Heroic Priesthood Redux

Check Cathleen Caveny’s review of the Robert Barron video Heroic Priesthood. I think there’s room to poke a bit at the assumptions of the piece, but the consistent tartness of the commentariat also left me wanting.

I have a few young friends in the pre-priest stage, so I’m aware of the basketball set-up among seminaries here in the Midwest. I’m also very aware of the prevalence of the Culture of Sport among modern college students. It doesn’t get any more intense than at an American Division I university. It is part of the very identity of the city in which I live, even among townies who never attended the university or have yet to go off to college. Ms. Caveny asked, “And really: why basketball?” Simple. Inculturation in 21st century America. If it were Rome, it would be soccer. And it is.

Will Fr Barron’s video recruit young men to the priesthood? No. Is the contrast between camaraderie and community a problem? Seems so.

First question first. When colleges recruit students, they are not recruiting young people to careers and vocations. They are advertising the community of the institution. I observed a lot of the materials that swamped the young miss these past few years. You had to look deep past the glossy images to find anything that told you this enclave will form you to be a good doctor, a good business person, a good teacher. Mainly, the recruitment focus, in print and on college tours, was about the quality of life one will experience as a young adult.

I think Heroic Priesthood is a better-than-average presentation of an important slice of seminary life. Many American young adults lean indeed to self-focused rather than community. It’s not a total individualization, and it’s not totally inappropriate. My young friends identify as “Cyclones,” frequently clump together wearing red “uniforms,” and collectively engage in large group social events.

Often, they are also focused on their own fields of study. They crave success and regard from others. They close themselves off to possibilities. They are concerned about how their needs will be met when they interact romantically, academically, and even in the Church. I’ve known more than one person whose four-year mission at the student center was planned out: first year, get involved and get noticed; second, get a key leadership spot; third, live-in peer minister (the apex in some eyes) and then in senior year off to seminary, marriage, or career-starting internship.

Fr Barron is not only a filmmaker, he is now a seminary rector. Our pastor approached him about coming to our campus as a speaker. But he’s focused on his new, and important role as the leader of an important school. Invitation declined. I think Heroic Priesthood is a seminary recruiting tool that derives from the man’s self-image and his position. There’s nothing wrong with that.

What happens with guys once they’ve left the seminary behind and enter the wilds of a messy and dirty Church is another thing. My observation is that the semi-eremitic life of the modern priest presents the Church with a morale problem, especially if there’s been a huge attachment to the semi-monastic life of a seminarian.

Priests are people too. And people need social and human interaction. Praying Mass in red vestments with a totally black background lets the young viewer imagine the details and the people to be filled in. It’s a filmmaker’s artistic prerogative–it’s not a literal representation of the Calvary a young priest might feel interacting with the old, the women, the liberals, and the babies of his first assignment.

I think a problem with seminaries might be the emphasis on the clerical over the apprenticeship model of formation. We know that Baptism and the subsequent vocation to discipleship is better done one-to-one rather than in a classroom. Living the Christian life is not like a college laboratory: lecture, then lab, then report. It’s more like the world: wash, rinse, repeat. You have to practice being a good Christian. Marriage was like that for me. I suspect we’ll get better priests when the guys break out of the seminary walls and mingle with the masses. But the Mundelein rector would likely be the first to tell you his graduates are only starting their formation as priests.

I think Fr Barron’s critics could do well to lighten up. Like many artistic endeavors, this film tells us something of Father Barron, the person. I would be cautious about reading too much theology into it. The public musing about his possible personal careerism are also inappropriate, even if they are true. And if they are, it’s none of my business. Or anyone else’s.


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DPPL 257: The Paschal Meaning of Death

STA altar at night smallWhat does death mean? How do pastoral ministers work with and serve people in grief and pain?

257. It is always necessary to ensure that popular piety is inspired by the principles of the Christian faith. Thus, they should be made aware of the paschal meaning of the death undergone by those who have received Baptism and who have been incorporated into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Rm 6,3-10); the immortality of the soul (cf Lk 23, 43); the communion of Saints, through which “union with those who are still on their pilgrim journey with the faithful who repose in Christ is not in the least broken, but strengthened by a communion of spiritual goods, as constantly taught by the Church” (Lumen Gentium 49):”our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (Catechism 958); the resurrection of the body; the glorious coming of Christ, who will “judge the living and the dead” (DS 150; Roman Missal Creed); the reward given to each according to his deeds; life eternal.


The link of the believer to Christ is well-established in the New Testament (even beyond these two citations above). Paul preached we are joint heirs with Christ. The Nicene Creed emphasizes our relationship with the dead as part of the essence of traditional Christian faith.

The Church is concerned about practices that might be contrary to the paschal character of the final things, or move against what we know as Christians to be true of the Risen Lord.

Deeply rooted cultural elements connoting particular anthropological concepts are to be found among the customs and usages connected with the “cult of the dead” among some peoples. These often spring from a desire to prolong family and social links with the departed. Great caution must be used in examining and evaluating these customs. Care should be taken to ensure that they are not contrary to the Gospel. Likewise, care should be taken to ensure that they cannot be interpreted as pagan residues.

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy is online at the Vatican site.

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Lenten Reflections: No Secrets, and a Mission

stella maris chapel interiorTomorrow, we get a second pause in a long liturgical season of purple. Nine months before Christmas, we start a countdown to the Nativity, and if your parish is on the ball, you might even get to sing the Gloria.

Looking ahead to tomorrow’s readings, I noticed the psalm, the 40th, one line struck me:

I have made no secret of your kindness and your truth in the vast assembly. (40:11)

I profess not to be proof-texting on this, just commenting on that lovely piece from the Psalter. I think it a loss that Psalm 40 was not selected as a Common Psalm in the Lectionary. I think of it as a hymn to discipleship par excellence.

Our faith is no secret from anyone, we tell the Lord. Look over that whole psalm and notice: we get into trouble; we remember God’s deeds for others and for us; we worship; we acknowledge our neediness–and all through that, at the climax of the piece in verse 11, we acknowledge we have never made our regard for God a hidden thing. And that vast assembly? It is nothing less than the entire planet.

The Lectionary puts a stirring mission statement on our lips:

Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.

Mary was prepared, and when God’s messenger announced a plan, she echoed the Psalmist from her tradition–the thread of Psalm 40 is there to be found in the Magnificat. We’ve had five weeks since Ash Wednesday as of this feast. What has this done for us? Have we encountered God? Are we prepared to place our experiences at his feet, then take up our cross and follow? Are we prepared to be pilgrims, as Mary and Joseph were? Are we prepared to give an unconditional yes to God? If not, there are still eight days till the Triduum. No secrets, friends–not between us disciples.

The image above is from the Stella Maris chapel across the lake from St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.

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DPPL 256: The Memorial of the Dead in Popular Piety

STA altar at night smallPraying for the dead is always good:

256. As with the Liturgy, popular piety pays particular attention to the memory of the dead and carefully raises up to God prayers in suffrage for them.

The Church reminds us that we tread in sensitive territory where deceased loved ones are involved. Linking personal observances to the liturgy may provide a good outreach to mourners. I’ve wondered if people are ever provided with a basic version of the Office of the Dead to be prayed at home.

In matters relating to the “memorial of the dead”, great pastoral prudence and tact must always be employed in addressing the relationship between Liturgy and popular piety, both in its doctrinal aspect and in harmonising the liturgical actions and pious exercises.

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy is online at the Vatican site.

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The Conflicts of Columbus

Columbian 50cMax cited Christopher Columbus, and I can’t pass up an opportunity to set the record straight on science, exploration, and Christianity.

As for Columbus – there were many sailors just before his era who were beginning to venture further out on the ocean and make longer trips. They were noticing the curvature of the earth on the horizon and began to theorize that the Bible was wrong about the earth being flat.

Educated persons, Christians and otherwise, all knew the earth was round–this was common knowledge since the ancient Greeks. It is possible, likely even, that flat-earthers existed among sailing folk. The Bible really says nothing definite about the shape of the Earth. This has been a non-starter for most everybody except rationalist-fundamentalists.

Columbus – and other sailors – were testing a theory which was based on evidence. The evidence that the world was probably round could be seen on long sea voyages.

Probably not. The scientific method as such was still to come in Western civilization. The evidence for the round earth was already part of Greek science before Christ.

The people who doubted Columbus were Christians who believed the Bible could not be wrong. Columbus was brave enough to test the theory. But the theory was not based on ‘faith’ – it was based on what appeared to be real evidence that the horizon was a curve.

The people who doubted Columbus were also Christians who thought more for Ptolemy’s findings of the size of the Earth. They had an inkling that Japan and China were much farther west of Europe than Columbus was promoting. The monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella were feeling flush from the Muslim exit from Spain, and they were willing to take a gamble on the Genoan sea captain. Or maybe they were just hoping to be rid of the man.

Like many people of religion, Max brings his own bias to his fervent arguments. It is unfortunate for atheists that so many of them unknowingly promote the bias about dimwitted Christians holding back the tide of truth and science. It’s not that much different from believers who complain about the stupidity of atheists. A Christian or an atheist may well be knowledge or curiosity-challenged. But it’s probably not due to religion or lack thereof.

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Reconciliation Lectionary: Deuteronomy 9:7-19

mary-the-penitent.jpgThe ninth chapter of Deuteronomy presents us with a turning-point moment in the history of Israel, and in the whole history of Judeo-Christian faith. Would God have replaced Abraham as the father of a nation, and put Moses in his stead? That would be an interesting alternate history science fiction piece, don’t you think?

Moses fasted a total of eighty days to avoid being the father of a new people. But he reminds the people with an extended narrative. My thinking is that if this were used for a communal service, the “natural” follow up would be Psalm 95 and perhaps Jesus reminding us of the Greatest Commandment. As a story of social sin, my sense is that this passage is less significant for the individual penitent of form I.

Let’s read:

Remember and do not forget
how you angered the LORD, your God, in the wilderness.
From the day you left the land of Egypt
until you came to this place,
you have been rebellious toward the LORD.
At Horeb you so provoked the LORD
that he was angry enough to destroy you,
when I had gone up the mountain
to receive the stone tablets of the covenant
which the LORD made with you.

With the hindsight of three-plus millennia, those forty years of pilgrimage from Egypt to Canaan don’t seem so bad. But we know from the Torah there was considerable grumbling and fussing from the people.

We all remember Charlton Heston on the mountain, right? I thought the finger of God etching on rock was pretty cool.

Meanwhile I stayed on the mountain
forty days and forty nights;
I ate no food and drank no water.
The LORD gave me the two stone tablets inscribed,
by God’s own finger,
with a copy of all the words
that the LORD spoke to you
on the mountain from the midst of the fire
on the day of the assembly.
Then, at the end of the forty days and forty nights,
when the LORD had given me the two stone tablets,
the tablets of the covenant,
the LORD said to me,
Go down from here now, quickly,
for your people whom you have brought out of Egypt are acting corruptly;
they have already turned aside
from the way I commanded them
and have made for themselves a molten idol.

Moses reminisces about the threat he perceived:

I have seen now how stiff-necked this people is,
the LORD said to me.
Let me be, that I may destroy them
and blot out their name from under the heavens.
I will then make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.
When I had come down again from the blazing, fiery mountain,
with the two tablets of the covenant in both my hands,
I saw how you had sinned against the LORD, your God,
by making for yourselves a molten calf.
You had already turned aside
from the way which the LORD had commanded you.
I took hold of the two tablets
and with both hands cast them from me
and broke them before your eyes.

Moses acts as a priest, making personal sacrifice, and praying on behalf of the people:

Then, as before, I lay prostrate before the LORD
for forty days and forty nights;
I ate no food, I drank no water,
because of all the sin
you had committed in the sight of the LORD,
doing wrong and provoking him.
For I dreaded the fierce anger of the LORD against you:
his wrath would destroy you.
Yet once again the LORD listened to me.

This passage is a deeply visual story of a people who abandoned God to idolatry. Idolatry isn’t always as obvious as a golden image of an animal. Our idolatries today are not always as gross; they can be quite subtle, and masquerade as treasured values.

This passage has less value for me as an object lesson about those sinful Israelites. Unless a preacher can connect the sin of idolatry to a present-day faith community, what’s the point? After all, an examination of conscience isn’t a spectator sport. It is a serious look within. If we aren’t ready to look within, we sure as heck aren’t prepared for the sacrament we profess to love. Or want other people to love.

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DPPL 255: Mass and Office for the Dead

STA altar at night smallLet’s discuss “Other Suffrage,” and what falls under that heading in DPPL 255:

255. The Church offers the sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist for the dead not only on the occasion of their funerals, but also on the third, seventh, and thirtieth day following their deaths, as well as on their anniversaries. The celebration of the Mass in suffrage for the souls of the faithful departed is the Christian way of recalling and prolonging, in the Lord, that communion with those who have crossed the threshold of death. On 2 November, the Church incessantly offers the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the souls of all the faithful departed and prays the Liturgy of the Hours for them.

Outside of religious communities, the Office of the Dead is likely rare–that’s been my experience. Likewise keeping the seven and thirty day observances: modern life in the West is too busy to notice such things. Anniversary remembrances remain fairly common for committed believers. And November 2nd has its followers still.

We do recall the dead at every Mass:

The Church daily supplicates and implores the Lord, in the celebration of the Mass and at Vespers, that “the faithful who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith […] may be given light, happiness and peace” (Roman Missal, EP I).
It is important to instruct the faithful in the light of the celebration of the sacrifice of the Eucharist, in which the Church prays that all of the faithful departed, of whatever place or time, will be brought to the glory of the risen Lord, so as to avoid possessive or particular ideas that relate the Mass only to one’s “own” dead (Cf. GIRM 355). The celebration of Mass in suffrage for the dead also presents an important opportunity for catechesis on the last things.

It is probably a bit more difficult these days not to consider the dead one’s “own,” given the mobility of modern society. Few people are known to a community from birth to old age. Still, it is good for mourners to turn over the care of their departed loved ones to the Lord and the saints. We cannot hold on to those absent from us.

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy is online at the Vatican site.

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