Saturday, March 31, 2007

Maybe not such a good idea

I was watching the well-made documentary Witness to Hope, about John Paul II, on EWTN the other day. One bit of history caught my ear especially: when John Paul held his first audience with the assembled cardinals after his election, he broke with tradition, which would have had him sit while the cardinals, one by one, walked up and knelt before him as an expression of their subordination and obedience.

Instead, he reportedly said "I will receive my brothers standing". And he did.

What could be more gracious? What could be wrong with such a magnanimous gesture?

Nothing -- throughout much of Church history. But in the context of his time, and in retrospect -- perhaps a lot. Because symbols mean a great deal, and traditions are often not just dead habit, but embodied wisdom.

Imagine you're a certain cardinal of a major American diocese who prefers to go his own way, paying no heed to orders coming out from Rome. If you have to go up to the Pope and kneel, wouldn't you think "Wow, I guess this means I have to obey this guy"? But if you get to walk up to him and not kneel, but just stand chatting like equals, wouldn't you think "Great! He's practically saying he's just another bishop! And by the way, brother John Paul -- don't tell me what to do in MY diocese, OK?"

After the chaos and drift of the '70's, we needed a re-establishment of authority. Keeping with tradition might at least have given John Paul higher ground from which to begin that work. Instead, in a gesture coming no doubt straight out of his great and good heart, he stood -- and in a stroke, the Church found itself starting lower than ever in its climb out of that miserable ditch dug by those who distorted Vatican II.

Monday, March 26, 2007

This Sunday at St. Thomas

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

Ingenieri, O bone Jesu
Des Prez, Christum ducem
Morales, Vigilate et orate

As always, the texts of these motets can be found at the Choir website.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Just true

From the seventh book, Blue Shoes and Happiness, in the delightful No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, comes some unaccustomed plain speaking about the AIDS epidemic in Africa (and our own multiple STD epidemics). The heroine, Mma Ramotswe ("mma" is an honorific title), and her assistant are talking with a new client:

Mma Ramotswe folded her arms... . "Ever since women allowed men to think they did not need to get married, everything has gone wrong. That is what I think, Mma."

Poppy thought for a moment. "I think you may be right," she said. "Look at the mess. Look at what all this unfaithfulness has done. People are dying because of that, aren't they? Many people are dying."

For a moment the three of them were silent. There was no gainsaying what Poppy had said. It was just true. Just true.

Of course, our betters in the government and academia tell us that it's not true at all, that those three simple women from Botswana have it all wrong. All we have to do, they say, is hand out more condoms, spend a few tens of billions more on an AIDS vaccine, and get those pesky Catholics to shut up about wrong behavior and disordered inclinations, so we can enlarge the sphere of evil things that people can do without fear of consequences. And how's that worked out for us so far, guys?

Even with all the dust, Botswana is looking real good. Some things are just true.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


From now on, every time I hear someone counsel a wait-and-see attitude toward abuses in the Church by cheerily quoting Matthew 16:18 about how "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it", I'm going to suggest they read the last chapter of Belloc's The Great Heresies. Especially the chilling part where he considers the two futures immediately ahead of us:

The modern attack on the Faith (the latest and most formidable of all) has advanced so far that we can already affirm one all-important point quite clearly: of two things one must happen, one of two results must become definite throughout the modern world. Either the Catholic Church (now rapidly becoming the only place wherein the traditions of civilization are understood and defended) will be reduced by her modern enemies to political impotence, to numerical insignificance, and, so far as public appreciation goes, to silence; or the Catholic Church will, in this case as throughout the past, react more strongly against her enemies than her enemies have been able to react against her; she will recover and extend her authority, and will rise once more to the leadership of civilization which she made, and thus recover and restore the world.

The first alternative future is the one I think the soothing "gates of hell" folks ought to give some serious thought to. Yes, it's still a future in which the Church has not disappeared. But it's likely to be a terrible, vicious, incomparably cruel future, poisoned by the prime catastrophe of ignorance of and disbelief in Christ. The gates of hell may not prevail, but they can get mighty close. And if they do, the heat's going to make global warming seem like a very, very small issue.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Belloc had it right

Now my reading has taken me onward to The Great Heresies by the Anglo-French convert Hilaire Belloc. What an astonishingly clear writer! And not afraid to call things by their right names and characters. Here's a sample from the last chapter, in which he considers what he calls "The Modern Attack", of which Social Darwinist capitalism, Communism, Fascism, and our current bane, pseudo-scientific materialism, are the chief exemplars:

The last category of fruits by which we may judge the character of
the Modern Attack consists in the fruit it bears in the field of the
intelligence -- what it does to human reason.

When the Modern Attack was gathering, a couple of lifetimes ago,
while it was still confined to a small number of academic men, the first
assault upon reason began. It seemed to make but little progress outside a
restricted circle. The plain man and his common-sense (which are the
strongholds of reason) were not affected. Today they are.

But reason today is everywhere decried. The ancient process of
conviction by argument and proof is replaced by reiterated affirmation;
and almost all the terms which were the glory of reason carry with them
now an atmosphere of contempt.

See what has happened for instance to the word "logic," to the
word "controversy"; note such popular phrases as "No one yet was ever
convinced by argument," or again, "Anything may be proved," or "That may
be all right in logic, but in practice it is very different." The speech
of men is becoming saturated with expressions which everywhere connote
contempt for the use of the intelligence.

Belloc was writing in 1938, seventy years ago, but he has our present world nailed. If you'd like to read it online, EWTN has an electronic version linked here.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

This Sunday at St. Thomas

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

Francisco Rosselli, Adoramus Te, Christe
Josquin des Prez, Tu solus qui facis mirabilia

Friday, March 16, 2007

A good attitude

Having taken Eric Metaxas' writing style to task, I'm going to perhaps make up for it a little by pointing out some terrific things I've learned from Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce's career as an antislavery crusader.

Here's Wilberforce's reaction to the umpteenth bump in the road -- Britain's failure to demand an immediate end to the French slave trade when Napoleon had abdicated the first time in 1814:

My spirits are quite lowered by it, yet let us do what we can and trust to God's blessing on our labours.

There it is, nice and simple and short: the same reaction that we always should have when Right suffers a setback.

I should add that he then mounted a wildly successful petition campaign, presented a million signatures to Parliament, played a very smart political game and got his measure to amend the peace treaty with France passed by large margins in both Houses, and won the day. That's a good example to follow, too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Amazing Grace (the book)

It's definitely been William Wilberforce week! In addition to seeing the new movie on the British reformer, I've been reading Eric Metaxas' new biography, also called Amazing Grace.

I wish I could recommend it strongly, but I really can't. I see that Mr. Metaxas has been published in the The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and other prestigious places, and Amazing Grace has made the NYT Bestseller list. That's a great deal more success than I'm likely ever to have. And it isn't that he doesn't marshall his facts well. But in this book, his style often just drives me crazy! He'll be going along fine, and then suddenly he's writing like a bright high school sophomore who has just been been given a reference book of standard metaphors and hackneyed phrases. For instance:

Wilberforce may have been crazy like a fox, but [Whig politician Charles James] Fox himself was so often drunk as the proverbial skunk that Wilberforce wisely decided to forego badgering him about becoming involved. Even if Fox had initially assented to lend his name to the cause, it seems likely that he may have eventually weaseled out of any real commitment anyway, and it is always possible that, given his affection for dissolute living, he may even have become a mole for the opposition.

If this paragraph was an isolated incident in the book, it would be just a momentary irritation, and might even be a refreshing bit of humor, but it isn't; there's a parade of such passages every few pages. I've had to put the book down several times because the cutesy artifice was so grating. What is the stylistic purpose of such stuff? Sure beats me.

Why take an author to task when I'm so much on his side? Exactly because I am on his side. I care about how these topics are presented to a skeptical, secular, religion-suspicious public. When an author (or a speaker or blogger or anyone else) goes off the rails and writes or speaks poorly, it reflects badly on the topic and the point of view. Makes me crazy.

But not like a fox.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Amazing Grace (the movie)

Saw the new movie Amazing Grace over the weekend. Some fine performances, a workmanlike recreation of the period, and a surprising clear concise job of explaining British politics of the day. Not a great film by any means, but worth seeing once.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

This Sunday at St. Thomas

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

Orlandus Lassus, Domine, convertere
Pedro Guerrero, Domine meus
Lassus, Audi benigne conditor

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The more things change...

Apropos the continued American snooze over the threat of radical Islam, I'm reminded of these words:

I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet.

Substitute "nation" for "island" and you've pretty much nailed our national psyche (and the dominant Catholic psyche in America, too).

The "island" in the original was England, and the author was Winston Churchill. The year was 1936, four short years before England would face utter defeat and subjugation. She would be rescued, in part, through under-the-table help from this country.

But who will rescue us? No one, that's who.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Like I was saying...

From Catholic World News' always-trenchant Diogenes:

Just about 10 years after the Bishop of Dallas agreed to step down quietly in the aftermath of a horrendous sex-abuse scandal,... ...and 7 years after the Vatican appointed a coadjutor to succeed him,... ...and 4 years after the coadjutor-- tired of waiting, frustrated by his isolation--- requested and received a transfer to a diocese where he could actually do something,... ... and 7 months after the bishop finally submitted his resignation, as required by canon law, upon reaching his 75th birthday,.... The Pope has accepted the resignation of Bishop Charles Grahmann. Which just goes to show: a bishop can't resist pressure from the Vatican forever. For a decade, maybe. But not forever.

So, as I keep asking quietly over here in my corner: why do these things take so ^&@##$* long?

Suppose you heard about an executive who winked at rampant cheating of customers, and then was kept on by his company in that same job for ten years, just so he could retire without embarrassment. Would you think that company well-run? Would you do business with them? Would you want to work for them?

Most of us would say No to all those questions. We'd want to do business with and work for a firm that held its employees to high standards, and that moved swiftly to remove employees who had violated those standards -- all the more swiftly when the employees were highly placed and enjoying a greater degree of trust.

The Church has to confront the reality of that expectation, and move at the speed the world expects on such occasions, if it wants to start recovering its horribly tattered reputation. I don't say that Bishop Grahmann should have been tossed onto the streets, but might there not have been an opening somewhere in the hierarchy where he could have been shunted off to, in such a way to send a message? Didn't Lesotho, Nepal, or Kiritimati need a papal nuncio, for instance?

Something else that's needed

In the vestibule of every Catholic Church, I'd like to see a brief, well-written pamphlet, prominently displayed, titled Why Should I Still be Catholic after the Abuse Scandal? If anyone thinks that question isn't being asked constantly by Catholics, and often answered the wrong way, they need to think again.

The Tridentine in Santa Clara

I was excited when I saw the news at California Catholic Daily (via Gerald) that an indult had been granted by Bishop McGrath of San Jose for the celebration of the Tridentine Mass in nearby Santa Clara, under the supervision of the Institute of Christ the King. It took me a while to get down there, but I finally attended Mass at the little chapel of Our Mother of Perpetual Help last Sunday, March 4.

Like most cradle Catholics my age, I hadn't heard a Tridentine Mass for forty years or more. I've been looking forward to hearing one again for years, and I was prepared to love it. But I wasn't so excited by the time Mass was over that day. What I experienced struck me as, in many ways, illustrative of how NOT to re-introduce the Tridentine to the majority of Catholics, who have never seen one celebrated.

There were some problems within the Mass itself:
  • The Latin was delivered too fast, often slurred. The poor priest was doing his best, I'm sure, but he was 85 if he was a day, and was so short of breath that he would simply not be able to pronounce the end of some sentences. His homily started out well enough, but he had to give up after a minute or two. Even in the tiny chapel (which I'll comment on later), he was often inaudible or unintelligible in places where he should have been heard. I lost my place several times, though fairly skilled at Latin.
  • Along the same lines, in the responsory sections, the priest and servers were stepping on each others' words constantly. The overall impression given was of hurry, that they simply wanted to get it over with as fast as they could. I should add that this was a defect that was fairly common, and all too frequently noted, when I served Mass back in my boyhood. I'm sure it's not what they intended, but that's how it sounded.
  • There was an awkward moment at Communion, when the priest loudly rebuked a boy for not putting out his tongue far enough.
Of course it needs to be considered that this priest might have been summoned to substitute at the last moment, may well have been in pain, and so on. He certainly looked uncomfortable and was obviously very frail. We always need to remember that priests are people, too, and have just as many reasons as any of us to be having a bad day.

With that said, I have to return to considering this experience with the question in mind: how do we make the Tridentine popular?
  • Surround the Mass with traditional beauty. Sadly, this very tiny chapel (capacity 49, though I doubt the pews would hold more than 30) wasn't up to the task. It was probably a former Protestant church from the look of it, without stained glass or even Stations of the Cross. Pews and fixtures were dilapidated and shabby. Someone had done a very nice job with equipping the altar with traditional statuary and other decorations, and of course that's where the focus has to be first -- but the rest of the environment was downright unpleasant.
  • Show off the splendor of the Church's tradition of Gregorian chant, if not the full richness of its later musical gems. There was no music at all, at this Mass. A very Low Mass indeed.
  • Have someone come out before Mass and welcome the congregation, especially newcomers who have never heard a Tridentine. People need to be thanked for their interest in making the effort. Yes, I know that should be unnecessary. But in today's world, it must be done.
  • Speak the Latin at a moderate, understandable pace, all the more so in these early years of revival when people are still rediscovering the tradition.
  • If possible, train the congregation to speak the servers' lines, too. This was the so-called "dialogue Mass" pattern that was being encouraged in the 40's and 50's. If one of the complaints about the Old Mass is that the new ways are more "participative", this is the antidote. And if 9-year-old boys could learn the responses in the past, I don't see why we all can't learn them today, unless we really have grown that hopelessly lazy and stupid.
I'm convinced that the Latin Mass, in some form, is the way forward for the Catholic Church. The effort in Santa Clara is a start for this area, full of promise, but if it's ever going to be anything other than a curiosity attended by a few, lessons need to be learned, and quickly. No, the Mass isn't a product needing marketing... but yes, it is. This is one place where aggiornamento in attitude would do a deal of good.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Why can't Lent just be Lent?

On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, my parish church handed out copies of something called The Little Black Book: Six-Minute Meditations on the Passion according to Matthew. Great, I thought, I could really use some structure to my Lent, and started reading it regularly. Things went along well for a few days, and then I began noticing kind of a progressive-political angle creeping into some of the meditations, along with some curious slants on discussions of important topics. So I looked at the thing a bit more carefully, and found that, lo and behold, the texts are based on writings of the late bishop of Saginaw, Ken Untener.

I remembered vaguely that there had been some controversy about Bishop Untener, so I dug a little more, and found out about his links to Call to Action and left-wing politics, and the suspicions about programs at seminaries he was responsible for prior to his elevation to the episcopacy. I also found many compliments about the vigor of his preaching, his simplicity of life, and the positive impact he apparently had on many.

My point is not to rehash the controversies, or to decide whether he was a good man or not. I'm sure he had a mix of virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses, insights and blind spots, just like the rest of us. I just have to say, however, that I am really, really tired of having left-leaning priests and bishops tucking political messages into their preaching and writing. And yes, it does seem to me that this is a particular failing of those of the leftist persuasion.

A little sadly, I've put The Little Black Book away, and am looking for something else to read. Something that just lets Lent be Lent.