Wednesday, December 27, 2006


This post's title is the opening word of the Sequence sung at St. Thomas Aquinas last Sunday. It means full of joy. And it gives some good reasons for the joy we call everyone to join in at Christmas. Note that people didn't just follow in lock-step in medieval times, when this poem was written; they needed convincing back then, too.

Here's the Latin, then the English:

Exsultet fidelis chorus.

Full of joy
let the chorus of the faithful exult,

Regem regum
Intactae profundit torus;
Res miranda!

A spotless womb brings forth
the King of kings,
cause for wonder!

Angelus Consilii
Natus est de Virgine,
Sol de stella.

The Angel of Great Counsel
is born of the virgin,
Sun is born of a star.

Sol occasum nesciens,
Stella semper rutilans,
Semper clara.

A Sun which knows no setting,
a star forever shining,
always bright.

Sicut sidus radium,
Profert Virgo Filium
Pari forma.

The Virgin as unsullied
by bringing forth her son
as the star by its light.

Neque sidus radio
Neque Mater Filio
Fit corrupta.

The star loses nothing of its radiance
Nor is the Mother corrupted
by the Son.

Cedrus alta Libani
Conformatur hyssopo
Valle nostra.

The tall cedar of Lebanon
conforms itself to hyssop-size
in our valley.

Verbum ens Altissimi
Corporari passum est,
Carne sumpta.

He the Word of the Most-High
suffers to become embodied,
taking flesh.

Isaias cecinit,
Omnis terra meminit;
Numquam tamen desinit
Esse caeca.

Isaiah sang of it,
All the world remembered it,
yet it has never ceased
to remain blind.

Si non Judae vatibus,
Credat vel gentilibus,
Sybillinus versibus
Haec praedicta;

If not the prophets of the Jews,
One might believe the gentiles,
in the verses of the Sybils
it was predicted;

Infelix, propera,
Crede vel vetera:
Cur meditaberis

Hurry, unhappy one,
believe these ancient wonders:
Why will you meditate
on vain things?

Quem docet littera
Natum considera:
Ipsum genuit

Behold His birth of whom
all scriptures taught:
she who was in labor
has brought Him forth.


I like the part about "if you won't believe the prophets of the Jews, how about all the others, like the Sybils?" Unbelief, and endless meditation on vain things, have always been with us.

Christmas Eve

I attended an Episcopalian service on Christmas Eve because a flutist friend of ours was performing there. It was... interesting.

In accord with the Episcopal tradition, which is very strong on good music, the music director at this church is very committed to playing and singing the classics. We had Vivaldi, Sammartini (I think), and Handel. Not terribly well done, except for the flute sonata by our friend and her husband (on harpsichord). The choir is just not big enough, nor does it have enough strong singers, to tackle the kind of repertoire the music director picked. But at least they were trying. That's more than you can say about many Catholic churches.

Despite this, there was something very noticeably missing from the service, that's present at even the humblest Catholic Mass when reverently celebrated: a sense of awe and wonder at the presence of God.

Which, I suppose, isn't too surprising. When you've dumped the belief in the Real Presence, all you have left is that kind of presence Christ promised when he said, "Wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name, there am I also." That's a very good thing, of course, but it's just not the same as having Him physically in the room with you. Perhaps it's a little like the difference between (1) chatting with someone on the phone and (2) talking with them face to face. The first is nice, and may be perfectly satisfying for the more philosophically advanced, but the second is what most of us mere humans would prefer if we can get it.

In this case, we were also stuck with a kind of entertainment, one that We Must Get On With. There was the minister's bumptious "let me tell you about the interesting things that happened to me" sermon, and the jaunty remarks he tossed in here and there. But the real prize came at the Sanctus, when the music director found that the organ stops had stuck on the previous settings, which were loud and trumpety, not the softer ones he wanted. In the few seconds' pause that ensued, the minister turned to the congregation and said, "Well, let's go on," and then launched into his Eucharistic Prayer. He skipped the Sanctus completely! Couldn't we have just have... spoken it? Guess not.

The Episcopalians have traditionally had great gifts for music and the English language -- the renderings of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, not to mention the gorgeous 1928 version on which the later one is based, beats the wretched Catholic ICEL translations of the 1970's, hands down).

But for all the beauty they can produce with those gifts, I'm convinced that the kindest thing one can possibly do is to try, gently but persistently, to draw them back to where they can find the Real Presence; and the road to that destination runs through Rome.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung at the noon Mass today (the Fourth Sunday of Advent) at St. Thomas Aquinas church by the St. Ann Choir under the direction of Prof. William Mahrt:
  • Tomas Luis de Victoria, Ave Maria
  • Pierre de la Rue, O salutaris hostia
  • Paolo Aretino, Verbum caro factus est

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The power of one

From Riverside, California, we get a new lesson in what happens when bad ideas start to become dominant in a society, and that one person with that bad idea can ruin things for a whole bunch of people.

By now you probably know the story: at an ice skating show featuring Olympic figure skater Sasha Cohen, a local high school choir was ordered to stop singing Christmas carols by a low-level special events official, because the official was suddenly concerned that Cohen, who is partly Jewish by birth, might be offended by the music.

A few items to note:

According to her mother, Cohen herself was "stunned" to hear, well after the event was over, that the carols had been stopped on her account. She thinks the official's action was ridiculous, period. Score one for Miss Cohen.

Higher-ups were quick to distance themselves from the action. The suppressed annoyance in the mayor's remarks is palpable:

Mayor Ron Loveridge called the incident "unfortunate."

"You kind of wish people [would] do a little checking first. You certainly have my apology," he said, referring to the choir members.

... and here:
City Development Director Belinda J. Graham confirmed the incident.

"This request was simply made by a staff member who was attempting to be sensitive to the celebrity guest, without considering the wider implications ... or consulting with her supervisor for guidance," Graham said in an e-mail to the newspaper.

And we also learn this:
The city staff member, special-events employee Michelle Baldwin, could not be reached for comment.

... probably because she is already on her way to the unemployment office. If so, score one for Riverside's government.

But to me, the most notable thing about the incident was contained here:

A city staff member, accompanied by a police officer, approached the Rubidoux High School Madrigals at the Riverside Outdoor Ice Skating Rink just as they launched into "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" and requested that the troupe stop singing...

So this Michelle Baldwin thought she needed to bring along a police officer??? So typical of the low-level staffer determined to wield the power of the state on behalf of her impulse. Those carols are stopping right now, ya hear, or believe me, the cuffs are coming out!

But think: how did it come to this?

This wasn't some carefully considered corporate policy to forbid employees to say "Merry Christmas", or some leftist judge with a fifty-page judgment ordering a creche off city property. No, this was the impulsive act of one person -- probably a successful graduate of our public education system -- who had gotten imbued with one of the many bad ideas that are now taking over the American psyche, the idea that the every public voicing of specifically Christmas cheer has to be suppressed because someone, somewhere, might someday, somehow be offended by it.

And no matter how repentant she and the rest of Riverside's government may be, the fact remains that she stopped the music. The bad idea that she had absorbed carried the day. She won.

And everyone else lost.

Moral of the story: when you hear one of these bad ideas being put forward, don't let yourself turn away; attack it and crush it with the truth. Or someday, some low-level official with a police officer in tow may approach you, armed with that same bad idea, and you may not like the result one bit.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Those nasty Middle Ages

As an historical period, the Middle Ages don't get a lot of respect these days. Come to think of it, they haven't gotten much since the Renaissance, when the intellectual elites first adopted their permanent sneer when looking back into the immediate past. They idolized and idealized the world of Greece and Rome, and so the culture of the centuries since the end of the Roman Empire just had to be all bad -- a catalog of unmitigated ignorance and disaster -- because it was, well, not Roman.

That's how the period got to be thought of an age of simply marking time, an age of no other significance than that it was between the glories of pagan Rome and the glories that the elites were now going to build in emulation of Rome. The period got another drubbing during the Enlightenment, notably at the hands of Gibbon and Voltaire. Modern authors occasionally decide to take another swing at it, e.g., William Manchester's well-written monument to his own bias and ignorance, A World Lit Only by Fire. (From the first time I heard of it, I've always thought that his title was absurd. What did he think the cities and homes of Greece and Rome had been lit by? Compact fluorescents?).

"Feudal" is another word that's now become a term of contempt; if some corner of the world is thought to be particularly backward, it is often (absurdly) said to be a feudal society. And since the Catholic Church's period of greatest cultural influence occurred during the Middle Ages, in whose early centuries feudalism was the primary organizing pattern of European politics, the Church is often tarred with the same brush that has turned feudalism very black indeed in common wisdom. Our modern world is, of course, so much more civilized and humane than those nasty, feudal Middle Ages. Isn't it?

Maybe not so much. Here's something from one of the few college textbooks I've hung on to through all these years, Prof. Robert Hoyt's Europe in the Middle Ages (first published in 1957, before the PC roof fell in on American education):

It has been said that feudalism "would have been a very excellent device if it had been administered by archangels." In other words, theory and practice diverged, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, even as they do today. But feudal strife should not be exaggerated; armies were small, wars were local, and fighting rarely extended beyond the summer months. The feudal age knew no total war, no genocide, no mass destruction of life or property -- all characteristics of a more modern civilization. In a world where violence and hardship were normal, where the danger of invasion was perennial, rather than recurring from one generation to another as in the twentieth century, feudal lords and vassals accomplished much without benefit of archangels and without being angelic themselves.

So, Beatles fans, imagine. Imagine there's no total war. Imagine there's no genocide. Imagine there's a Church that is far and away the dominant influence in human society.

Imagine the Middle Ages.

Monday, December 11, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas Aquinas

I've been away for almost a month, mostly handling the aftermath of my 93-year-old mom's most recent hospitalization. There have certainly been plenty of events to comment on these past few weeks, and I've got a lot of catching up to do! Might as well get started with an easy one:

Sung yesterday by the St. Ann Choir at the noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas in Palo Alto, CA:

  • Jean Mouton, Ave Maria
  • Heinrich Isaac, Jerusalem surge
  • Guillaume Dufay, Conditor Alme Siderum

The last item is from the 14th century, but sounded remarkably daring and "modern". Everything old is new again!

Monday, November 13, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung by the St. Ann Choir at yesterday's noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas in Palo Alto:

Tomas Luis de Victoria, O vos omnes
Pierre de la Rue, O salutaris hostia
Heinrich Isaac, Amen dico vobis

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Our Battle of Maldon

Yesterday's elections were a disaster for the prospects of the advancement of many of the social
teachings of the Church. South Dakota voters, not known for their liberal views generally, succumbed to a massive (and partly taxpayer-funded) campaign by Planned Parenthood, and rejected a ban on abortion that basically was the viewpoint of the Church. California and Oregon voters rejected even modest requirements for parental notification when a minor is about to have her child aborted. Many senators and congressmen who have been reliable supporters of the Church's position on abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research went down to defeat.

For the next two years, the Church's influence on public policy in these areas, which tracks best with the current positions of the Republican party, will wane precipitously. There will be very strong efforts to lift the ban on Federal spending on ESCR. Abortion funding and promotion will get a very strong push. If, as I think, one or more of the pro-abortion Supreme Court justices should resign during the next two years, it will be very difficult for President Bush to get a conservative, pro-life replacement through the Senate.

None of that is news. You can read it everywhere today. But I haven't yet seen it remarked on in relation to the embodiment of the Church's positions in public policy.

So, those of us who remain convinced of the truth of pro-life positions have a choice to make. What do we do now?

We can keep on feeling as crushed and disappointed as we feel this morning, and let that paralyze us for months or years to come.

Or we can do something else.

More than a thousand years ago, at a place called Maldon, a band of English warriors found themselves in desperate circumstances. They were in a pitched battle with a shipload of Vikings, the most feared and ferocious raiders in Europe, and they were about to lose. Their leader had made a fatal tactical error that the Norsemen had quickly exploited, and he had just fallen under their axes. The remaining English fighting men had a choice to make, and fast: run and hide, or stay and fight.

As most wavered and some ran, one spoke up, and his thoughts are remembered in some of the most stirring lines in English verse. From the ninth-century fragmentary poem called The Battle of Maldon:

Byrhtwold spoke, shield raised aloft --
he was an old loyal retainer -- and brandished his spear;
he very boldly commanded the warriors:
"Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant,
our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less."

Our strength certainly grew less yesterday. Luckily for us, the choice before us is not whether to face cold steel without hope, but only whether, despite this defeat, to pick up our weapons of speaking and writing again today, just as we've done during the days when truth's prospects seemed brighter, and fight on.

For those of us who are Catholics, the place to start is in our own parishes. The Catholic Church's teachings are clear on abortion, on euthanasia, on embryonic stem cell research. They're exquisitely well reasoned and abundantly supported by science and sound logic. Yet too often, no one at the parish level teaches the faithful why the Church's position on these topics make such good sense, even if one relies only on natural reason. The other side takes advantage of this ignorance and, with a few glib slogans dressed up as rational argument, can convince some Catholics that their Church has no real reasons for its position. Those Catholics silently fall away from the truth, and start electing politicians who reject that truth, and will codify falsehood into law.

The Catholic Church is the only institution that I can see in the present landscape that has any hope of presenting organized resistance to the tide of secular disregard for vulnerable human life that is likely to wash over our nation now. But if it's to do so, the faithful have to be educated. The Church badly needs an organization whose sole purpose is to teach the faithful why it's right to think about these things as it does.

Who's to do this? Well, for now, I'd suggest we start here, you and I. Though the battle seems to go against us now, let our spirits grow greater, though our strength grows less.

Oh -- the battle of Maldon? The English went down to defeat that day. But waiting not long in the future was King Alfred, the only English king to be universally called The Great -- and the utter triumph of the English. Take heart from that. And fight on.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Harry Potter, Catholic boy

That's the title of this fine essay by philosopher John O'Callaghan. Here's a sample:

Finally, the mythic symbol of Dumbledore is the phoenix, again a medieval symbol of Christ because of its ability to rise from the ashes on the third day after it has been consumed in a holocaust. It is the phoenix that comes to Harry in the Chamber of Secrets, when he recalls Dumbledore’s promise to remain at Hogwarts as long as someone there thinks of him. The phoenix gives to Harry the gift of the sword of Godric Gryffindor with which he will slay the Basilisk. The name Godric is a pre-Norman Conquest English name that means “the power of God.” So we have in the scene the association of two symbols of Christ, the phoenix and the griffon. And the gift the phoenix gives to Harry is the power of God, the power of Christ, to slay the basilisk, a symbol of Satan.

In short: Hogwarts is not a school of sorcery and the occult mastery of nature. It is a school of virtue, a community of inquiry in pursuit of wisdom, an academy of philosophy.

I know there's been a lot of suspicion about the Potter books, particularly among Evangelicals, and I respect the caution about popular culture that engenders that suspicion. But I think O'Callaghan makes much the better case.

Predictions about the direction of the Potter books has been a hazardous undertaking up to now, but I'll place my bet now that Dumbledore is coming back in Book 7. The symbolism of the phoenix is too strong to lead anywhere else.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

All Saints' at St. Thomas

Sung last night by the St. Ann Choir at St. Thomas Aquinas in Palo Alto:

Tomas Luis de Victoria, Missa O quam gloriosum

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Catholic press needs your help

A fine little Catholic publisher, Sophia Institute Press, is in some financial trouble. They're trying an unusual way to fix it; they're asking people to contribute just $1, and then tell one or more other people about the effort.

Actually, I decided to place a big book order instead of sending the $1, and I encourage you to go browse their site and see whether there aren't some good books that you need right now. I bought Priest: Portraits of Ten Good Men Serving the Church Today by Michael S. Rose; Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know by Diane Moczar; The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America by David Carlin; and What Went Wrong with Vatican II? by Ralph McInerny.

Oh, yeah, and then I remembered I wanted another title, Memorize the Faith! by Kevin Vost. Things just seem to roll right off my middle-aged brain these days, so I'm looking forward to learning St. Thomas Aquinas' little tricks.

Without Sophia, I would never have found one of the most enjoyable Christian works I've ever read: Creed or Chaos? by the wonderfully eloquent Dorothy Sayers (better known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels than for her extensive Christian scholarship). Sadly, this one seems to have gone out of print, at least at Sophia.

These folks deserve to survive. Please consider helping them.

Last Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung last Sunday by the St. Ann Choir at the noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas:

Thomas Tallis, Eugi Coeli Porta
Thomas Mudd (c. 1560), Let Thy Merciful Ears, O Lord, be Open

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Michael J. Fox

I used to pity Michael J. Fox for his Parkinson's disease. Now I pity him even more because through his advertisements to the voters of Missouri in favor of embryonic stem cell research, he's now publicly saying, "Clone and kill as many human beings as you need to in order to maybe someday develop a cure for my disease, because my health is more important than their lives".

A real man would never descend to this craven attitude -- or if he did, he would recoil in shame from it before he could give it voice. A real man gives his life for others; he doesn't demand that others give up theirs to save his. Michael J. Fox needs everyone's prayers.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Do no harm, or don't get elected

I have a little more to explain about my position on George Allen's attacks on Jim Webb's "literary" output.

It's part of Christian belief that we are all responsible to God not only to work toward our own salvation, but also toward the salvation of the people around us. C. S. Lewis gave a wonderful speech about that belief, called The Weight of Glory -- and he wasn't talking about some narcissistic, self-righteous concern for your own salvation, but about feeling the weight of responsibility for your neighbor's. You may not believe in all that, but we do. And one implication of it is that you don't do things that are going to make it harder for other people to live good lives.

In Webb's case, like so many modern authors, he seems to have thrown the lurid sex into his novels because he could, because he thought it would help sell books, and because he thought people expected it in so-called "adult" literature. Funny how Dickens and Austen, to name just two, manage to move adult audiences today without it. But then, they were real writers, not hacks.

So Jim Webb didn't feel the weight of his neighbor's potential to live a noble life. He saw his neighbor (and inevitably, the neighbor's children -- kids are endlessly combing their parents' bookshelves when not observed) merely as customers, to be enticed to buy by any means necessary -- and if he could snag a few extra bucks by pandering to his neighbor's petty lusts, he's been happy to do it. For years.

Webb shouldn't have done it, but it's a free country, so he can. And those of us who want people in Congress who understand their duty not to harm their neighbors can vote for the other candidate.

George Allen, Jim Webb, and "Smutgate"

It seems that the Democratic candidate for the open Senate seat in Virginia, Jim Webb, has been writing some pretty lurid fiction, and his opponent, George Allen is using it against him. Michelle Malkin, a conservative with no desire to see Webb elected, calls this a low blow and says that we should all grow up, remember that fiction is fiction, and discuss the real issues.

I don't agree. What goes into our culture is a real issue. When you write one novel after another laced generously with deviant sex, you pollute the literary environment. That, in turn, does your neighbors real harm. Some people are inevitably going to read that stuff, think it's just great, and maybe act on it; at the very least, everyone who encounters it has it stuck to their consciousnesses like so much carelessly discarded chewing gum.

It seems to me that if you're seeking public office, you're answerable to the electorate for all your public actions (and some of your private ones). They're a set of signs, assembled over a lifetime, of how thoughtfully you treat the society you live in, and how much you deserve to be trusted to do the right thing. If you dumped all your used motor oil into the river, you'd be taken severely to task by your opponent, and rightly so. Same goes for moral pollution. To make a buck, Jim Webb did the moral equivalent of dumping his motor oil in the river, and he should answer for it.

You can be part of the solution to the colossal moral problems our society faces, or you can be part of the problem. Only people in the first category should get to go to Congress.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us...

Some people can't stand it if their thoughts don't seem original (as if, on most subjects of any importance, that was possible). Me, I'm glad when I find anyone else who thinks even a little like I do, and might have expressed it before I did. When I find it's also one of the men of the recent past whom I most admire, I'm on cloud nine.

I've commented before on how important it is that churches be designed to look like churches, inside and out. I've been especially hard on the 'wreckovators' who take beautiful old Catholic churches and 'modernize' them -- that is, strip them of most of the traditional Christian art that has characterized them. They thereby cut off generations of Catholics from the physical environments in which their faith was nurtured, and they cut off future generations from the inspiration that can only come from being in the actual presence of the places and things that were meaningful to those who came before us, and have now gone on ahead of us.

Practically everything about the physical environment of a past event works to keep the memory of it alive. That's just the way we human beings are hard-wired. Who hasn't felt the otherwise inexplicably vivid rush of memory when we once again encounter a certain scent or sound, or wander into a certain place, that was part of the moment when that memory was born?

Destroy the physical space associated with memory, and you go some distance toward eradicating that memory and all the connections with it.

It seems that Winston Churchill insisted on something of the same connection between a place and what people do there. After the old House of Commons in which he had built his career was demolished in one of the last raids of the London blitz, he said this about the importance of restoring the old place to the way it had previously looked:
... we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.
Wow. Note the sequence. We, or rather our ancestors, get the first move: they shape the buildings. But after that, the buildings take over. They are the places where our lives then happen, where we have our thoughts and emotions. They're the physical connection with our memories. Destroy them -- and fail to rebuild them -- and the priceless legacy that took its place in time within them blurs and fades, like a watercolor that's been dropped in a puddle.

Ah, but you might say, shouldn't we rebuild in a more convenient, modern fashion? Churchill didn't think so. He knew just what a pain the old building had been, yet he wanted its old "form, convenience, and dignity" back the way it had been. From the notes at the link above:

The old House of Commons was rebuilt in 1950 in its old form, remaining insufficient to seat all its members. Churchill was against "giving each member a desk to sit at and a lid to bang" because, he explained, the House would be mostly empty most of the time; whereas, at critical votes and moments, it would fill beyond capacity, with members spilling out into the aisles, in his view a suitable "sense of crowd and urgency."

For all his faults -- and he had many -- Churchill understood that an essential part of the greatness of the House was the drama that could take place there at watershed moments, and he wanted the House back the way it had been, so that future generations could experience what he had.

There are some who would say that the pre-V2 Church was like the old House of Commons -- too small, too drafty, too somber, and no "lids to bang". To them, I say: too bad.

I'm a cradle Catholic, brought up before Vatican II. And as I reflect on how the hijackers of Vatican II did much the same sort of damage to the Church as that German bomb did to the House of Commons, I'm happy to borrow some of Winston's words as I recall the Catholic world I grew up in, and the prospects of its restoration, both physical and spiritual: having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Mass in Latin? Zut alors!

Catholic World News reports that some French bishops and priests are in a tizzy about the rumors that Pope Benedict will soon grant much wider permission for the celebration of the pre-Vatican-II Tridentine mass in Latin.

A group of 35 French bishops and priests have issued a statement urging Pope Benedict XVI not to issue the motu proprio that has been widely discussed in recent weeks. The clerics predict that by allowing broader use of the Tridentine rite, the papal document would "plunge us back into the liturgical life of another age."

Let's see now. That would be the age in which Catholic churches were full to bursting, Catholic schools were taught by nuns, priests were abundant, vocations were rising, and the Church's reputation and influence were strong and growing. Good heavens, who would want to risk occasionally sampling the liturgical life that accompanied such an age?

Note that the rumored permission is just that -- a permission. It's not a command that everyone begin using the Tridentine rite. No, such sweeping declarations are made mostly by those who hijacked Vatican II to virtually forbid the use of Latin around the world.

I read that in France, Catholic churches are mostly empty anyway. Is this the successful liturgical life that the French bishops treasure so fondly that they can't abide even a permission to do things differently?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Border wall nonsense

Something called the council of the (Catholic) Synod of the Americas has delivered itself of this priceless wisdom about the border wall we naughty Americans have decided to build (someday, maybe) on our own soil, as reported by Catholic World News):

Speaking out on one highly controversial issue, the Synod council's statement criticized proposals for a border wall blocking illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States. Such a barrier, the statement argued, would not resolve the problem of illegal migration, which can only be addressed effectively by a coordinated approach to the underlying issues that prompt people to leave their native countries.

The argument that these 11 clerics advance against the building of the border wall in the U.S. is the same claptrap the American left has been spouting for years (and I do get so tired of Catholic prelates aping the secular left): because the wall won't stop all illegal immigration by itself, it must not be built, and the people of the U.S. must tolerate unlimited illegal immigration until conditions in Latin American countries are made so wonderful that no one wants to leave his native land.

Of course, it's a straw man the synod council is knocking down. No one has claimed that 700 miles of border fence (if it ever gets fully funded and built, which is by no means a sure thing) will stop illegal immigration.

If the bishops are so convinced that illegal immigration to the U.S. could be ended by getting at the "underlying issues", I challenge them to adopt that principle where they live. You know, bishops, it's pointless for you to lock up your churches, residences, and vehicles, because locks won't put an end to theft. You're just going to have to tolerate being robbed blind until you've gotten at the "underlying issues".

The great advantage to this approach, from my viewpoint, is that you soon won't have the means to recycle leftist slogans on the Church's time.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Last Sunday at St. Thomas

A little late on this one -- too many irons in the fire lately.

Performed by the St. Ann Choir at St. Thomas Aquinas in Palo Alto:

Anon. 14c. English, Paradisi Porta
Heinrich Isaac, Tollite Hostias
Anon. 14c. Italian, Ave Verum Corpus

Occasionally, I just have to marvel how Prof. Mahrt has kept this effort going for more than forty years. What an accomplishment! To keep the great tradition of Catholic music in liturgical performance alive through such a period, in which it has been so widely disdained and abandoned in favor of the vapid modernity of "composers" like Marty Haugen.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Honor of God

From Jean Anouilh's play Becket, when Becket is explaining to Henry II why he's going to oppose him:

I felt for the first time that I was being entrusted with something, that's all -- there in that empty cathedral, somewhere in France, that day when you ordered me to take up this burden [Henry had made him Archbishop of Canterbury]. I was a man without honor. And suddenly I found it -- one I never imagined would ever become mine -- the honor of God.

The full title of the play is Becket: The Honor of God. St. Thomas Becket is a figure who deserves better attention today. Unfortunately, most people get their history from TV and movies, and the very fine 1964 movie with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton is inexplicably out of print on VHS, not yet released on DVD, and never seems to make it onto the small screen, at least around here. But the play appears to be still in print.

In the play, Becket is a worldly, successful, sophisticated man, but he's utterly hollow inside, bereft of personal honor. To his credit, he knows this and doesn't try to pretend otherwise. But then his friend the king makes him Archbishop of Canterbury, and Becket suddenly discovers the honor and integrity of God in the vocation that's thrust upon him. And when the king tries to call in a favor to make the Church subordinate itself to him, Becket defends God's honor to the death -- not, as certain religious zealots do today, by taking up the sword, but by simply standing fast and refusing to compromise.

And that's why he deserves our study today, when the Church faces challenges and pressure from so many directions to compromise its truth -- from the secular state, from Islam, from its own internal enemies. All we have to do is stand fast, like St. Thomas.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Britons, strike home!

This is pretty outrageous. From the Evening Standard (UK):

Schoolgirls forced to strip to underwear in front of boys for PE

Dawn Bedford and daughter Sam

Parents staged an angry protest after their young daughters were forced to strip to their underwear in front of boys at school.

The girls, aged ten and 11, were left in tears after being ordered to change for PE in a mixed classroom under a school policy blamed on health and safety regulations.

The headmistress of Hillside School in Baddeley Green, Stoke-on-Trent, said the children had to get changed together as there were not enough teachers to supervise them separately.

So of course the solution that immediately occurs to the headmistress is to force the kids to jettison the last pitiful shreds of natural modesty they might still possess.

But furious mother Dawn Bedford said her ten-year-old daughter Sam was reduced to tears by the rules.

"The regulations are ridiculous,' she said. "The girls have always changed separately. No one has ever been hurt."

Sam, who had a perfect school record, was excluded for two days because she refused to get changed for after-school football practice with boys watching.

She pulled her PE bag out of a teacher's hand and ran off to the girls' toilets to change. The school says the teacher was assaulted verbally and physically.

Yeah, I'd hate to run into that ferocious-looking Sam in a dark alley, wouldn't you?

Mrs Bedford said: "Sam was embarrassed and distressed because the boys kept looking at her and making comments. She is now wearing her first bra and taking sex education lessons.

"This is a very sensitive time for girls. Don't the teachers realise how difficult it is? Girls were trying to hide under a table so boys could not see them. It is disgusting."

Sam added: "The boys kept looking at me. I was embarrassed so I went to the toilets. But the teacher tried to take me back to the classroom with the boys."

Note that the girl wasn't defiant about class -- she was trying to get ready for PE in an area where she could still keep her modesty, and where, one assumes, she is allowed to go by herself when she needs a bathroom break. But the teacher leaves the other kids (what about their oh-so-important supervision during that expedition?) and tries to drag her back!

Headmistress Suzanne Foster has now relented following a petition from 50 parents. She refused to comment on her safety concerns but said: "The situation has now been resolved and the children are changing in separate areas."

Astonishing how those "separate areas" became available so quickly.

In a statement to parents, she said: "The arrangements started this term purely for health and safety reasons. I cannot have unsupervised children at school."

The Department for Education said: "It is up to the head to decide what happens when children are changing for PE. It is a matter of personal discretion."

Truly incredible. Are you spinning in your grave yet, Winston?

It's time for ordinary Brits to take back their country and their Faith -- if it isn't already too late, which, sadly, it probably is.

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung by the St. Ann Choir at St. Thomas Aquinas church this noon:

Josquin des Prez, Christe, fili Dei and Ave Christe.

Fr. Harris was back this week, so we were spared the previous week's spontaneous liturgical innovations.

There were quite a few families with young children in the pews, which is a very very good thing indeed. But babies will be babies, and their very noisy presence today -- you often actually couldn't hear anything else but the howling -- brought up that age-old question: when should a crying child be taken gently out of church?

I'd say: if a child can't be quieted in a paternoster -- the time it takes to say the Our Father -- then, out of charity toward other parishioners, one or the other parent should take him outside until he's calm again. I know it's a burden to parents, usually the mother, but if the wailing is allowed to go on for five or ten minutes at a stretch, dozens of other people are going to be seriously distracted from a significant chunk of what is often the only sacred time in their entire week.

I've been a parent, and I've spent plenty of time outside on cold days, jollying my infant daughter into quietude (or not) instead of being inside where it's warm, adult, and spiritual. But that's a responsibility you take up when you become a parent, and I don't think you should force others to share it.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Yeah, right

From Catholic World News:

Sep. 29 ( - The second-ranking official in Al Qaida called upon Pope Benedict XVI to convert to Islam, in a videotaped message released on September 29. In an Arabic-language message, delivered in videotape format to Islamic media outlets, Ayman al Zawahiri charged that in his Regensburg speech Pope Benedict was stirring up the same "superstitions" and fears of Islam that had led to the Crusades.

Ah, yes, those crazy "superstitions". Like the Seljuk Turks' conquest of most of the remainder of the Byzantine Empire after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Like the robbing and murder of Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Why would anyone get worked up over things like that?

Benedict was clearly not trying to prepare the way for another armed resistance movement like the Crusades -- all you have to do is read what he actually said.

But I hope he's got that speech ready somewhere, because it's looking like we might need it before too long.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Mozart would not be amused

Mozart's opera Idomeneo won't be on the program this year at Berlin's Deutsche Oper. That's both a bad thing and a good thing.

It's bad because pulling the production has publicly been attributed to fears of a violent Muslim reaction to its staging, which includes a scene in which Mohammed is decapitated. I'm really tired of worrying about what some Muslim, somewhere, will take offense at. Defenders of Islam as the religion of peace should note that although Mohammed isn't the only religious figure who loses his head in this production, his followers are the only ones from whom retaliatory violence is being feared. And it's no wonder; look what happened when those relatively innocuous Danish cartoons surfaced.

But it's also good, because this production richly deserved to be yanked. It's a desecration of Mozart's original, which contains nothing remotely offensive to Muslims, and a fine example of what happens when the arts elites are allowed to do anything they feel like doing in order to "push the envelope". Gerald has an extensive post with photos and links, if you want to know more about this travesty, and why, given the general state of German theater today, it is hardly unexpected.

The scene that's causing the uproar isn't even in Mozart's original libretto. The director, Hans Neuenfels, made it up and tacked on it to the opera's end to amplify the title character's contempt for religion which, one can infer, he shares. Apparently Herr Neuenfels believed his audience would be too unsophisticated to understand that Idomeneo's rebellion against the god Poseidon could be taken allegorically and applied to the present day. So, embracing anachronism like a old buddy, Neuenfels treats the audience to the sight of Idomeneo bloodily beheading Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed onstage.

So the real problem in this whole brouhaha isn't really Mozart's Idomeneo; it's the ludicrous, contemptible esthetics of the director. I say: dump him, restage the production traditionally, or at least not insanely "updated", put it back on the schedule, and get on with honoring through respectful performance one of the geniuses of Western music.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

One reason to be glad we're here

Spitzer Space Telescope image of spiral galaxy M81

As you can probably tell if you've been reading me for a while, I find lots of things in this world to complain about. But every now and then, I'm reminded of one of the many ways in which I'm very, very lucky. You, too.

When I was in high school in the 60's, I read Arthur C. Clarke's non-fiction work Profiles of the Future: an Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. It's a science-fiction author's take on just how likely it is that certain things envisioned in science fiction can actually take place someday, and which ones are fundamentally impossible. He's kept updating it since then, and it's still a very interesting read.

Though I've liked Clarke's lighter short stories, his longer works I find less interesting, and his atheism and his sadly underinformed view of religious faith made his novel Childhood's End positively evil. Nevertheless, he often does produce a very handsome turn of phrase, and the following peroration at the very end of Profiles has stuck with me through the years:

Our Galaxy is now in the brief springtime of its life -- a springtime made glorious by such brilliant blue-white stars as Vega and Sirius, and, on a more humble scale, our own sun. Not until all these have flamed through their incandescent youth, in a few fleeting billions of years, will the real history of the universe begin.

It will be a history illuminated only by the reds and infra-reds of dully-glowing stars that would be almost invisible to our eyes; yet the sombre hues of that all-but-eternal universe may be full of colour and beauty to whatever strange beings have adapted to it. They will know that before them lie, not the millions of years in which we measure the eras of geology, nor the billions of years which span the past lives of the stars, but years to be counted literally in trillions.

They will have time enough, in those endless aeons, to attempt all things, and to gather all knowledge. They will not be like gods, because no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers that they will command.

But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of Creation; for we knew the Universe when it was young.

That's a pretty nice blessing to have received, you and I and every human being who has ever lived; we've all known the Universe when it was young. We take that blessing for granted, as we do most, but we shouldn't. So it's a good thing that there's a reminder of it right overhead on every clear night of our lives.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung by the St. Ann Choir at St. Thomas Aquinas this noon:

Anon. 14th century English, Salve Virgo Virginum
Palestrina, Sicut Cervus

The recessional, played on the organ, was a set of variations on Deo Gratias, Anglia, one of the most stirring medieval melodies that you'll still hear now and then. Sir William Walton used it in his music for the movie Henry V, the one with Olivier in the title role.

On the less good side, a priest I hadn't seen before officiated at Mass today. Maybe he was a late replacement for our usual (elderly and ailing) Fr. Harris, so I should cut him some slack for not knowing how things usually flow at St. Thomas. But it was pretty much a mess. Canned, predictable sermon on helping the homeless and marginalized (yes, we have to do that, but you hear it so much you'd think that was the totality of Christianity). And he's the first priest I've heard to actually change words to suit himself (not, thank God, at the Consecration). I can't recall the many deviations this guy got into, but when he chimed in with "The Lord is with you", for example, instead of the standard "The Lord be with you", people seemed uncertain how to respond -- stick with the usual "And also with you"? Try something new, like "You da man"?

It just completely escapes me what priests like that are trying to accomplish. It also makes me realize how blessed we've been at St. Thomas.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bet you can't have this on YOUR courthouse!

On our recent vacation down California's central coast, we spent a couple of days in Santa Barbara. We noticed that the AAA Tour Book had bestowed one of its infrequent "Gem" ratings on the Santa Barbara county courthouse, so in our wanderings through town, we stopped there, curious why a courthouse should have earned such high marks.

What a place it turned out to be -- the kind of public building that everyone could agree upon not so long ago, but which now would be impossible get past the censors from the ACLU and People for the American Way. Built in gorgeous Spanish-colonial style in the 1920's, it's full of exquisite craftsmanship, yet it's not a museum piece; it's still very much a fully functional courthouse. The murals, metalwork, tilework and paintings are a constant and unabashed celebration of the brief history of the region -- all of it, not just the part that's politically correct to recall.

For instance, here in California, it's not fashionable to celebrate Blessed Fr. Serra's tremendous accomplishment in founding the California missions. Since white people and their influence are considered baneful here right now, the padres are seen as foreign invaders who ruined the idyllic lives of the indigenous tribes, enslaving them and infecting them with smallpox, probably on purpose, of course. So it was a refreshing surprise to see this on their courthouse doors:

which appears to be a priest with the chalice and host; or this:

which is Fr. Serra gazing at the Santa Barbara mission -- holding a cross.

PAW and ACLU members, step away from your speed dials. Touch these artworks, and it's war.

And then there's the City Council chamber, adorned with enormous murals on three walls, showing the founding of Mission Santa Barbara, mission life, and the coming of the Americans in 1846. Each group -- Indians, the padres, the Spanish settlers, and the Americans -- is depicted with dignity. I should add that the murals are done in the style of that great American illustrator of the early 20th century, N. C. Wyeth (though not, alas, by the man himself). Wish I could show you pictures, but mine were disappointing. You'll have to see the paintings for yourself.

And then there's this motto, sitting prominently above the main entrance (and repeated in Spanish nearby):

"God gave us the country; the skill of man hath built the town." (Varro, A.D. 50).

So, come to think of it, all of this together means that Santa Barbara's courthouse has more overtly Catholic imagery and more references to God than a certain pretend cathedral down the road in L.A.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The "M" word

I hate how the word "martyr" is getting co-opted by those who are blowing other people up in the name of Allah, or the Palestinian people, or who knows what, and killing themselves in the process.

For centuries, "martyr" in the West has denoted a person who is put to death because of his witness to the Christian faith (the word itself derives from the ancient Greek legal term for a witness in court -- who, I presume, did not then blow up the court). Though the Christian might enter a dangerous situation expecting or even hoping for death, he did no harm to those around him. Death was inflicted on him, and his very defenselessness lent additional power to his witness for Christ.

Then along came the suicide bombers of Islam, and the perverse habit of translating the Arabic "shahid" as "martyr". So now what used to be a word for honorable self-sacrifice while doing no harm is being expanded to encompass killing yourself while doing others the ultimate harm. And consequently we have to read about such things as the Al-Aqsa "Martyrs" Brigade. What evil nonsense.

Followers of Muhammad, there's a better "M" word for what you're doing: Murder.

Ah, yes. The Al-Aqsa Murderers Brigade. That's better.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Most of the St. Ann Choir is singing on a tour in eastern Europe this week, but the "saving remnant" left behind still managed to produce these three Renaissance gems at the noon mass today:

Josquin d'Ascanio, In Te, Domine, Speravi
Martin de Rivaflecha, Anima Mea Liquefacta Est
Thomas Tallis, If Ye Love Me

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Some common sense at last

The Salt Lake City Tribune quotes a gutsy priest about the U.S. response to 9/11:
Rev. Erik J. Richtsteig, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Ogden, says the U.S. had every right to strike back after it was attacked on Sept. 11. "If someone is pulling a gun out of their holster, you don't wait for them to pull the trigger before you do something about it."
Fr. Richsteig's blog provides a link to the whole article.

I haven't heard such moral clarity from any representative of my Church since the whole shootin' match began.

Living as a Catholic in the San Francisco Bay area (which I'm hoping is good for at least 300 days' indulgence just by itself) I've much more often heard the following kind of thing, also from the same article:
The war in Iraq is not just, said Dee Rowland, director of government relations for the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese. "It was too soon and the danger was not imminent," she said. "But always, there is support for those who serve."
Too soon? The danger not imminent? One can only shake one's head at the sheer blind folly of it.

As you might expect, The Tribune gave Ms. Rowland a flattering photo, and added this revoltingly fawning caption:
Dee Rowland was arrested three times for world peace. The 1999 YWCA Outstanding Woman of the Year is still fighting for a safer world through her work with the Catholic Diocese Peace and Justice Commission by lobbying Congress.
Poor Fr. Richsteig's comments, in contrast, were stuck way at the article's end. No photo. No fawning caption.

But maybe the truth doesn't always need those to prevail.

Monday, September 11, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung by the St. Ann Choir at today's noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas:

di Lassus, Adoramus Te, Christe
Palestrina, Super Flumina Babylonis

Saturday, September 09, 2006

On the folly of taking no action

From Jean Anouilh's 1960 play Becket:

KING HENRY: Life is one long web of difficulties. The secret of it ... is to give them no importance whatever. In the end one difficulty swallows up the other and you find yourself ten years later still alive with no harm done. Things always work out.

BECKET: Yes. But badly. My prince, when you play tennis, do you simply sit back and let things work out? Do you wait for the ball to hit your racket and say "It's bound to come this way eventually"?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

What "diversity" will always become

Joseph Bottum, writing about the banning of evangelical groups from Georgetown University:

There’s an obvious irony here—employed too often to be surprising—in which people begin by protesting in the name of diversity against centralized authority, and later discover, once they’re in charge, how useful those old forms of authority can be in controlling diversity.

Those of us who were at college in the 1960's certainly have seen that happen before. At my alma mater, Pomona College, the conservative values the school espoused when I got there have now been completely replaced by the usual dreary soft-leftist orthodoxies, and heaven help you if you dissent. But back to Georgetown:

But it also represents a tactic we’re likely to see more of: claims of old-fashioned Catholicism, used by people who are far from old-fashioned Catholics, to maintain control of officially Catholic institutions and to ban the people whose political opinions they don’t like. Watch for it at Boston College, and Marquette, and Notre Dame, and Loyola Marymount, and on and on.

The trouble for these institutions is that sooner or later, people catch on, and they take their money elsewhere, where it will actually support what people think is worth preserving. Though we still send a little money annually to Pomona, mostly for old times' sake, we send as much or more now to Thomas Aquinas College.

Eventually, maybe money will talk.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung by the St. Ann Choir at St. Thomas Aquinas church in Palo Alto, at today's Gregorian mass:

Josquin des Prez, Tu Pauperum Refugium
Lodovico Viadana, Exsultate Justi

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Next time you're in California...

... you absolutely have to visit this mission if you can. Because unlike most of the California missions, this one is a time machine.

This is Mission San Antonio de Padua, in the remote hills of central California, maybe 100 miles south of San Jose. The Spanish missions were connected by a road called El Camino Real (i.e. The Royal Road), and today's Highway 101 -- one of the main north-south routes in the state -- usually follows its path. So most of the missions are right along the busy interstate, or surrounded by the towns that grew up around most of them. Well restored in most cases, but when you're there you have no doubt you're still in the 21st century.

Not San Antonio. It's in the middle of nowhere, because when Hwy. 101 was laid out, it took a different, easier route, about 15 miles farther inland. To get there, you take Jolon Road from near King City, which follows the old route of El Camino, winding past a few lonely ranches and seeing very very few other cars. It's a beautiful, quiet drive.

The mission is all the more isolated because it's on the grounds of Fort Hunter Liggett, an Army training base which is mostly just open, untouched land. So to actually get to it, you have to show your driver's license, registration, and insurance card to the courteous but obviously armed guard at the gate, who takes those things, goes back into his hut and (I sure hope) makes certain you haven't been sending money to Hezbollah lately, and then comes back with your pass.

The base headquarters disappears behind you, and a little farther down the road, you come to the mission. You pull up in front, switch off the ignition, get out and shut the door. And then you hear it:


Not a sound of the modern world. Probably not another visitor, either. Just you and the padres' pride and joy, baking there in the afternoon sun with that glorious California summer scent of hot dry grass and oaks and evergreens. Look around you, and all you'll see is the same golden brown hills they saw. You'll have a sense of the immense sacrifice they made to come to this wilderness and bring the Faith with them.

Close your eyes just a little, and it's 1780.

If there's a caretaker, he's not in evidence, yet everything is wide open, reminiscent of those days, only yesterday, when pretty much everyone left their doors unlocked.

You might wander into the dim and peaceful sanctuary:

or maybe pause at this luminous side chapel:

but when you leave, you'll know you've been in not just another place, but in a little private hidden corner where another time is still there to be savored.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Too familiar

Most of the rank and file were devout, self-denying, and upright, but a crust of politically covetous, worldly, and cynical prelates had weakened and degraded the dignity and influence of organised Christianity.
Thus Winston Churchill, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, on the state of the Catholic Church in France on the eve of the Revolution.

But it's also a pretty good description of the Catholic Church in America, don't you think? Though much demoralized and often misled, the laity are still often surprisingly devout; but the Weaklands and Lynches and Laws and Mahonys and Gumbletons have indeed weakened and degraded the influence that the Catholic Church might have brought to bear on the rotten culture around us.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The (mis)information highway

Something made me think of a quotation I'd heard years ago, and so, like any good netizen, of course I googled what I could recall of it. I duly was presented with a few hundred hits, but in reading the summaries I noticed that part of the quotation as cited in the majority of hits was strangely different from what I remembered. And so I got a useful reminder of how risky it can be to rely on that first screen of Google hits.

Here's the correct quotation:

Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense.

It's by Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, writing ca. 1716. The first time I read it, many years ago, I loved it for the way it just sticks it to relativism. Hey, bub, there aren't many dissimilar truths about a thing; there is one, and it's closely circumscribed, and you can know what it is if you try hard enough. The vast remainder of what else you might say about the thing are not other truths, or "true for you but not for me"; they're just wrong.

Go get 'em, Henry!

But a funny thing happened to this fine sentence on its way to the web; on website after website that I checked out, it had turned into:

Truth lies within a little uncertain compass, but error is immense.

Just a few letters of difference, but what a change. Now the compass in which truth is to be found is no longer certain; gone is the author's confident assurance that we can know that compass, and the limits of what is true about a thing. We're still told that error is immense, but we can't be sure just where the truth is.

How did this change happen, so that it could be strewn all over the web? I think I can guess.

I suspect that whoever first goofed it up only heard the quotation, and never read it. And the speaker he was listening to slurred the "and" into the sloppy " 'n' " you hear all the time. My imagined listener parsed the " 'n' certain " he had heard into "uncertain", then wrote it down feverishly into his notebook or PDA or laptop, and without checking, or even reading his corrupt version carefully and realizing that it doesn't really make sense with the change, threw it up onto his website. And as things do on the web, it was picked up by one person after another who never checked it, and just trustingly repeated it -- also without noticing that it really didn't make sense.

So the search for truth hasn't really changed much. Centuries ago, when news traveled largely by word of mouth, you knew you couldn't trust everyone, and you honed the skills by which you could tell a reliable person from a rumor-mongering halfwit.

Now, after enormous technological change and the invention of the greatest information-gathering tool ever known, we're still right where we always were: trying to tell the reliable witness from the halfwit, and keep our inheritance of wisdom from morphing into gibberish.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

New cathedral in Arizona

From the architects of the new cathedral in Phoenix:

"This distinctive shape has two iconic relationships -- one to the Native American mandala form, ... and two to the barrel cactus form that is indigenous to the area."

OK, I'm lying. This is the new stadium of the Arizona Cardinals football team.

But given some of the absurd Catholic churches that have been built in the past thirty years, wasn't it believable for just a second that this structure was indeed a new cathedral? And weren't the architects' comments above reminiscent of the pretentious cant that we've often had to endure as money was wasted on yet another monstrosity?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Even better

After twenty-two years of marriage, you'd think I'd have learned to ask my wife about things. Perhaps this is why I'm in the casa del perro so often.

I knew that she had spent six months living with a Catalan family in Castellon de la Plana back in our college days, but did I think of asking her first whether she had ever heard the valediction "May no new thing arise" (que no hayan novedades) when she was there? No.

Turns out she had not. I suppose that if that fine little phrase is genuine at all (which I'm quite uncertain about at this point, though I'm sure hoping it is), it may have simply fallen out of fashion -- perhaps just as the once-universal complimentary close "your humble and obedient servant" disappeared from English letters by the late 1800's. Or maybe it was always more of a Castilian than a Catalan thing.

Interestingly, though, she also told me that novedades, which is translated "new thing" in the O'Brian novels, is more properly translated as "novelties." You know, as in "new and improved." So the valediction really means something more like "May no New Coke* arise."

Now that's a wish I can wholeheartedly agree with.

* For those who are too young to remember, about 25 years ago the Coca-Cola folks tried to replace their flagship time-tested favorite soda with some glop their marketeers dreamed up, which they called New Coke. Disaster ensued. It lasted only a few weeks, until they shamefacedly brought back the formula everyone loved, as Classic Coke. As far as I can tell, New Coke was taken out back and shot, probably together with the marketeers.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

"May no new thing arise"

That wish (scroll down if you follow the link) -- used throughout Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels by his Irish-Catalan ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin, and purportedly a traditional Spanish (or perhaps Catalan) parting remark, much as we might say "see you later" -- sums up my attitude much of the time.

I'm not a Luddite or a complete traditionalist. There's my iPod right here on my desk, to prove it. But the world is awash in stuff that claims to be new and improved but so often is really just different, and worse. That certainly goes for my Catholic Church, where so much of the change of the past forty years has been sheer careless novelty.

The next time I hear someone piously say, "The only constant is change," there's going to be trouble. The only reason change may sometimes seem constant is that too few people say "you got another thing comin', bub." Or if I'm unexpectedly touched by grace, maybe I'll just say...

Que no hayan novedades.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

How authority works

Quite a few American bishops seem to be clueless when it comes to the way authority and obedience work in the real world. They feel free to ignore anything coming out of Rome that they don't like, and then are surprised and indignant when their priests and administrators follow their example and decide to ignore what they say.

Now, I'd love to send the guys who need some instruction in this (and thank God there are now many who don't, like Chaput and Vasa) to a big-ticket week-long workshop with a trendy management guru and plenty of breakout sessions, in, say, Aspen or Honolulu. But I just don't think that would be right, given the cash-strapped condition of many of their dioceses, after the umpteenth settlement for the priestly pederasty they've been ignoring.

No, I think I'll just suggest they zip over to the public library and borrow Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander, where the secret is revealed in two sentences, for free:

A commander is obeyed by his officers because he himself is obeying; the thing is not in its essence personal; and so down. If he does not obey, the chain weakens.

Thanks for coming, your excellencies. Have a safe trip home.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Not by scripture alone

One of the things that drove me away from Protestantism and back to the RCC was the Protestant insistence on sola scriptura, the exclusive reliance upon the Bible for Christian truth (and therefore a rejection of the authority of the teaching tradition of the Church). It did seem odd, once I finally thought about it, that so vital a doctrine as sola scriptura isn't actually in the scriptura. Then I read this, in Survivals and New Arrivals by the English convert Hilaire Belloc:

Since the authority of the Church was denied, some other authority had to be accepted. The parallel authority of Holy Scripture was put forward. Then came the obvious difficulty, that, since there was no external authoritative Church, there was no one to tell you what Holy Scripture meant, and you were thrown back on the interpretation which each individual might make of any passage in the Bible, or its general sense. For instance (to take the leading example) the individual had to decide for himself what was meant by the words of Consecration. But the modern extension of the thing has gone far beyond such comparatively orthodox limits as trusting to the authority of Holy Scripture, even under private interpretation. It has taken the form of basing religion upon individual feelings. Men and women say: "This is true, because it is true to me. I have felt this, and therefore I know it to be true."

Come to think of it, if you want a religion that's really big on sola scriptura today, you probably want Islam. Where the Koran (but only in Arabic!) is the equivalent of Christ to Christians. Or so wrote Newsweek's religion editor, when he explained why last year's riots over allegedly flushed Korans (which turned out not to have been flushed) were perfectly reasonable, because the Koran is so much more important to Muslims than the Bible is to Christians.

Which shows how things can go fatally wrong when people start thinking a book, not God, deserves the honor due to God alone.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


A few posts ago I revealed that I didn't have a clue who the eminent architect Henry Hardinge Menzies is. His profile is here. His fine article God in a Box is here.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Why we need beauty in our churches

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.

This, from John Paul II's Letter to Artists, in which he recalled what the Fathers said at the end of Vatican II, quoted in this article.

Ten myths that deserve a good whack

For those who want to see beautiful new Catholic churches built, and beautiful old ones kept that way, I'd strongly recommend Duncan Stroik's article Ten Myths of Contemporary Church Architecture. It was originally published in Mr. Stroik's periodical Sacred Architecture, but is conveniently available online here.

A few excerpts:

[Myth] 1. The Second Vatican Council requires us to reject traditional church architecture and design new churches in a Modernist style.

This myth is based more on what Roman Catholics have built during the past thirty years than on what the Church has taught. Even by professional accounts, the church architecture of the past decade has been an unmitigated disaster. However, actions often speak louder than words, and the faithful have been led to believe that the Church requires buildings to be functional abstractions, because that is what we have been building. Nothing could be farther from the intentions of the Council fathers who clearly intended the historic excellence of Catholic architecture to continue. It is most important to keep in mind that "there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing." (Sacrosanctum Concilium) ...

[Myth] 2. New churches must be designed in accordance with the document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, published by the Bishop's Committee on Liturgy in 1977.

Due to the lack of any alternative, this pamphlet has become the veritable bible for many new and renovated churches. This document, which was never voted on by the American Bishop's conference and holds no canonical weight, is based more on the principles of Modernist architecture than on Roman Catholic teaching, or her patrimony of sacred architecture. Among its weaknesses is an overemphasis on a congregational view of the Church, an antagonism towards history and tradition, and a strident iconoclasm. Because of the controversial nature of the document, the Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy is presently drafting a new and hopefully improved version.

[Myth] 6. The fan shape, in which everyone can see the assembly and be close to the altar, is the most appropriate form for expressing the full, active and conscious participation of the body of Christ.

This myth comes out of the extreme view that the assembly is the primary symbol of the church. While the fan shape is a wonderful shape for theater, for lectures, even for representative government - it is not an appropriate shape for the liturgy. Ironically, the reason often stated for using the fan shape is to encourage participation, yet the semicircular shape is derived from a room for entertainment. The fan shape does not derive from the writings of the Second Vatican Council, it derives from the Greek or Roman theater. Up until recently, it was never used as a model for Catholic churches. In fact, the first theater churches were 19th century Protestant auditoriums designed so as to focus on the preacher.

Some days are just like this

I don't know about you, but there are days when I long to put out this sign.

(Seen at the Fukugawa Edo museum in Tokyo, during our 2004 vacation. Actually, they were open.)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A sight for sore eyes

If, like me, your heart just breaks to see the many new Catholic cathedrals and churches that look more like airport lounges, concert halls, or clean rooms; or to see fine old cathedrals and churches get the sacred renovated completely out of them; then you should definitely spend some time at The Institute for Sacred Architecture. You'll feel better, I promise!

Take a look, for instance, at the renovation of the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Bridgeport, Connecticut, featured on the homepage. I hadn't heard of the architect, Henry Menzies, but I'm sure going to keep an eye on him now. Look at the baldacchino over the altar in the photo -- a very traditional element interpreted in a thoroughly contemporary way, beautifully and respectfully done.

I like the sound of this:

The centerpiece of Mr. Menzies’ design is the altar, which is, without a doubt, the crowning aspect of the project. The altar is the focus of the church, and the eye is invariably drawn to it from almost any point in the cathedral. The color scheme and floor patterns chosen by Mr. Menzies accentuate the altar’s importance and help to focus the eye. The color scheme inside consists of very pale walls and columns, highlighted by gold capitals. The eye is drawn from the capitals along the ribs of the nave ceiling. The ceiling is painted blue, reminiscent of color schemes of the Renaissance. The ceiling represents heaven, often painted blue to portray the heavens within the structure of the church. The attention is then gathered at more highly colorful areas of the church, such as the altar and side chapels.

The centerpiece is the altar -- AND it's in its proper place. The whole atmosphere is one of quiet, beauty, and reverence. I love the colors.

You could really get excited about going to Heaven in a place like that.

A typhoon rosary

Yikes! I just realized that I'm on my thirteenth Patrick O'Brian novel today (The Nutmeg of Consolation), having started the series only a few weeks ago. This has turned into a serious addiction. It's going to be hard when I get to that unfinished 21st volume.

I remarked a few posts back about the passage in which Stephen Maturin, the Irish-Catalan ship's doctor, seeks out a Mass in Boston in 1812. In the novel I just finished, The Thirteen Gun Salute, there's another fine Catholic moment. He and his friend Captain Aubrey are sitting in the dark on a desolate island as a spectacular typhoon batters their ship to matchwood just offshore. In one of the enormous lightning flashes, Aubrey looks over -- and sees Stephen praying the Rosary.

It's very interesting, the way Maturin's character has been developed to this point in the series. He's the consummate scientist and man of reason, but he's also clearly a passionate Catholic, one who can take consolation in a moment of crisis from the Rosary that is so much out of vogue in many Catholic parishes today.

I guess I have another reason to note this episode: in announcing the approach of the typhoon, with its unearthly seas and weird copper-violet skies, Stephen quotes lines from one of my favorite bits of verse, Dryden's Ode for St. Cecelia's Day:

So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


What we do in life echoes in eternity.

That was the tag line of one of my favorite movies of the last ten years: Gladiator.

It's a terrifying thought, that. All that we do in each instant of time is a word that echoes not for a year, or an age, but for eternity. The good words, and the bad we cannot erase, but can only beg to be forgiven for. It will form the music we must listen to in saecula saeculorum.

And not only in eternity. Each moment's choice of virtue or vice, justice or injustice, courage or cowardice, alters the music of time, as well. Each choice makes certain things possible, and dictates that other things will never happen unto the world's end.

What colossal responsibilities even a day's worth of human life contains!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The old ways were better, chapter 347

Sometimes, the old ways just worked better. Not so obviously at first. But sooner or later, the benefits of the old ways come out in unexpected ways. Just like the benefits of virtue.

Lately, there's been a good deal of attention paid to the potential of a bird flu epidemic. This has even stimulated some discussion about modifying certain modern practices in the distribution of the Eucharist if an epidemic really get going, to prevent the spread of contagion.

Let's review how Communion is often done today. The priest consecrates the bread and wine. The bread is handed to the communicant, who puts the bread into his own mouth with his hand, then also drinks from a common cup or chalice, whose rim is wiped with a cloth after each person drinks.

Contrast this with the bad old days we're taught to despise by many bishops and diocesan personnel. The priest would consecrate the bread and wine, but would bring only the bread to the communicants; he would then place the Host on the tongue of each person. No wine would be offered at all.

Add to these differences that before Vatican II, there was no such thing as shaking hands at the Peace, before Communion.

So let's look at all these changes from the standpoint of preventing the spread of disease -- many diseases, not just bird flu.

Under the new customs, everyone shakes hands with several other people a few minutes before Communion. News flash: shaking hands is a nifty way to transfer germs from one person to another. Then people go up for Communion, take their consecrated bread in their own now-contaminated hands, and put it in their mouth. Next, they drink a sip of wine from the same cup as several hundred other people, the rim of which has been ineffectually wiped with a cloth which itself is just collecting germs as it goes along.

Under the old customs, only one person ever touched the Host before it arrived directly on your tongue: the priest. The priest who publicly washed his hands at the beginning of the Offertory. I know, it was a ceremonial washing. I served Mass back then, and knew that some priests wanted only a few drops on the their fingertips, while others wanted a veritable flood. But either way, I never saw a priest approach either the side of the altar to wash his hands, or the altar rail to distribute Communion, with anything but scrupulously clean hands.

I hope it's pretty clear to everyone, whether liberal or conservative, that the old customs were simply less likely to transmit sickness among the congregation.

But we added the germ-spreading handshakes, and the taking of the Eucharist in the germy hand, and the drinking from the germy common cup, so we could be -- I don't know what. Trendier. Up with the times. Just different from the past. More like the Protestants.

What we got was sicker. In more ways than one.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Nine hundred years and counting

Nine-hundred and thirty-five years ago, at Manzikert in eastern Anatolia, the Islamic conquest of what we today call Turkey began its final phase, with a crushing victory over the army of the Byzantine Empire. It continues today, not with armies -- the need for such effort has long passed -- but with the solitary knife and pistol. From Catholic News Service:

A French missionary priest survived a knife attack on July 1, but Church leaders in Turkey are worried by a rising tide of anti-Christian violence in the months leading up to a visit by Pope Benedict XVI.

Father Pierre Brunissen was badly wounded when he was stabbed twice by a man who was promptly taken into police custody. Authorities said that the priest's assailant appeared mentally unbalanced.

The AsiaNews service reports, however, that Father Brunissen had received a number of threats in recent weeks, and the parish church he served in the town of Samsun had been vandalized. The violence and intimidation had increased, AsiaNews said, after the murder of an Italian missionary, Father Andrea Santoro, in the Turkish town of Trabzon, in February. The young man charged with killing Father Santoro, who was also described as unbalanced, shouted an Islamic slogan after shooting the priest.

Bishop Luigi Padovese, the apostolic nuncio in Turkey, told the Associated Press that he would like to believe officials' assurances that the assault on Father Brunissen "has nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism." But he said that hostility toward the Church has increased significantly in recent months, with an apparent campaign against Christian influence, and "it is the Catholic priests who are being targeted."

Bishop Padovese seems to know the score. The "unbalanced" assailants of Frs. Brunissen and Santoro are no more than the undisciplined vanguard of the assault of the real Islam upon all things outside it -- including any brand of moderate Islam inclined to accommodate Western or Christian influences -- that will soon engulf Turkey. Not even the gentlest, most peaceful Christian presence, exemplified by these two priests, can be tolerated by the real Islam. A generation ago, there were still sizable religious minorities in Turkey. They are dwindling today, and soon there will be none.

What is utterly galling in this is that every square foot of what we now call "Turkey" -- and accept as naturally and natively Muslim -- was once the heartland of Christianity. Its churches at Ephesus and in Galatia were the recipients of letters from St. Paul. Its plains once fed the whole Byzantine Empire. Its sturdy Christian peasantry filled the ranks of the Empire's army, which alone fought off every pagan and Muslim challenger for centuries. Until Manzikert.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Stephen Maturin's Mass

I've gotten hooked on the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian, which partly accounts for my last week's silence. But today I ran across something interesting from a contemporary Catholic viewpoint in the sixth novel, Fortune of War.

Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon and naturalist, Catalan and Irish by birth, and Catholic, has been taken prisoner with Jack Aubrey during the War of 1812, and goes hunting for somewhere to hear Mass during his captivity in Boston.

... the priest was already at the altar by the time they reached the obscure chapel in a side-alley, and crept into the enormously evocative smell of old incense. There followed an interval on a completely different plane of being: with the familiar ancient words around him, always the same, in whatever country he had ever been (though now uttered in a broad Munster Latin), he lived free of time or geography, and he might have walked out, a boy, into the streets of Barcelona white in the sun, or into those of Dublin under the soft rain. He prayed, as he had prayed so long, for Diana, but even before the priest dismissed them, the changed nature of his inner words brought him back to the immediate present and to Boston, and if he had been a weeping man it would have brought tears coursing down his face.

Lucky Stephen. He lived in a world where, indeed, a Catholic could voyage 'round the world and take solace in the same Mass in each land he visited. The world Catholics had had for a thousand years, and which we had until such a short time ago. May that world come again, and soon.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Verdi Requiem

Recently, my brother was given tickets to a performance of the Verdi Requiem at San Francisco's Davies Hall, and kindly invited us to come along. I've heard it performed before, but this was something special. Fabulous soloists, 170-plus voices in the SF Symphony Chorus, great brass players in the SF Symphony Orchestra.

You'd think that in San Francisco, where nine-tenths of the people seem fundamentally opposed to most of what the Catholic Church stands for, a Mass setting would be treated with some disdain. Not so on that night. The audience was sternly warned on their way in by large placards proclaiming that there would be no intermission in the 100-minute performance, and that no one leaving their seat would be re-admitted to the hall. Not only did the audience treat the music with reverence, minding their manners by not applauding between movements, but the conductor (James Conlon) held the silence after the last plaintive Libera me for a full ten seconds -- and not the slightest sound was heard throughout the enormous hall. Then, of course, the place erupted for seven or eight minutes of cheering.

Of course, it was reverence for Verdi's music, not for the Church or even for God, that animated most patrons that night. But here's the great thing about Christian art of all kinds: it penetrates the soul even in the face of stark unbelief. No human being can escape unchanged from the hurricane of Verdi's treatment of the Dies Irae, all the more so when it returns by surprise near the end, when you've been lulled by several minutes of soft pleas for mercy. There in the program were the Latin and English side by side, and I wonder how many hearts were troubled -- rightly so -- by the unfamiliar sentiments, or by these disturbing lines alone:

Lacrymosa dies illa
Qui resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.

(Lamentable is the day
on which the guilty shall arise
from the ashes to be judged.)

And I wonder how many felt drawn by this wish:

Sed signifer Sanctus Michael
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam,
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semini eius.

But let Saint Michael, the standard-bearer,
bring them forth into the holy light,
which you once promised
to Abraham and his seed.