More importantly: our faith in Christ’s divinity hopefully also makes us apostles of God’s love. God, the God we serve, is: Christ crucified, the true God of love.