Monday, December 27, 2010

Merry Christmas

The following is an update post:

This was my first Christmas at home for three years, and what a blessing it was!  Though I was plagued with a cold from the moment I got off the plane, it has been a great time.

The first thing was the annual Caroling at the Bay party at my grandmother's house (my first in three years).  There were so many people there, I was amazed.  Grandmother had made wassail, of course.  I was glad of that because I had made wassail with her recipe for the past three years, but I came home to be reminded just how much better the original is.

That was over a week ago.  Since then, I was acting as the deacon at St. Mary's for daily Mass, and actually preached three daily Masses in a row (a thing unheard of at the North American College).  But that wasn't the height of my preaching duties this week:

I was on to preach the 4:30 vigil Mass, Mass at dawn, and Mass during the day for Christmas (as well as deaconing at the Cathedral for Midnight Mass).  Or so I thought...  After the 4:30 Mass, Fr. Tony pulled me aside and asked me to take his place preaching at the 6:30 vigil as well!  It was a real blessing to be able to preach that much, especially on Christmas.

Christmas morning was fun, as usual.  All of my siblings, siblings-in-law, and I do a name swap every year since there are so many of us.  I got my brother-in-law's name this year, and took it as the last opportunity to get some unique Italian gifts for him.  He got a miniature Bocca della Verità and an Italian movie poster for The NeverEnding Story.

My sister-in-law picked my name and got me some great stuff:  a coffee mug covered in Shakespearean insults and an excellent t-shirt from The Princess Bride.

We had a "small" number at Mom and Dad's for Christmas dinner, small meaning only immediate family, which was thirteen or so people (not even all of my immediate family).  I really enjoy visiting grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but I have to admit that a quieter Christmas without the hassle driving from place to place sure was nice.

My family threw a St. Stephen's Day party yesterday.  Dec. 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen, but not this year, since it fell on a Sunday - it was replaced with the Feast of the Holy Family.  Nevertheless, we had a party, and a bunch of family showed up.  We even had another Stephen show up:  Steve Hellman, one of the seminarians of the Archdiocese who will be ordained a deacon in the spring.

It has been a blessing to be home, and I've still got lot's to do before returning to Rome.  Merry Christmas!

Random photo:
The great beard of '06

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Normandy

Earlier this month, I was part of a trio of Mobile seminarians that travelled to Normandy, France.  We saw a whole bunch of very interesting things.

Pat, Travis, and I in Normandy
Having recently visited Sicily, and being intrigued by Norman culture in general, I was looking forward to seeing more classically "Norman" sites, so we saw some old Norman ruins, as well as the Bayeux Tapestry (which chronicles the Norman conquest of England).

Arab-Norman style from Monreale, Sicily
Ruins of Abbaye de Jumièges (back)



















Arab-Norman style
from Cefalù, Sicily
Ruins of Abbaye de Jumièges
(front)











I don't know how apparent it is from my pictures, but there are a lot of similarities between the Norman architecture of France and the Arab-Norman architecture of Sicily.  The most striking difference is the colors of the stone.  In Sicily, pietrarosa (pink stone) is everywhere, while in Normandy, white limestone is in abundance.  Anyway, this stuff is very interesting to me, but we saw other stuff too, which might be more interesting to less "Norman-conscious" people:

We naturally spent a lot of time touring the D-Day beaches, particularly Omaha Beach.

Overlooking Omaha Beach
Visiting the American Cemetery at age 26, I realized in a very profound way that the majority of the graves around me were the graves of men younger than I.


I always was awed by the sacrifice that they made, but only in visiting the place did I realize how young they were.  They gave not only their lives, but their years of youth, for people who lived thousands of miles away.


Another thing I couldn't help but notice is the incredible gratitude felt by the people of the region for the sacrifices of the Allied Forces.  You see it in the people themselves (who are very kind and welcoming--so much for French stereotypes), but even in the scenery.  Most of the damage has been repaired, the wreckage and "hedgehogs" cleared, the churches rebuilt, but certain sites are still maintained with great care.

Craters/ruined batteries at Point du Hoc
In addition, remnants of the Mulberry harbor off Arromanches, bomb craters at Point du Hoc, and scattered ruined German batteries all remain as silent but ominous reminders of the battle fought there.  The D-Day sites were a very powerful element of our trip.

Sunset over a German battery
On our last day we visited Lisieux, home of St. Therese.  She is a beautiful saint from the 19th century, who has so much to teach us about the nature of love: "I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifices to all ecstasies.  To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul."

Pat, Travis, and I at the Basilica of St. Therese of Lisieux
Love is something done in the ordinary, small, and even repetitive things we do throughout the day.  As another Theresa, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta would later say, "do ordinary things with extraordinary love.



Related photo, but subject matter no less random:
Pat and I race around the inside of a crater at Point du Hoc


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Halloween

I've got a couple longer posts in the works right now, but until they're finished, here are some Halloween pictures to entertain you:


Another seminarian and I decided to dress up as Mario and Luigi.  We came up with the idea back in April or May:  it was the perfect plan.  First of all, his name actually is Mario.  Second, we're both the right size to portray the sibling plumbers.  Finally, he normally wears a beard, and I already had the moustache.  So, he was just going to cut his beard into a moustache, and voila: Super Mario Bros.


But, there was a big complication - I shaved my moustache a month before Halloween, and I had [have] no intention of growing it back.  Luckily, the costumes we got came each with a fake moustache.  This just made the act even funnier when we presented our costumes for the NAC costume contest.

Mario proceeded as planned and cut his beard, but to solve my predicament, I just came on stage without facial hair - Mario was aghast, and asked, "how can we save the Princess if you don't have a moustache?" [in the appropriate Italian accent].  I slowly came to the realization that I was lacking the necessary hirsute appendage and also began to panic.  In the hysteria, I reached off stage and found the moustache, which I put on with much ceremony.

We won!

The crowd (seminarians and priests) loved it, especially since everyone around here seems to miss the moustache a great deal.  It was sort of like the farewell party they never got to have.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Sun

There is a great hymn that I have only ever heard on Good Friday at St. Ben's (aka, St. Joseph's Abbey and Seminary College, St. Benedict, Louisiana). It is called "Sunrise to Sunset Changes Now." It was first written (though not in English) by St. Clement of Alexandria, a Father of the Church. In prayer today, the lyrics came back to mind. I decided I ought to share the image.

In our lives, we all experience the gloom. It's not a total darkness, but we all know it in some way or another. For all of us, there is at least some suffering, though for some maybe more than others. We all realize not only the suffering we experience due to the wrongs that are done to us, but we're also very aware (though we might not admit it) of how much suffering we've caused through the wrong we have done to others. (And that's not even to consider the uncontrollable circumstances of the gloom, like sickness or hard economic times.)

Still, we all know joy as well, even if we don't always remember it. We dwell in darkness, but only to a certain extent. There is just enough light perhaps for us to trip and stumble if we don't have a guide.

We live in a kind of grey-ness, but what sort of grey is it? Is it dusk or is it dawn? Here's where the hymn comes into play:

Sunset to sunrise changes now,
for God doth make his world anew;
on the Redeemer's thorn-crowned brow
the wonders of that dawn we view.


E'en though the sun withholds its light,
lo! a more heavenly lamp shines here,
and from the cross on Calvary's height
gleams of eternity appear.


Here in o'er-whelming final strife
the Lord of life hath victory,
and sin is slain, and death brings life,
and earth inherits heaven's key.

Before Jesus came among us, before God became Man and gave himself for us, our state was that of sunset. The day was headed steadily into night. Our existence, originally intended to be lofty, was speeding toward total darkness, and without the great divine intervention, we were without hope. Through our Original Sin, we did our very best to thwart God's original intention for us.

But He does not give up so easily.

Night was coming fast, and we were caught in the near perfect gloom. But then, in what seemed like defeat, in that moment wherein His human life was extinguished, our truly human life was given back. Sunset was changed into sunrise. Now, we are still waiting in a grey world, but it's the grey of dawn, not of dusk. The sun was so near to sinking with great finality, but now the Sun is about to rise (or rather He IS risen!) and the night will be clear as day.

"You are not in darkness, that the day should catch you off guard like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and of the day. We belong neither to the night or to the darkness." (1 Th 5:4,5)

Indeed, when that Day shall come in all its fullness, the words of Revelation will ring truer than ever: "They shall see the Lord face to face and bear his name on their foreheads. The night shall be no more. They will need no light from lamps or the sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever." (Rev 22:4,5) Just like the hymn says: Lo! a more heavenly lamp shines here! The Cross is the new dawn of the human race.  Just imagine what the day will be like...

Back to the irrelevant photos:
Well, it's not a great photo, but it's the only one I've got of the whole band:
my dad, my three brothers, and me.  This is from our family's celebration of my grandma's 80th birthday.
I've also realized that for a blog entitled "Keytar Catholic," there aren't many pictures of said instrument.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What to Write About...

...when there are so many things to choose from?

The past week has been full of terribly significant events:

  • I showed Rome to my family after 3 years of keeping it to (mostly) myself.
  • After seven years, I shaved my moustache.
  • I was ordained a deacon. ... That deserves reiteration:  I received the Sacrament of Holy Orders!
  • I was ordained, with my class, at St. Peter's in Rome!
  • My uncle, also a deacon, vested me.
  • I left tears on the floor of St. Peter's during the Litany of the Saints.  (It's not like I could wipe my eyes.)
  • I preached a real homily for the first time.
  • I proclaimed the Gospel (three times thus far).
  • I can and have blessed things.
  • I had the privilege of accompanying my grandmother to her ancestral home and visiting the church where my great-grandfather was baptized.
So, let's pick one:  Proclaiming the Gospel (interspersed with photos from the whole week)

The first time I proclaimed the Gospel was with part of my family group during the scavi tour at St. Peter's. The scavi are the excavations below the Basilica that delve down around and into the tomb of St. Peter himself.  Our tour guide, a seminarian from the great Diocese of Brooklyn, usually reads a passage from Gospel at the end of the tour, in the presence of the bones of Peter.  He was about to start when I asked him if I could do it, since I was just ordained a deacon and had not yet proclaimed the Gospel.  He said sure.


Me with Mom and Dad - prior to cutting the moustache
(obviously)

So, I began (and this was cool), "the Lord be with you."  That was the first time I had said those words and the people (my family!) responded.  Then I went on, "A reading from the Holy Gospel according to John."

The reading was from John 21.  I taught a class this summer on the Gospel of John, so I have been pondering this passage and indeed the whole structure and theology of the 4th Gospel for a few months now.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." He then said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, "Do you love me?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." (Jesus) said to him, "Feed my sheep. Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.

Litany of the Saints:
I'm 2nd from the left.

I almost couldn't finish it.  I don't know if those present understood why, but I was moved to tears for so many reasons.  I can't deny that one of the factors was realizing in the midst of reading that it was the first time that I would proclaim the Gospel of Christ, the very thing which had been handed over to me the day previous by Bishop Hebda.  The good news has been given to us for our own good and salvation, but also it is given to us precisely to share with others.  I was, in that moment, doing precisely that - handing on what had been entrusted to me.  But that wasn't what did me in...

Laying on of Hands by Bishop Hebda

Like I said, I've been pondering the 4th Gospel a lot, but ever since I visited the Holy Land two years ago, the story of Peter has spoken to me in a particular way.  This passage marks the reconciliation of Peter and Jesus after Peter's denial - a threefold denial deserves a threefold reconciliation.  And the reconciliation is not expressed in terms of satisfaction, of making up for the wrong Peter had done.  It's all in terms of love.  Since you love me Peter, then this is what you will do.  I am the Good Shepherd, but I'm trusting you to feed my sheep.  And that's just what happened.  Still, it's not what got me so emotional...

Just after receiving the Book of the Gospels:
"Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald
you have become.  Believe what you read,
teach what you believe, practice what you teach."

Remember, we were there at the tomb of Peter, which itself is very near the spot where he was crucified.  Here I was proclaiming the words of Jesus to Peter prophesying the events that would later take place right where we were standing.

Newly Ordained!

At the words, "but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands," I started to crack.

When I read, "and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go," I had to stop speaking for a second and attempt (in vain) to regain my composure.  Not 24 hours prior to this, I was upstairs in the same Basilica being dressed by someone else.  I've always felt a strong connection to St. Peter, but never like it was at that moment.

Offertory Procession:
I'm third from the front.
Offertory Procession:
had to include this shot.



















Finally, I read, "He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God."  These words barely made it out of my mouth, and in fact, may not have been comprehensible.

Irenaeus (who was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John - not irrelevant) says, "the glory of God is man alive."  This means (ha! to presume to define what this means in a couple sentences!) that when we are truly living, when we are who we were created to be, this gives glory to God.  Peter, who the night before Jesus died was yet incapable of glorifying God and in fact denied Him, later gave over his living completely to God and the Church, finally to glorify God by his holy death.  His death was a witness to and a joining in the suffering of his Lord and Brother Jesus Christ.

And there we were right where it had happened.

There I was, hoping to glorify God with my life as well, reading (rather, proclaiming) to my family the story of one who had glorified God.  I was telling the story of one who was a friend of He who was lifted up and taught us how to Glorify God.  

Love for life did not deter them from death.

Preaching for the first time
at St. Lawrence Outside the Walls
The two Deacons Vrazel at St. Lawrence:
Uncle Bill vested me the day before.



















Martyrdom is not just a sacrifice of one's life for others; it's not just an instinctive falling on the grenade, however noble and good such an action is.  Martyrdom is nothing short of entering into the Glory that Jesus Christ, the Son, gives to the Father.  Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he rightly considered himself unworthy/incapable of doing what Jesus did, but I wonder if in that moment Peter realized that we (myself, my family, millions of other people, you reading this) would see what he did and see in it the Glory of God.

Everything came into sharp clarity at that moment.  The dawn from on high was shining upon us.  I was given a glance into the whole reason why anyone would care to come to Rome, would care to dig around in those humid tunnels, would build such a huge church above them - in moments of such intense clarity, I don't think I can but weep.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ordination

I was just ordained a deacon yesterday at St. Peter's in Rome, and today preached at my Mass of Thanksgiving.  It has been an awesome week, and new posts are coming to tell all about it!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Moustache Gone

That's right.

Here's a very relevant photo taken this evening:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nostalgia in the Oddest Ways

Back three weeks ago now, I was back at home spending time with my family before I came back to seminary.  It was a blast.  I loved being with my parents and my brothers and sisters.  A particular joy was in watching and playing with my nieces and nephews.

One of my nephews had just picked up a habit that I dropped a long time ago.  It was the subject of much discussion, both around the dinner table and on into the evening.  My little nephew, pushing two years old, is refusing to swallow his food.  He will sit for more than a couple minutes with a bite of food in his mouth and will not let it go down his throat.

I used to do this as well.  Not just when I was a toddler.  I still have memories, not so much of holding food in my mouth, but of sitting at the dinner table, long after everyone else had left, with a plate of half-eaten and long cold food in front of me that I refused to eat.  They are vague memories.  Maybe I was four, possibly five years old.  I still remember my mom threatening to and then actually setting the timer. That was usually pretty intense.  Only later did I find out that while she said it was five minutes, she actually gave me ten.

My parents never gave up the fight, even though I did this regularly.  Every time I refused to eat, they were more stubborn than I.  They remained the adults in the situation.  Eventually I learned to eat what was given to me.  To this day, I eat every bit of food on my plate, and I'm willing to try almost anything.  It really annoys me when I see other people leaving food on their plate, or even refusing to eat perfectly good food because of this or that ingredient that they "don't like."  I can't imagine categorically "not liking" a type of food.  Even if I did, I would probably still eat it.  I think that something would have to legitimately taste like dirt for me to pass it up.  Seriously, it confounds me that people will simply refuse to eat things like peas, or tomatoes, or onions.  Those are all really good!

I don't know if there's anything in particular I'm trying to say here.  I just like peas and Brussels sprouts, even though I used to hate them.  Do your kids a favor--make them eat their food.  (I know that's funny coming from me, who will never be a parent, but still, I'm living proof that making your kids eat their food yields grown ups who are able to appreciate a wide variety of foods without prejudice...I'm just saying.)

By the way, Swan Lake is a fantastic piece of music.  I've never been to a ballet, and I'm not really drawn to go, but if I ever had the chance, I would go to see Swan Lake.  (I'm listening to it right now as I write this post.)


Yet another picture:
It snowed in Rome last year!

I don't usually post links, but a good friend of mine, also to be ordained in a couple weeks, also has a blog.  He posted this at the end of our week long workshop on marriage counseling.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Profession and Oath Videos

Here are a couple youtube videos of the Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity.  I say my name at 1:15 and 1:07, respectively.

Profession of Faith

Oath of Fidelity

Monday, September 20, 2010

Oath

This past Saturday evening I took the first oath of my life.  Before being ordained (and also before taking up various different offices in the Church), one must publicly make a Profession of Faith and swear an Oath of Fidelity.

It was very cool and very real to stand up before the seminary community and say aloud the following words:

PROFESSION OF FAITH

I, Stephen Vrazel, with firm faith believe and profess everything that is contained in the Symbol of faith: namely:

I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.  I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.  I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

With firm faith I believe as well everything contained in God's word, written or handed down in tradition and proposed by the church--whether in solemn judgment or in the ordinary and universal Magisterium--as divinely revealed and called for faith.

I also firmly accept and hold each and every thing that is proposed by that same church definitively with regard to teaching concerning faith or morals.

What is more, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate when they exercise the authentic Magisterium even if they proclaim those teachings in an act that is not definitive.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

OATH OF FIDELITY

I, Stephen Vrazel, in assuming the office of deacon, promise that in my words and in my actions I shall always preserve communion with the Catholic Church.

With great care and fidelity I shall carry out the duties incumbent on me toward the Church, both universal and particular, in which, according to the provisions of the law, I have been called to exercise my service.

In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church, I shall hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety; I shall faithfully hand it on and explain it, and I shall avoid any teachings contrary to it.

I shall follow and foster the common discipline of the entire Church and I shall maintain the observance of all ecclesiastical laws, especially those contained in the Code of Canon Law.

With Christian obedience I shall follow what the Bishops, as authentic doctors and teachers of the faith, declare, or what they, as those who govern the Church, establish.  I shall also faithfully assist the diocesan Bishops, so that the apostolic activity, exercised in the name and by mandate of the Church, may be carried out in communion with the Church.

So help me God, and God's holy Gospels on which I place my hand.


a picture - it's not related to the post:
Gothic Quarter dead ahead

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ninth

I am beginning my ninth year in seminary.  Where I'm sitting right now, it really feels as long as it sounds.  It feels like an eternity since my family moved me into my room at St. Ben's eight years ago.  It feels like ages ago I pulled up at the front door of TC, but it's only been six years.  Even the three years since my plane landed in Rome seems like a long time.  This has been a long process.

I've changed a lot in that time, thanks be to God.  I realize that much of that change is simply parallel to growing up, but it's nice to look back and see God walking with me, leading me to where I am now and beyond.

Beyond!  That's all I can think about.  After yet another taste of parish ministry this summer and realizing that all I really want to do is serve as a priest, coming back to seminary for one more year is kind of testing my patience.  I made the comment to one of my classmates today that I'm considering this final "deacon" year as a mere formality.  I can't wait to get back and start whatever it is God has planned for me.

But then, as I was praying today it hit me pretty hard that even this formality year is a gift from God.  I'm full-speed-ahead regarding the priesthood, and I would probably start tomorrow if it were possible, but for whatever reason, God wants me here right now.

The Lord already has a willing servant--maybe he wants me to work on becoming more of a holy servant.  There's no sense in being excited about ministry in the future if I'm forgetting holiness in the present.  I am here right now, so I'm just going to work on doing that well.

unrelated photo:
Asleep on a bus in the Eastern Desert

Monday, September 6, 2010

An Apology for Newton/Amazing Grace

Amazing grace how sweet the sound 
that saved a wretch like me...

"Hold it.  This song refers to human beings as wretches.  That's not okay.  It's obviously a protestant understanding of grace.  Throw it out.  It is of no use to a Catholic.  In fact, it's anti-Catholic."

I've heard this before, albeit not in as many words, from many people in the Church, and it has never sat right with me.  But, it always seemed to me that they had a point, so I wasn't going to argue.  In fact, it can be understood from the point of view of total depravity of man, that man is absolutely worthless, that man is fundamentally wretched...

...but then I realized that there's more than one way to understand it.  And that's okay.  It is in fact not an obviously protestant understanding of grace.

First, context is ever relevant.  We ought to know a bit about the author of the hymn, John Newton.  He was an English sailor involved in the slave trade, who later converted and studied theology and became a pastor (yes, a protestant pastor).  The song, while not directly a reference to giving up the slave trade, clearly springs out of Newton's own personal experience.  I think that this tells us a lot about the word "wretch," as employed by Newton.

As for the word itself, the last I checked, "wretch" is not a theological term.  Since this is poetry we're talking about, it is open to mean a whole range of things, including yes, a totally depraved pile of refuse.  But it can also simply mean a sinner.  It could mean one who is in a wretched state or one who is very unhappy or misfortunate (which is actually the common usage).  Why would we immediately jump to think that "wretch" is intended to imply a Calvinist total depravity?  What on earth points us in that direction?  Nothing that I can see.

But furthermore, even if Newton intended "wretch" to imply total depravity, why does that mean that when I use it, I also have to mean total depravity?  I think that the hymn is beautiful, and if we understand "wretch" to mean "sinner," then it's perfectly okay from a doctrinal standpoint.

If we are to read into "wretch" the idea of total depravity, then perhaps we should do the same to this passage from Augustine:

In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.

Are we to conclude from the word "unloveliness" that human beings are totally worthless wretches?  Is Augustine denying that his being is fundamentally good in that he's made in the image and likeness of God?  I think not.  I think rather that Augustine is making a point about God's loveliness--he had just before referred to God as "Beauty ever ancient, ever new."   In the same way, Newton is saying something about God's forgiving and redemptive grace, grace which is in fact an amazing gift to us who were found in a sad state (wretchedness of a sort).  We shouldn't be afraid to sing his beautiful hymn.

Oh, but wait - if we sing further on we come to this line:

How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

"Wait a minute!  Grace does not depend on my believing in it.  It is not my action that brings about my salvation.  This line is way off!"

...Okay, that's true, grace doesn't depend on belief, but if we slow down and read the words we'll see that the song doesn't make that claim either.  If we ignore the first few words of the line, then yes indeed, it becomes problematic:  "...grace appear[ed] the hour I first believed."  However, the words "How precious did that" are important qualifiers.  They're actually pretty vital to the meaning of the sentence.

It's not saying that there was no grace until I believed, that grace suddenly appeared in that moment when I accepted the Truth (which would be incorrect, because grace is not dependent upon my acceptance of it or my belief in it).  It's saying that when I believed I became aware of the grace and it appeared to me precious.  We can return to our good friend Augustine and see almost this exact same kind of exclamation in the words "Late have I loved thee, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new."  Augustine is lamenting that it had taken so long for him to realize that only God can satisfy his longings.  ("Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.")  He doesn't mean (and no one would suppose that he would mean) that God's Beauty is dependent on his own late arriving love for God.

Just so, John Newton is making no assertion whatsoever that grace only appeared at the moment of belief.  (Or if he is, he's doing a pretty poor job of it by choosing these words.)  He's saying that at that moment, when he finally saw the grace for what it is, it appeared to him precious--a Beauty ever ancient, ever new.  I think that John Newton's own realization of his place before God was not that dissimilar to Augustine's.  However, please don't overreact against me for comparing the faith experience of a protestant to one of the great Latin doctors of the Church.  The only thing I know about Newton are the lyrics of this song, so if I'm somehow deeply wrong in this comparison, mea culpa.

Looking at the words themselves, I see no reason to exclude this hymn from Catholic use.  I've seen people get very bent out of shape over this line, and that's really quite amazing.  Simply paying closer attention to the words makes the problem go away entirely.  It is a non-issue.

An unrelated photograph:
I wanted to see the Globe Theatre,
but all they had was this replica.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Monica

"Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern.  One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be."
-words of St. Monica from the Confessions of St. Augustine

Since I've just recently discussed St. Augustine, I think it's fitting to say something about his mother, St. Monica.  The day before Augustine's feast is her own.  The Church has seen fit to pair them liturgically.

I alluded in my previous post to the many twists and turns that Augustine's life took before his conversion.  Well, through all those many paths that Augustine lived, Monica was praying for him to turn to the Lord.  If we attribute greatness to Augustine as a saint, bishop, and doctor of the Church, then we must also give great credit to Moncia whose prayers for Augustine were certainly efficacious.

However, the conversion of Augustine--and Monica's place in it--though a beautiful story, is not what I want to discuss.  The reason I bring up St. Monica at all is the quote above.  Monica prayed for Augustine all through his life, and then, at the end of her life, she requested the same of him.  She prayed for his conversion, then asked him to pray for her after death.  (By the way, if anyone needs proof that the 5th century Church professed a belief in purgatory, here it is in this passage.)

This strikes me as relevant to an issue that comes up surrounding the loss of loved ones.  When someone we love dies, we want to say that he or she is in a better place.  We knew him very well, and we know he's in heaven.  Yet, had we asked that person before he died if he wanted our prayers, would he not have answered "yes, please do"?  Even the holiest among us, like St. Monica, would request that we pray for their souls after their death.

Now, let me make something clear - I don't think that we should pray for the dead out of fear for the dead of hell or purgatory.  Fear is a very twisted motivator.  Instead, we should pray for the dead out of hope in the mercy and love of God.

Is it right for us to hope that our beloved dead are in heaven--you bet.  However, should we, because of that hope, fail in our Christian duty to pray for the deceased--absolutely not!  Yet many of us tend to believe that those we love were so good, so virtuous in life, that we don't need to pray for them.  Whom is this desire to immediately canonize our beloved dead intended to benefit?

I think it's just a way for us to preserve our memory of the deceased as unblemished, that is, it's something that makes us feel better about what's going on.  But what good is that to the deceased?  And besides, I think it is a far healthier way of grieving to turn our efforts and energy to loving the deceased through praying for them rather than endlessly eulogizing on how wonderful they were.  Don't get me wrong--they were in fact wonderful, but the wonders that await them when they are reunited with Our Lord are far more worth celebrating, hoping for, and praying for than simply honoring their memory.  The deceased have a future.  If in our grieving we only recall the past, perhaps we have in fact forgotten our beloved dead.


unrelated pic:
hard at work

Augustine

Saturday was the feast of St. Augustine.  I probably would have posted then, but I was on an adventure and away from the computer.

Adventure on the Mississippi

As I prayed the Office of Readings for the day (part of the Liturgy of the Hours), I came across a very famous line of Augustine:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!

It really is a beautiful passage.  It is from his Confessions, and it expresses so much emotion and love, yet also sounds a certain note of regret.  Augustine lived a wild life that twisted along many paths before he came to his conversion.  Now here he is wondering at God and being totally immersed in God's love such that he is returning it.  This quote is rightly famous.

But this time I was struck instead by the line that immediately follows it, something I don't think I had ever noticed:

You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.

I can't imagine that there is anyone out there who cannot identify with these words in some way or another.  Who doesn't search for his happiness in the wrong places?  Who is there that doesn't fail to recognize their own worth and dignity?  We go out and find things to fill ourselves up with.  Whether we fill ourselves up with stuff (greed), with food (gluttony), with sex (lust), or even with our own distorted self-image (pride), we're doomed to failure.

But God doesn't leave us alone.  He comes after us.  He shatters the feeble defenses we put up against him.  Augustine concludes with these words, and I won't give any further commentary:

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.  
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.  
You breathed your fragrance one me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.  
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.  
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.


A photo of something else:

Capturing a sweet photo down the spiral staircase at
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Today's a Good Day

Today, my nephew was baptized.  His name is Nicholas Karol--Karol after Karol Wojtyla, that is, John Paul II.  In honor of his baptism, I'm posting a practice homily I gave a year ago.  It was assigned as a homily for a baptism, so I've placed Nicholas' name in place of the fake names I had originally used.  (Actually, the names I used were those of my younger brother and sister!)  So here's the "homily:"

Some people will talk about faith as “looking for God.”  They say that when we all come together on Sundays, we’re coming together as a group to “search for God.”  God is hard to see in our world, so it makes sense on a certain level that we’ve got to look hard, and help each other out.

But, this is a flawed understanding of faith, at least, it’s the flawed understanding of our faith.  If religion is only about us looking for God, then it means God is just sitting around somewhere waiting to be found.

But that’s not the case!  We do look for God, and it’s good that we look for him, but the exciting truth is that God is looking for us!  That is to say, God is the one who saves us, not the other way around.  It’s not our responsibility (nor is it possible) for us to go and find him on our own.  He comes running to us, outpouring His love and His grace.

That’s what today is about.  There are Christians that think that it’s a bad idea for infants to be baptized because as infants, they don’t understand what’s going on—they’re just infants.  They can’t speak for themselves, they can’t even ask for Baptism.  Shouldn’t we wait until they are older?

Well, if Baptism were about what we do, then yes, they would be right.  But Baptism, primarily, is not about what we do.  It's not primarily about what the baptized is able to do or able to say.  Baptism is about what God does for us.

So what’s happening today?  God is about to do something--something huge.  Through the outward sign of water, God is going to cleanse Nicholas Karol of original sin, make him a member of the Body of Christ, make him a child of God.

The Father is, right now, running out to welcome him into his household, just as he ran out rejoicing to each one of us at our Baptism.  Baptism is our re-birth, and God is our Father.  What father is not overjoyed at the birth of His children?

He would do the same things for Nicholas Karol if he were an adult, and it would be just as beautiful. The only difference is that Nicholas' parents and godparents are accepting the responsibility of teaching their child the Faith, rather than leaving it to him.  You see, when adults are baptized they have to go through months of classes and preparation, so that they understand what’s going on and can worthily request it.  But for Nicholas Karol, all of that preparation will take place in the coming years, as his parents and godparents lift him up in prayer and guide his development and understanding as a Christian.

I’ve heard people speak with regret before, saying that they don’t remember their baptism because they were only a baby.  I say to that, how can you possibly regret it!?  Sure, you don’t remember the moment, but you don’t remember the moment of your natural birth either.  Think of the great gift that your parents requested for you from the Church and from God.  Think of how much God loves children.  Think of how happy He, God, was on the day of your Baptism.  Think of the tears that welled up in His eyes as he welcomed you, his precious creation.  Think of the saints and angels rejoicing as the waters cleansed you.

The same thing, all of it, the saints, the angels, the tears, the love, the grace:  that’s all happening right now for Nicholas Karol.  Today’s a good day.

Another unrelated photo:
I'll bet the people that work at this gift shop
really hate having to listen to the patrons
try out the didgeridoo.  Too bad.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Irenaeus

St. Irenaeus is a Father of the Church and a martyr of the early Church.  He is the disciple of St. Polycarp, who himself is the disciple of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist:  2 degrees of separation from the Beloved Disciple!  He also happens to be a patron saint of the Archdiocese of Mobile--how sweet is that!?

Anyway, one of his ideas has been coming to mind over and over again this week, an idea I can't shake.  I thank God that I can't shake it.  This has probably been helped along by the fact that I'm reading von Balthasar right now.  Here it is:

“For the Father is incomprehensible;
but in regard to His love, and kindness, and as to His infinite power,
even this He grants to those who love Him, that is, to see God.”
(Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.5)


God really is infinite, totally beyond our understanding.  Our human minds cannot wrap themselves around Him - he really is incomprehensible.

NEVERTHELESS, the Father fully reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We believe this, but how can he reveal himself to us if we can't possibly comprehend him?  Irenaeus claims that while our mind can't get God, it is through God's Love for us that we can know him.  It is through our reciprocating his love for us that we are able to "see God." Paradoxically, God is too incomprehensible to be seen, but at the same time, too loving not to be seen.

That's why the fullest expression of Love is something that we cannot fully understand with our minds:  Christ's sacrifice on the Cross really does remain a "stumbling block" and an "absurdity" (1 Cor 1:23) to the human mind.  At the end of the day, it shouldn't "make sense" to us that God deigned to become man in the flesh and then gave his life.  That's why we sometimes call it the scandal of the cross.  Sure, there is a lot of theology to learn having to do with the Cross, but our mind cannot understand the Cross; only love can.

Jesus gives his life for us in the fullest expression of the greatest Love. At a certain point, we have to stop trying to understand the Cross, and start simply accepting the Love that's being shown to us.  There's a reason that being a theologian doesn't automatically make someone a saint--knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing God.  Knowing about God is an act of the intellect, but knowing God is an act of Love.

In revealing himself to us, God doesn't rip our minds apart trying to fit his inifinitude into our limited existence.  He loves us and wants us to know him.  So, we can say with St. John (Irenaeus' grandfather in the faith) that "Love consists in this, not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins."  (1 John 4:10)

Isn't it awesome that even though God is completely Other from us and completely beyond our understanding, he still found a way for us to see him?  He still jumps into our selfish existence and surprises us with the true extremes of Love.  This is what's on my mind right now.  Feel free to comment.

Irrelevant Photo:
Roll Tide Roll!  Football season is nearly upon us!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Analogy

Put yourself in the following scenario:
(Nota bene:  this is not a memoir.  It's absolutely based in reality, but it never actually happened to me.)

I'm 4 years old.  I'm playing in the grass with some toys.  I'm having a pretty good time.

Everyone else is in the pool.  I don't want to get in the pool.  I don't know how to swim.  I'm perfectly happy where I am.

But then Dad comes over.  "Why don't you come in the pool with us?  Don't you want to have fun like everyone else?"

I think to myself:  Seriously Dad, there's no way that gasping and panting for air as I try to tread water would be more fun than this Tonka dump truck I'm safely enjoying here on terra firma.  "No!"

"Are you SURE???  We're having a lot of fun in the pool without you."

I just stare at the grass:  Not a chance.  Why don't you go back to the pool and get water stuck in your ears.  I'm staying right here.

So he leaves me alone...

My parents' pool in Mobile

But then, tomorrow comes, and the same routine ensues:

"Don't you want to come and have fun with us???"

Luckily, I'm old enough to be able to express myself perfectly by rolling my eyes.  This guy just won't quit.

And he doesn't quit.  Next thing I know, he has picked me up and put me right on the edge of the pool.  He jumps in and puts his hands out waiting.

Are you kidding me Dad?  You think I'm going to jump in?  I was perfectly content kicking a ball around in the grass, and you ruined that.

So, we stare at one another.  Or rather, he stares at me while I look back and forth between the blue water and the green grass.  (Maybe I'd feel differently if I would keep my eyes on him.)  Every now and then he tries to encourage me to jump with some words or vague promises of a popsicle or whatever, but mainly it's a standstill in this battle of wills.  There I am perched upon the edge of something.  There's a decision before me.  Do I just run away back to the grass, or do I cave in to my dad's desire for me and take the plunge?  Everybody else is in the pool, and they're all so good at swimming.  They're diving in, swimming underwater, splashing, and wrestling--that's all fine and good for them, but if I were to try, let's be honest, I would drown right away...

Little do I know that with a little effort, and a little trust, I too could be having so much more fun in the pool than I ever had running around in the grass.  Little do I know that Dad will not let a thing happen to me that I can't handle.  Sure there will be some gasping, but that's the price to pay to enter this new world of adventure and fun.  Little do I know that as soon as I get in and begin to trust it will totally change my entire life.  I will value things differently.  I won't care as much about the Tonka truck, nor the ball, nor the grass.  I will want to spend every waking moment swimming in the pool.  It really will be just as good as Dad says, if not better.

But I can't know those things yet.  I haven't even gotten my feet wet.  So I look around at the people in the pool and see a bunch of crazy people who possess something I think I don't want, something I think is the opposite of what will fulfill me.

So, here I come back to the decision.  I can either run away or jump in.  I can stay comfortable or I can cast myself out into the deep.  I can remain in my own limited space, or branch out and fundamentally alter how I live my life.  What's it going to be?

Photo non apropos:
Stalking prey in Barcelona

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Called to Orders

8 years of seminary have elapsed.  Numerous milestones have been passed.  A handful of degrees have been earned.  Many countries and continents visited.  Countless books read.  Numberless hours of prayer (not nearly all my own).  Tears shed.  Smiles bared.  Laughter bellowed.  All of this in a certain direction.

I've felt for a while that God is calling me to be a priest, but now, the Church agrees.  This past Thursday, Archbishop Rodi called Travis Burnett and I to the Order of Deacons.  Let's do this.

Travis and I at a crusader church in Spain.

Farewell OLOG

When I get back to Rome in September, or even over the next few weeks here in Mobile, I know that I will be asked repeatedly:  "How was your summer?"

Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Wetumpka, AL
- lots of room for expansion! 

It's a real shame that in those many moments I won't have the opportunity to communicate fully what my summer was like.  I won't be able to express just how important and good this summer has been for me (not to mention that I haven't realized that myself yet).  I'll be limited to just saying, "Oh, it was excellent.  I worked with the youth, and I served Mass, and I did some teaching, and I visited people, and brought the Eucharist to people, etc."  I don't mean to down play those things of themselves.  They are all good things, but experience has taught me that they are so good it makes me want to cry just thinking about them.  That's what I think get's lost in the telling.

When I tell people that I did a lot of work with the Lifeteen group, images of Praise and Worship or maybe this or that game might come to mind, but they won't be privileged to see the things that I'm remembering.  I was amazed to see hundreds of teens adoring the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament at Camp Covecrest, but I was totally floored to see the faithfulness and persistence of just a handful of teens who came week after week to the parish to do the same thing.

When I tell people that I taught a scripture course, they might picture me teaching in a room full of people, each with their Bibles open, but they won't see what I saw.  I appreciate John Chrysostom, but to watch eyes widen and jaws drop as I read his explanation of the water and blood flowing from the side of Christ in the 4th Gospel:  that's how I know he is a Father of the Church, and a much better teacher than I.

When I tell people that I visited the elderly and homebound this summer, they might have a vague picture of that, but they won't see what I see in my mind.  They won't see Ed's smiling face, with his great sense of humor.  They won't hear the quivering voice of Mary, an Alzheimer's patient, as she tries in vain to remember who I am or what she's doing there in the first place.  And, they won't see her cheer up a little bit as she recognizes the Hail Mary, even though she can't remember most of the words.  Clara's voice won't come to mind for them either:  Clara is completely deaf, though she's sharp as a tack.  I'm pretty sure that her faith in the Eucharist is ten times my own.  What a privilege it has been to bring the Body of the Lord to her and to so many others (not just this summer).

Only I will remember those things as I lived them.  I said that was a shame above, but really it's not.  It's not a shame because everyone is given special gifts and blessings from God.  Everyone is part of God's plan.  Everyone is given chance after chance to serve him and to be shocked and awed by the wonders he will not fail to work when we just say yes.

Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the parish

It's funny, as I'm writing this, the Ben Folds song "The Luckiest" is playing on iTunes--more than appropriate.  I'm not going to be naïve:  priesthood is not going to be all roses.  There will be plenty of thorns, but God has deigned to grace me with gift and privilege of serving his People in a very special way.  "I know that I am the luckiest."

unrelated photograph:
Emerging from a cave in the hills around Lago Maggiore
(in an Avengers t-shirt)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

No Protestants Today

I had attempted to get in touch with a local Methodist church, but we did not connect.  And, as this is my last Sunday in the parish, I'm going out to dinner with the pastor and another priest.  Visiting a church this evening would have made it difficult, so I've decided to give it up for this weekend.  Hopefully when I'm back in Mobile I'll have the opportunity to visit some more.

However, I do have my hands full right now:  I'm cold calling the entire parish to invite them to a special Holy Hour for Vocations on Tuesday night.  The Blessed Sacrament will be exposed here at Our Lady of Guadalupe from 7-8 PM in a special monstrance--one of six blessed by John Paul II in 2005 specifically for the purpose of praying for vocations.

Vocations Monstrance,
blessed by Servant of God
John Paul the Great

We're very blessed to have it for the evening.  Fr. Kelly and I are trying to get a big crowd.  That being our goal, he has given me the phone list of the parish and I'm just making my way through speaking to everyone personally about it.  It really does make a difference--I've already added 8 names to our signup sheet after only about 50 or 60 phone calls.  If we keep up that percentage, this is going to be a pretty well-attended event.

A picture:
Qumran + vintage Bama sweatshirt:
That's what I'm talking about.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

iTunes Advice and Beyond

Over the past few months, I undertook the project to listen to all of the music in my iTunes library that I hadn't listened to in over a year (since iTunes conveniently keeps track of stats like that).  It was over half my collection.  Since I was going through so many songs, I also set about the task of ranking the entire library, something I had always been too lazy to do.

I know are all kinds of ways to sort my music, including the Genius option, but I figured:  What's the point of having all this music if I never listen to it?  Sure, the amount of music is measured in days, not hours, but that's kind of the whole point.  I had been getting so sidetracked looking for and listening to new music, that I had been ignoring massive portions of my collection.

As I plowed my way through my fairly sized collection (none of it pirated, by the way), I forced myself to listen to every single track all the way through, even if I hated a song and ended up giving it a low rating.  Well, it was worth it.  I discovered a number of songs I had forgot how much I liked, and now that they're ranked, it's much easier to find them.

I was as excited about some songs
as I am that they're making
a Captain America movie.

While I'm on the topic (and I alluded to this in my Fireworks post), I have rediscovered listening to the radio.  There's something I really enjoy about having no control over what song is coming next.  I've been listening to Montgomery's Mix 103 a lot this summer, and I've heard a number of awesome songs that I hadn't heard in years and that I didn't own in my collection.  I have enjoyed the random quality of the radio so much, that I have purposefully not gotten onto iTunes to buy this or that song that I really liked after I heard it on the radio.  That way, I won't overplay it to myself, and when it comes on the radio the next time (which could be a day, a year, or a decade later), I'll be genuinely excited.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Let's go deeper here.  This predicament is a perfect example of the exhaustibility of the inexhaustible stuff with which the world presents us.  This need to strategize so as to not get tired of this or that song tells me something about my human condition.  There are a number of songs that I love, songs that speak to my heart in deep ways that I find it hard to express in words (which isn't a problem, because it's a song).  These kinds of songs - I would be quick to say that I could never grow tired of them.  But that's not entirely accurate.  I've done it before that I have loved a song so much, that I've listened to it over and over and over again, and now, years later ... I still hate to listen to the song.  Wait, when did that happen?

A song, even a beautiful song, is still just a created thing.  It's still finite.  It's still just an echo of what is truly Beautiful.  Music is only one part of the human experience, something that is part of our journey towards our End.  Just like money, power, food, drugs, etc., if we give too large a portion of our attention on music or any other created thing, then we've mis-used it.

The songs that I don't ever grow tired of?  They're the ones that point me to God.
(NB:  That doesn't mean they have to be "religious" songs.)

I hope this makes sense--I don't know if I've expressed it very well.


A photo having naught to do with this post:

They called me King Farouk in Egypt.
Can you tell why?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Peace

Fr. Kelly and I made peace today (after we had lunch at Cracker Barrel, and I finally hit him with a straw wrapper!).  We sat together and ate his birthday cake.  I had gotten it for his actual birthday, but that was before I new he would spend most of the day out of the office.  So it remained a surprise for today.

These photos are related:

Do you like the confetti?  I thought it was a nice touch.
If somethings worth doing, it's worth doing well.

I didn't sing to him,
but I made him at least blow out a candle.
(I guess I could have turned on the flash.)

Temporary

As my time in Wetumpka comes to a close, I have come to the point that I want a more permanent assignment!  Two months has not been long enough, nor was it enough last summer in Enterprise.  I can't wait to be a priest and be assigned somewhere for a longer period of time.

It goes without saying that I will be ready to move wherever and whenever the archbishop decides, but I don't foresee him moving me about from place to place every couple of months.  I feel like I've only just started.  I know that I still have formation to go through, but I'm itching for some more stable ministry.

So, to the folks at Our Lady of Guadalupe, when I say to you over the next few days that I'll miss you and I'll miss being here (as I also miss the people in Enterprise), know that I really mean it.  I've only just begun to get to know you.  I want to do more!  I want to stay longer!

Oh well.  I guess I'll just have to suck it up and endure another year in Rome...


This photo has nothing to do with what is written above:

Making sure the foundations of Orvieto are up to code...
in a Hawaiian shirt.