At the hour of our death

“At the hour of our death.” For Catholics, those words are instantly recognizable as the end of the Hail Mary. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.

Although we often pray the Hail Mary, it is something we particularly pray when someone is dying, or is in danger of death. We pray it when we hear a siren, for those who are in danger, and perhaps approaching the hour of their death. When my dear friend Mark was in his final hours, what I needed to do was pray the rosary. I didn’t even really understand why; only, “I am Catholic, and this is what we do.”

There’s another liturgical phrase that most Catholics recognize, although it has more variation in the exact wording: By sharing in his suffering and death, may we also come to share in his resurrection. It’s Jesus’ suffering and death that we’re talking about, of course. I was originally puzzled by the variant that said “by suffering a death like his,” because I took it literally: Jesus’s death was crucifixion, and that’s not how most of us die.

Eventually, I figured out that the crucifixion was only the means of his death, not the substance of it. Fundamentally, Jesus died because he was human. Through the Incarnation, he took on our humanity, our mortality. Humans die: it’s constitutive of the human condition. By one means or another, we all die. The words of the prayer have it backwards: Jesus suffered a death like ours.

And his mother was there.

Mary was there, at Calvary. She saw him nailed to the cross. She witnessed his suffering. She watched as he drew his last breath. She saw him die. Tradition has it that she cradled his dead body in her arms, grieving, after he was taken down from the cross, before he was placed in the tomb.

And that’s why. That’s why we pray to Mary when someone we love is dying, or has died, or when someone is in danger of death: because Jesus suffered a death like ours, and Mary was there.

Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,

Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

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Holy Week

Palm Sunday. Good Friday.

Holy Saturday. Easter Sunday.

This year, because most Christians in the US were not able to go to church on Palm Sunday, many of us “cut branches,” as it says in scripture, and put them on our doors. I participated in this enthusiastically, cutting a leafy branch from one of my bushes Sunday morning before mass, holding it up during the blessing of the palms and holding on to it throughout as I usually do with my palm, and then taping it to my door afterwards. (I was pleased I had some tie-dye Duck Tape to use, to add a touch of Godspell vibe to it!) I liked how it looked as well as its witnessing/evangelizing aspect, and decided to keep it up throughout Holy Week.

I’m not usually a visual arts person, but the idea for this montage came to me all at once a few days later, when I noticed how the now-drooping branch I’d put on my door resembled the drooping body of Christ on many crucifixes.

Holy Saturday is often skipped over in discussions of Holy Week, in our rush to get to the joy of the resurrection. But the sorrow and emptiness of Holy Saturday makes a liturgical space for those who mourn, and counters our culture’s discomfort around grief, bereavement, and death. In 2020, we need this witness more than ever.

However you observed Holy Week and Easter this year, dear Christian readers, I hope you found them consoling, inspiring, faith-deepening, and at least momentarily joyful. And for my non-Christian readers, I hope you too found moments of consolation, inspiration, and joy this week along whatever path you follow.

Happy Easter!

Christ is risen!

Truly, he is risen!

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Good Friday Moments

During the Passion reading, this verse rang loudly against too much of the news these days:

“If he were not a criminal,
we would not have handed him over to you.”

– John 18:30

And the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in a liturgy:

the Veneration of the Cross was no-contact.

One by one, each of the five liturgical ministers present approached the cross, but only as far as a mark on the floor about six feet away. They knelt, and gazed at the cross from a distance to venerate it in silence; then rose and walked away, so the next person could take their place.

Behold, behold, the wood of the cross
on which is hung our salvation:
O come, let us adore.

“Behold,” but nothing more.

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We Are All in the Garden

On Holy Thursday, after the procession, after we sing the Tantum Ergo, gathered around the altar of repose, I usually meditate on being in the garden with Jesus, keeping watch and praying as his friends didn’t, because they couldn’t stay awake.

This year, gazing through my screen at the tabernacle on the altar of repose, things were different.

Gazing through my screen at the physical changes in my church — which are beautiful, but have taken away something that was dear to me — and mourning that loss, it felt wrong. Foolish, and silly, and small.

I apologized to Jesus for being so distracted over such a small thing, but then I thought, “No… no, Jesus understands.” Surely, the losses he faced when he was in the garden seemed foolish, and silly, and small, compared to the purpose for which he had come. Scripture doesn’t give us much detail about his thoughts in the garden, but we can imagine:

Did I tell my friends enough? Did they understand? Will they remember? Will they remember me?

How bad is it going to be? As bad as I’m imagining? Worse?

When is it coming?

Oh, God, isn’t there any way out?

This year, it is we who are in the garden, alone and afraid of the suffering to come.

This year, Jesus keeps watch in the garden with us.

Deliver us, Lord, from every evil,

and grant us peace in our day.

In your mercy keep us free from sin,

And protect us from all anxiety,

As we wait in joyful hope

For the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.

– Holy Thursday, 2020

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The Purpose of the Papacy, Francis, and the Synod

This blog post was inspired by a quote by Pete Buttigieg going around, “[T]he purpose of the Presidency is not to glorify the President, but to unify the American people.” What struck me was how easily it could be transposed into an ecclesiological context, specifically a post-Vatican II context.

The purpose of the papacy is not to glorify the pope;
but to unify the Christian people.

The first part is easiest to demonstrate. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Pope John XXIII being carried in to the opening of the Council, in all his pomp and circumstance, it’s easy to read that kind of thing as glorifying the person of the pope. I think of Pope John Paul I as the person who most clearly put an end to that kind of pomp: instead of a coronation, he was inaugurated by receiving a pallium, such as bishops receive when they are installed (albeit a special papal one). Since the council, much of the traditional papal regalia has been put away to be admired and studied, rather than used. Popes have gone out and travelled all over the world, face to face with thousands of ordinary Catholics. There’s still an aura of celebrity attached to the pope, but his public appearances are clearly more aligned with servant than with king.

Pope Francis has embodied this understanding of the papacy even more clearly: from the moment of his first appearance as pope, when his first action was to ask the assembled faithful to pray for him, in the words of the familiar prayers that every Catholic learns in childhood. Other striking moments early in his time as pope exemplify this as well: his choice to move out of the papal palace and live in Casa Santa Marta, among ordinary people; and his choice of a modest economy car to get around town. I was especially impressed, when he went out to say Mass at a local church, that he stood around outside the doors of the church before mass, greeting people as they arrived, just like an ordinary pastor.

The second part requires a bit more unpacking. “Unification” and “Christian people” are both doing a lot of work here when translated into an ecclesial register. Continue reading

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The Statue at the Synod and the Catholic Imagination

Symbols and artwork are multivalent.

How can any Catholic with a properly formed imagination look at a statue of a heavily pregnant woman in the context of a church, and not see Mary pregnant with Jesus?

Is it because she is naked, with her drooping breasts clearly shown? The breasts that nursed him, the body that bore him, that God would not suffer to decay?

Is it because she doesn’t appear “beautiful” by contemporary Western standards for women? Those standards presume either young perky non-pregnant breasts, or supportive undergarments.

Is it because she is brown? Surely not. Mary was probably brown. We have other wooden statues in our churches.

Is it because indigenous Catholics prayed before it? Come on. We pray before statues of Mary All. The. Time.

Is it because their prayers didn’t look like our prayers, with neat rows of votive candles, flowers in vases, and rosaries? We cannot use “looks familiar” as a necessary criterion for authentic Catholic prayer. “I know it when I see it” is a definition of obscenity, not of Catholicism.

Is it because the statue was described as symbolizing life and fertility? No, that can’t be it, because that verbal description came after the imagination responded to the image. (And besides, we call Mary  “our life”, and our most common Marian prayer blesses the fruit of her womb.)

Symbols and artwork are inherently multivalent. Inscribing Christian meaning onto non-Christian symbols has been intrinsic to evangelization and the spread of the gospel since the birth of the church. The Christmas tree is merely the best-known example; the practice was pervasive. If we look at the statue and see Mary, the mother of Jesus; and indigenous people of the Amazon look at the statue and see a symbol of life and fertility, then that is the opportunity for a conversation about how our visions overlap, where they differ and what they have in common. This is part of conversion and part of inculturation. That’s how it works.

How can a Catholic look at that statue, in a church, and not see Mary, pregnant with Jesus?

Or Elizabeth, pregnant with John in her old age, with her husband rendered mute by God for challenging the angel who appeared, all unexpected, in the sanctuary of the Temple?

Or Felicity, imprisoned by the Romans with her fellow Christians but at risk of being executed later without them because the Romans would not send a pregnant woman into the arena? She prayed that she would give birth early, and God granted that prayer.

Or perhaps the mother of Moses: pregnant, enslaved, and secretly planning how to craft a chance of survival for her baby, in case she bore a son, by floating him down the river.


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Social Justice and Sexual Diversity

I’m writing this on National Coming Out Day in the United States. The metaphorical closet to which it refers is a potent symbol of vulnerable marginalization. This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments from plaintiffs who believe they have a right to fire people who are transgender, who are gay, whose gender presentation is too far from the stereotypical norm.

My support for people whose gender or sexuality goes beyond the “gender binary” is firmly rooted in my formation as a Catholic. It is clear to me that people who are not heterosexual and cisgender are marginalized by our society, and the preferential option for the poor is a preferential option for those who are economically marginalized. The biblical injunction to care for the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan describes people who are marginalized and vulnerable in a variety of ways, and therefore God commends them especially to our protection.

Many would describe the plaintiffs’ position in the Supreme Court case as representing traditional Christian values about sex and gender. Even supposing that this were the case, the Biblical teaching about welcoming the marginalized (which would include “not firing them from their jobs”, just so we’re perfectly clear) would still apply. “But they’re icky” is not a get-out-of-loving-your-neighbor-free card. [1]

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out the new religious studies minor in Social Justice and Sexual Diversity offered by Mount St Mary’s University:

This minor provides students an opportunity to examine sexual diversity and religious discourse through the lens of Social Justice, as expressed in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.  Sexual diversity manifests itself in various forms of identity, expression, gender, and embodiment.  Hence, this minor weaves affirmation of sexual diversity with the themes of Social Justice: human dignity, rights and responsibilities; solidarity and community with the marginalized; and stewardship of creation.  The methodology is praxis-based and interdisciplinary, and provides opportunities for local and global advocacy by and for the sexually marginalized.

Students choose 18 credits worth of coursework from a list of almost 40 fabulous options that examine sexual diversity in the context of sacred texts of multiple traditions, interfaith conversation, bioethics, colonialism, the ecological crisis, and more! (Can I take all of them??)

A praxis-based program with opportunities for advocacy is especially timely, and will help form students in “walking the walk” of social justice principles. I commend MSMU for offering this Religious Studies minor, and encourage young progressive people of faith (or their parents!) to check it out.

[1] To the contrary: tradition tells us that St Francis of Assisi made a point of embracing lepers because of their ickiness, in an attempt to grasp Jesus’ descent from the divinity of heaven to the muck of humanity. And mimetic theology tells us that the outraged response to ickiness is the scandalized response that leads to scapegoating.

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What is a church, that we should be mindful of it?

I found myself crying, as I watched Notre Dame burn. I’d only been there once; why was I crying? I cried as I watched the people gathered to sing the Hail Mary as they watched the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris burning. Why? What is this church, that it should inspire such a reaction?

Usually, when theologians discuss the definition of church, they’re talking about the body of Christ, the communion of believers, the ecclesial community, the ecclesiastical institution, the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” object of the Creed. Today I’m going to talk about the building. Not Notre Dame specifically, but the genus of which Notre Dame is an instance: a church as Catholics make churches, and particularly a great church, that expresses the fullness of this genus of church.

A church, first of all, is embodied prayer. Everything about its building is prayer, especially so during Christendom. The money donated to build the church is an offering to God by the donors, through whose goodness they have these financial gifts to offer, an offering of thanksgiving or petition. The justly compensated labor of the architects and artists is an offering to God, as they turn the creative gifts with which God has endowed them to create works that glorify God. The justly compensated labor of the carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, and every other skilled or unskilled laborer involved in the complicated task of raising a building is the prayer of workers in the vineyard who answer Jesus’ call to come into the fields to gather in the plentiful harvest. A church is a great, intricate, persistent tapestry of prayer.

A church, secondly, is a sacramental: Continue reading

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Create in me a clean heart, O God

About 20 years ago, the music director of my parish announced that he would be resigning at the end of0 the current choir season, 8 months later. Not only was he the best music director I’d ever worked with, whose opinions I invariably respected even when we disagreed, he was a good friend. This happened amidst a great deal of other change in my life, and it was very difficult for me. I was on the search committee for his successor, and that didn’t go smoothly for me either: I didn’t like the process, and I especially didn’t like that the search parameters were defined to find and hire a candidate who lacked some of the expertise that I considered most important. My clearest memory of the time involves a phone call with a choirmate and fellow committee member, a woman 30 years my senior: I was in tears, she was distressed by my distress, and earnestly advising me not to take it all so seriously that it made me cry, that it wasn’t good for me.

During the same period, the choir was rehearsing a setting of Psalm 51, to prepare for Lent. It was lovely, with a musical setting that intensified the text, and a few challenging passages for us to work on. So we were singing it a lot, every Wednesday for weeks, and some Sunday mornings if there was time. The opening was simple, with men and women singing first separately, then together:

Continue reading

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Clericalism and the Doctrine of Scandal

The doctrine of scandal in the Catholic church is based on the scriptural injunction ((Romans 14:13ff, for example) to avoid doing anything that would shake the faith of others, particularly those whose faith is less mature.

In practice, this has been commonly interpreted as a justification for covering up the sins of clergy, specifically including the sin of sexual abuse of children. The rationale has been that if the laity knew that a priest (or a bishop! Or a cardinal!) had done such a sinful thing, our faith would be shaken and we might even leave the Church: thus endangering our salvation, according to the pious; or taking our donations with us, according to the cynical. It was better, reasoned the clerics, to protect the faith of their flock by keeping those misdeeds secret, protecting the reputation of the church. And so these incidents were not reported to secular authorities, and victims were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and offending priests were re-assigned to another parish where no one would know what had happened.

I think we can all agree that the result of this policy was disastrous. (And certainly, one important lesson to take from this story is that you should always be suspicious when the thing you propose to do for the benefit of others just happens to coincide with your own best interests.) But what I want to do here is dive into the relationship between the doctrine of scandal implemented in this way, and the structural sin of clericalism.

Implicit in this doctrine, if taken at face value, is the assumption that the faith of laypeople is weaker, and more easily shaken, than the faith of clergy.

This assumption is an outgrowth of clericalism, which perceives clergy as a class as holier, closer to God, stronger in faith, and wiser in judgment than laypeople as a class, purely by virtue of their clerical status. This goes hand in hand with the infantilization of the laity, whose role in parish governance is to be strictly consultative (Section 536.2 of canon law). The pre-Vatican 2 maxim that laity were to “pray, pay, and obey” is no longer universally recognizable as the Catholic lay experience, thanks to the Vatican 2 retrieval of the priesthood of all believers; but its ghost haunts our parishes in the tendency to assume that “Father knows best,” and to expect that if something needs to be done, Father will take care of it, or arrange for it to be taken care of.

The structure of clericalism, these tendencies affecting both laity and clergy, constitutes an occasion of sin for both classes. It tempts clergy to think too highly of themselves, and laity to think too little. It tempts clergy to take too much upon themselves, and laity to take too little. It tempts clergy to overstep moral authority, and laity to abdicate moral agency.

It successfully tempted hundreds of men — priests, bishops, and cardinals — to collusion and complicity in the sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable persons, such as seminarians. By their passive silence and their active coverup, these men participated in deeply wounding thousands of innocent victims: all on the grounds that the laity couldn’t handle the truth.

Coptic icon of Christ feeding the multitudes, with text on the bottom reading "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.


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