Thursday, December 26, 2019

Protomartyr Stephen and Staatskirche: By Grace beyond Institution to Zeal!

Gospel for the Feast of St. Stephen (1962) Matt 23:34-39:

"At that time, Jesus said to the Scribes and Pharisees, Therefore, behold, I send you prophets, and wise men, and scribes; and some you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from town to town; that upon you may come all the just blood that has been shed on the earth, from the blood of Abel the just unto the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar. Amen I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem! you who kill the prophets, and stone those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you would not! Behold, your house is left to you desolate. For I say to you, you shall not see Me henceforth until you shall say, Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!"

Praying Matins of St. Stephen, the thought kept recurring, that Saint Stephen was not martyred by others but by his own. His own community stoned him and rejected Christ in doing so.

"For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved." (Matt. 10:20-22)

As for Stephen so for us, faithfulness to Christ takes us nowhere but to Calvary and from there to the right hand of the Father. Such a thought renders institutional talk or thinking maybe problematic and somewhat beside the point. That would seem to apply for all the genuine and good-willed efforts in our blasé Western World to keep Christ in Christmas. The same would apply at this time of year for those rather intense discussion about the role of Church in society and whether the Church isn't, well, losing it... becoming basically irrelevant. St. Stephen's world seems different and certainly more immediate. I do not think that it would be anarchic to insist that Church today cannot be different, that it must serve what amounts to a moment of judgment, a radical parting of ways in favor of the Lord Jesus and His Kingship.

The proposal seems all the more fair, because of the general dissatisfaction reigning clear across the spectrum of possible Church philosophies. Practically no one claims that things are going well for the Church, certainly not as far as Europe and Latin America are concerned. Different people have different takes on just what the problem is. Some people bemoan the loss of an imagined Church vitality from the good old days. They would insist that vitality would return almost automatically with a recovery of the best of our traditions, starting with a liturgical reset. Others refuse to look back and would simply cut the Church adrift, not explaining the logic of their choice which amounts to little more than a Star Trek approach to most anything (dogma, moral, pastoral), you know, daring to go where no one has gone before. If embracing Christ's mission charge from the Mount of the Ascension is indeed constitutive for the Church He founded, then evangelizing, going forth and proclaiming to everyone the Gospel of Christ as it comes down to us from the Apostles must be our raison d'être. Who would be so bold as to give himself or herself a pat on the back in that regard and claim we are succeeding in proclaiming the Messiah, God's Anointed, to the world these days? What serious person on the other hand would cut us loose from that tradition which binds us to the Lord Jesus, born for us and for us given?

Even so, it would be pure romanticism to claim that preaching Christ is best done in conflict with the dominant culture, or under persecution. History would indicate that anarchy as approach is not apostolic. The Church's greatest achievements have come to be in a positive social context and not necessarily in times of adversity. The word which describes us adequately is Christendom. Without pretense the heralds of the Gospel fulfill their mission, be it in green wood or in the dry. At issue would seem to be describing the role temporal power plays or should play in the social equation, for its own sake and for the sake of society, in furthering the mission of the Church.

Did the Church better fulfill its role of leading folks to Christ and into His Heavenly Kingdom in days when hierarchy and monarchy shared the same yoke, pulling the social plow or wagon forward together? Can there be a healthy separation between Church and State without their working at cross purposes and hence to the hindrance of true religion? Where do we find an example of the Church moving freely in accord with its very nature and mission, unrestrained by the temporal powers that be? In a recent interview Cardinal Kurt Koch made the distinction between what he termed a healthy secular stance on the part of the State and secularizing tendencies which are oppressive of Church and lethal for what is often touted as religious liberty. With all due respect for His Eminence, I am at a loss to find a state with a healthy secular stance; it seems to be more of an ideal. 

In the last days, two Swiss news agencies have published articles interviewing priests in Germany exclusively serving the Vetus Ordo, the Old Mass. In one case the priests are of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and serve Swiss communities. In the other, the article reported on an Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Berlin, exclusively dedicated to promoting the Vetus Ordo. None of the groups of faithful served by these priests is gigantic, but all their apostolates are growing, let us say they are reasonably prosperous, and are characterized by a predominant presence of young people and no small number of children. Much was made in both articles of the fact that the priests enjoyed neither state subsidies nor any sort of allotment from the so-called church tax. These men live from the offerings of the people whom they serve. Shouldn't a State with a healthy secular stance be on board with initiatives of this type? Or is it fair to suspect that such subsidies always have strings attached?

I bring this up, because the Oratorian Father from Berlin referred in the NZZ article to the Catholic Church in Germany as a virtual Staatskirche, an institutional Church tied to government, sort of like the Anglican Church in England, the Protestant Churches of the various Nordic Countries, or maybe like the Russian Orthodox Church. Vibrancy or vitality is not a characteristic of any State Church or Staatskirche. These days we can conclude that the thing almost by definition has no heart, is not life giving. Perhaps Staatskirche or some kind of sponsorship by the local noble (St. Bernard of Clairvaux's many foundations) did reflect vital religion in some age gone by. But from a look at today's examples, while it may have pageantry or the like, the term Staatskirche is synonymous with an entity which cannot pretend to have or touch the hearts of people. It has money, but no real draw on the hearts of people. The hay day of State Church is long since past. Generally it seems, people are turning their backs on this particular institutional form of religious expression.

For every St. Stephen, for every Francis of Assisi or Anthony of Padua, who set off to get himself martyred witnessing to the Saracens, God seems to have shown another path, leaving Stephen to shine brightly on the Second Day of Christmas. The sanctoral cycle of the Church calendar is amply populated with confessors, doctors and virgins. They too show us the way, in the midst of contrast or conflict, to let the light shine forth from the manger at Bethlehem. Whether by shedding blood or through their witness of heroic virtue, the saints would seem to disclaim that institutional language hell-bent on making the Church an equal opportunity employer. The narrow gate to Calvary passes another way.

The brightness of Stephen's confession brought joy to his brethren and had the powers that be or their henchmen grinding their teeth and blocking their ears. My hope would be not that my Vetus Ordo friends be visited by adversity from within the Church institutional, but rather that the brethren would find in them reason to rejoice and hope for a new Christendom by grace to be identified by its zeal.


Saturday, December 21, 2019

Glad Tidings to One and All

22 December 2019 – Bruder Klaus
Is 7:10-14
Rom 1:1-7
Mt 1:18-24

Praised be Jesus Christ!

In the opening prayer for today’s Mass we read:

“Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection.”

We recite the same prayer every time we pray the Angelus. Its meaning is clear. Even so, I think that in the context of the Fourth Sunday of Advent we can dig a little deeper into the meaning of that prayer, in terms of our preparation for the great feast of the Nativity of the Lord. I think we should describe this Sunday as a last minute opportunity, now before Christmas, for (if need be?) a course correction in our lives as Catholics.

When I say a “course correction”, what I mean is that we should take this opportunity for an Advent meditation to help us clarify what we as Church are all about in the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. You see: some people just do not understand how God works in the world. When it comes to celebrating the great Feast of the Nativity, some people cannot seem to appreciate much more than the romantic side of the classic carol “Silent Night”, of the Christmas Crib and all. Others rationalize the Christmas story and refuse to accept the implications for their personal lives of the transforming power the Lord’s Birth at Bethlehem. In a sense, you might say that the celebration of Christmas falls short of its goal or intention in the lives of many Catholics. To be terribly provocative, let us say that it is nigh unto impossible to find people in central Europe who allow the Person of Jesus Christ to live in and through their celebration of Christmas and thereby allow Him, the Lord Jesus, to live and reign in their hearts.

We live in a world which calls itself Catholic, but which really does not pray much and which has no personal relationship to Jesus, born of Mary and placed in the manger at Bethlehem. Many people fail to make an effort even to observe the basics, like the 10 Commandments. They ignore the Precepts of the Church. The two greatest commandments, love of God and love of neighbor, just sort of fall by the wayside. With no seeming ties through personal prayer and attention to the only begotten Son of the Father, not much of anything either binds or reassures in the lives of many people today.

We must come to grasp more fully and live more intensely the message contained in the Christmas event: Christ born for us and for us given. Posing a question or two inspired by the Collect of today’s Mass could help us do just that. Which message is it that the Angel brings, regarding the Incarnation of the Son of God? Or maybe better: Which Angel is the prayer talking about? Is it only the Archangel Gabriel, who appeared to Mary at the Annunciation? Might it not also be the Angel, who spoke to the shepherds on that holy night in the fields near Bethlehem, announcing glad tidings and singing with the heavenly hosts “Gloria in excelsis Deo”? Or, from today’s Gospel, is it the Angel of the Lord, who appeared to Joseph in a dream? “…that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel…”

Why for heaven’s sake do I wish to complicate things by going beyond the obvious reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary to whom the Angel Gabriel spoke at the Annunciation? I do it especially because of the Angel’s message to St. Joseph, as recounted in our passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew for today. I do so to make clear that indeed the message of the Angel to Mary concerning the Birth of Jesus, the message to Joseph, the glad tidings announced to the shepherds, are neither hidden nor exclusive, but rather destined for all: for you and me personally, and for all people of good will. A message destined for us too, to set us aside as different and favored by God. “…do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” The sublime unfolds itself in everyday choices, with our cooperation and at our eye level.

Already back in the Old Testament we get the message. In our passage today from the Prophet Isaiah talking to King Ahaz, he being no particular saint but as king representing the Chosen People before God: “Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God… the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” Ahaz balks at the Prophet’s invitation.

        Our tradition tells us that Saint Joseph was an upright man, a good and holy man, a carpenter or handworker. I have no doubt that he was a man who said his prayers, who had a heart for God’s holy will and that it be done in his daily life. For that reason, especially since the time of the industrial revolution, the Church has held up the example of St. Joseph for ordinary folk. Like the carpenter of Nazareth so too we, no matter how lowly our station in life, we too find ourselves intimately involved in God’s plan for the life of the world. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her… When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.”

        From Isaiah again, sinful Ahaz, in a rather self-righteous and indifferent kind of way, wished to push God’s Prophet aside. Godlessness, for all practical purposes was Ahaz’s stubborn sin. Practically living without God, born of the Virgin, is the great sin of our age as well. A sign? “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” Nonsense! The problem is that Ahaz, like so many of our contemporaries, cannot be bothered by the Lord God Who breaks into human history, be it 2000 years ago at Bethlehem or be it by way of Mother Mary at Lourdes or Fatima. Too many folks just do not expect things or signs “as deep as the netherworld or as high as the sky”. Even some of your more active churchgoers cannot seem to get beyond certain institutional forms and attain a genuine personal relationship with that Child laid in a manger. As surely as God sent His Angel to Mary, to the shepherds, or to Joseph, He can enter into our hearts and lives, whether we be waking or sleeping makes little difference. The great event is announced by heavenly messengers to God’s little ones, to ordinary folk like you and me.

        On the one hand, I am sure that neither Mary nor Joseph, and certainly not those poor shepherds, were expecting God or His Angel to speak to them. In much the same way, without any particular pretense, we should live as if it could indeed happen that an Angel could speak to us.

In the end, it would already be a great start if we would not push the prophet away as Ahaz did or that we not be lacking in faith as the father of John the Baptist was. In Luke’s Gospel, just before the account of the Annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel to Mary, we have Gabriel appearing and speaking to Zechariah in the Temple; Zechariah balks at the message of the Angel and has to hold his tongue until the prophecy is fulfilled in the birth of his son, the precursor of the Messiah. Neither Ahaz nor Zechariah could keep God from fulfilling His plan for our salvation.

        Rightly understood, God asks us to partner with Him. As irresistible as His plan for us is, we are still called to respond positively to his invitation and give Him our “yes”. Christmas is at the door, but it is never too late to open our hearts and lives to Him Who comes, never too late for a course correction.

Praised be Jesus Christ!


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Gaudete! Always Rejoice in the Lord!

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. 
Dominus enim prope est.

"Be patient...until the coming of the Lord...Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not complain...about one another, that you may not be judged. Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates. Take as an example of hardship and patience...the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord." (James 5:7-10)

I am wondering if the hard times in which we are living (hard simply by reason of the breakdown of all kinds of structures upon which my generation and perhaps two yet younger generations have come to invest too much confidence) are not part of the grace in me which is incubating a new hope...

For some reason, there are towns and places where I cannot seem to get my bearings. In Bern, I seem to do fine walking around town, even though I could not tell you for sure what the points of the compass, north, south, east, and west, are from most places in town. In other places, like Winona, Minnesota, or the Frankfurt, Germany Airport, I haven't a clue and must blindly follow signs.

Perhaps this is the reason why the word "Ultramontanism" has never made any sense to me. I never seem to be on the right side of which ever mountains are intended. The Alps? At any rate, so much is going wrong in the world, whether in politics or in church circles, that I can shed no tears over the loss of a notion like "manifest destiny", to describe the role of the U.S. in world history, or of some sort of blind dependence on papal protagonism's lead in defining what we believe about ecclesial communion. 

St. Vincent Ferrer, OP, nicknamed "the angel of judgment", presents me with an ever constant challenge to get beyond myself and preoccupation with politics, ecclesial or otherwise. I pray for the burning love which made of him a firebrand for the evangelization of those whose hearts he touched as a wandering preacher and miracle worker.

Pray for me, as I do for you, that we might be able to reclaim our world for the Lord, for He comes!


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Apostolic Zeal and Contemplation

This afternoon I made a hurried read of an article by the ever feisty Peter Kwasniewski, taking on the neo-con establishment's dismissal of all the good folk who embrace the tradition: "I wish someone would explain to the Longeneckers and Weigels of the world that whatever else is going on, nostalgia plays no role in it." 

Dr. Kwasniewski's article goes beyond the usual parry, that traditional liturgy attracts young people and families and hence cannot be simply an exercise in nostalgia. Personally, rather than dismiss nostalgia altogether, I guess I would like to quarter it as a healthy, yes enriching component to life. But I would put the accent on its being a component of something much greater or a part of the pedestal for that something else which should be classified piety or true devotion in matters religious.

Despite the forecast of imminent rain, I decided to try and get in as much of my daily constitutional as weather conditions would permit. I was treated to my first glimpse of snow this year in Bern (at 500 meters above sea level, we are generally below the snow line here in Switzerland). As nostalgia goes, it reminded me of an outing maybe three years later than I stand in the picture above. Dad and I went on a snowy, slushy afternoon before Christmas to downtown Sioux Falls to buy the family's very first black and white TV set, a Magnavox! The blond wood cabinet was more impressive than the picture  tube. The nostalgia surrounding this event defies sorting out. Was it going to the music store for the purchase along with Dad? Was it the slushy snow we trudged through on our mission? Whatever it was, the memory is pegged to certain associations and always draws forth a good feeling about the rightness of certain things in the world, when called forth by slushy downtown streets in my hometown or even in Bern.

I have no intention of breaking a lance in defense of nostalgia, although the Longeneckers and Weigels of this world would seem unjust or overblown in their attempts to give it a bad rap. Rather, I would like to say that what the embrace of the tradition and of traditional liturgy has to offer ought rather to be classified, yes, as piety or true devotion. Apart from my own personal sense or experience of the profound rightness of worship according to the 1962 Missal, as I have experienced it as a bishop celebrating both solemn pontificals and the more restrained Missa Praelatitia, I wish to testify first and foremost to the devotion with which people assist at these Holy Masses.

For me, the absolute game changer is the way they receive Holy Communion. Not only will I decry the hectic of Novus Ordo Communion processions by comparison with Communion at the altar rail, but in distributing Holy Communion I am witness to the extreme qualitative difference between Communion as traditionally given on the tongue and Communion in the hand. Let me put it this way: I have never but never been edified by a person who presents himself or herself for Communion in the hand. Nostalgia is not a component in this equation.

The recovery of the Vetus Ordo with all its intricacies, its Latin, its silences, its absolute orientation is the most people appropriate way to inspire true devotion. I just wish I could always celebrate that way. We live in hope!

My title to this blog entry is a reference to a book I finished recently, Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D. THE WAY OF PRAYER A Commentary on Saint Teresa’s Way of Perfection. Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition. I can recommend it to all who want to give meditation and contemplation another try. Father Gabriel speaks in the book of the Carmelite reform of St. Teresa of Avila as apostolic, as grounded in the apostolate.

By analogy, I would like to see in a reform or recovery or restoration, returning us to the solid ground of the Mass of All Times, that ineluctable and necessary seedbed for the proclamation of the Gospel from the rootedness of a life not so much hidden in Christ as immersed in Him.


Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Immaculata - Younger than Sin, Virgin Undefiled


8. Dezember 2019 – Rheinau 
Fest der Unbefleckten Empfängnis 
der allerseligsten Jungfrau Maria 

Weisheit 8, 22-35
Lukas 1, 26-28

Gelobt sei Jesus Christus! 

Bei der Postcommunio am heutigen Hochfest beten wir: 

„Herr und Gott, das Sakrament, das wir empfangen haben, heile in uns die Wunden jener Schuld, vor der Du die allerseligste Jungfrau Maria vom ersten Augenblick ihres Daseins an auf einzigartige Weise bewahrt hast.“ 

Allein durch das Aussprechen des offiziellen Titels vom 8. Dezember "Fest der Unbefleckten Empfängnis" finden wir uns fast hineinkatapultiert in eine zumindest stark theologische, wenn auch nicht analytische Sprachwelt, durch die ein Bezug zu unserem Privatleben alles andere als einfach ist. Die Unbefleckte Empfängnis bleibt per definitionem ein wenig fremd, wenn wir nicht in die Welt der jüngsten Erscheinungen eintreten, in der sich die Mutter Gottes selbst als die Unbefleckte Empfängnis identifiziert hat. Die andere Möglichkeit besteht darin, das Gefühl anzunehmen, das durch die Begegnung mit diesem grossen Geheimnis der Heiligen Jungfrau in unseren Herzen geweckt wurde. In Bezug auf die Unbefleckte Empfängnis entspringt aus unserem Innersten ein Durst, der wohl nur durch die Poesie gestillt werden kann. Ich kenne viele Prediger, die an diesem Tag dazu neigen. 

Ich bin kein Dichter, aber ich finde Inspiration in der Beschreibung der Unbefleckten Empfängnis durch Georges Bernanos in seinem Roman «Tagebuch eines Landpfarrers». Darin teilt ein älterer Pfarrer den tiefsten Sinn seiner marianischen Spiritualität mit einem jungen Priester. Ich zitiere nur ein paar Sätze aus dem Abschnitt, der eigentlich viel länger ist: 

"Die selige Jungfrau ... Eine Quelle, die so klar und so durchsichtig ist, dass sie nicht einmal die Widerspiegelung ihres eigenen Bildes in ihr sehen konnte, nur zur Freude des Vaters… Der Blick der Jungfrau Maria ist der einzig wahre Blick eines Kindes, der einzig wahre Blick des Kindes, der unsere Schande und unser Elend begegnete. Ja, mein Geliebter, um gut zu ihr zu beten, muss man diesen Blick auf sich fühlen, der kein völlig nachsichtiger Blick ist – weil Nachsicht nicht ohne eine bittere Erfahrung geboren wird, sondern ein Blick des zärtlichen Mitleids, des schmerzlichen Erstaunens, irgendeines unverständlichen, unaussprechlichen Gefühls, die sie jünger als die Sünde macht, jünger als die Nation, aus der sie kam, und obwohl Mutter aus Gnade, obwohl Mutter der Gnaden, ist sie die Jüngste des menschlichen Geschlechtes." 

Bernanos, Georges. Journal d’un curé de campagne (French Edition) (Kindle Locations 2993-3007). Plon. Kindle Edition. 

Die Bedeutung von Bernanos’ Worten ist es, Maria vor die Geschichte zu stellen, vor die traurigen Ereignisse des Paradieses, in denen Adam und Eva ihre Unschuld verloren haben: «jünger als die Sünde, jünger als die Nation, aus der sie kam». Maria, die Unbefleckte wird so zur neuen Eva, Mutter der Gnaden, die Jüngste des menschlichen Geschlechtes». Sie, die zu unserer Rettung mit ihrem Sohn, dem neuen Adam mitwirkt. 

Das heutige Fest, die Bestimmung Mariens, Mutter des einzigen Sohnes des Vaters, des wahren Gottes und des wahren Menschen, des Erlösers der Welt, zu sein, stellt uns daher vor eine doppelte Aufgabe, einerseits katechetisch und andererseits geistlich. Lassen wir uns bei der Betrachtung versuchen, den göttlichen Plan für unser Heil zu verstehen, der durch die Verdienste des Kreuzes Jesu in der Mutter vom ersten Moment ihrer Existenz an zur Anwendung kam. Und dann wollen wir versuchen, eine solche Mutter ohne Makel der Erbsünde zu lieben, der wir von Gott, dem Erlöser anvertraut wurden, der an demselben Kreuz starb. 

Ich erinnere fast jedes Jahr im Katechismus daran, dass es notwendig ist, das Wesentliche des Geheimnisses unseres Festes zu wiederholen. Es scheint, dass der menschliche Geist Schwierigkeiten hat mit dem intellektuellen Bekenntnis, dass im Plan Gottes für unsere Erlösung Maria eine besondere Erwählung zukommt. Manchmal vermute ich, dass der Teufel, der Satan, der Grund für diese Verwirrung, diese Unsicherheit oder das Misstrauen gegenüber diesem ursprünglichen Privileg ist, das der Tochter von Joachim und Anna vor ihrer Empfängnis gewährt wurde. Ich sage der Teufel, denn ein solches Wohlwollen eröffnet uns die tiefe Bedeutung der göttlichen Vorsehung und sie eröffnet uns den Ort für das Heil eines jeden von uns im Plan des Ewigen Vaters, nämlich vom Mutterleib an. Die Ungeheuerlichkeit des Übels der Abtreibung wird im Geheimnis der Unbefleckten noch deutlicher. 

Aus der Sicht unserer Spiritualität, unseres Sinnes für das Göttliche und unseres Platzes in seinem Plan für jeden von uns in dieser Welt, soll die Faszination, die Bernanos von den Augen oder dem durchsichtigen und unschuldigen Blick der Madonna beschreibt, ein Ansporn für unser Herz hin zu Maria und ihrem Sohn sein! 

Es muss gesagt werden, dass der übertragene Ritus, selbst in seiner nüchternen Form der Missa Praelatitia, es uns durch Gottes Gnade ermöglicht, die Erhabenheit Gottes besser zu verstehen. Zudem lädt er uns ein und ermutigt uns, Seinen Sohn durch ein heiliges Leben nachzuahmen. Heute nehmen wir den göttlichen Willen für die Schönheit zur Kenntnis, die wir im Blick Mariens finden: «Mutter der Gnaden, die Jüngste des menschlichen Geschlechtes». 

„Herr und Gott, das Sakrament, das wir empfangen haben, heile in uns die Wunden jener Schuld, vor der Du die allerseligste Jungfrau Maria vom ersten Augenblick ihres Daseins an auf einzigartige Weise bewahrt hast.“ 

Gelobt sei Jesus Christus!