The Church in conversation with (and then transforming) the world
No one could doubt that I’m a traditionalist at heart. I think all the cliches about the tried-and-true and the wisdom of the ages are more or less accurate. Innovations, it seems clear to me, should only be undertaken with careful consideration of the reasons for traditional practices and unforeseen consequences.
But, at the same time, authentic traditions are neither monolithic nor fixed. Not to sound too Hegelian, but tradition and innovation are dialectical; that is, they are in a relationship of dialogue with one another. A living tradition is not stagnant, but dynamic, integrating new notions and customs and idioms into itself.
This is especially true of the Church. At her best, the Church confidently and aggressively co-opts the world around her into service for Christ. This is the lesson we should take away from the interminable discussions of whether certain Christian feasts really have their roots in pagan celebrations. Sure they do! And that’s not just ok—it’s great! The Church doesn’t impose an entirely new cultural reality like Mao or Pol Pot; she works with the genuine, if misguided, customs around her and, with a generous sprinkling of God’s grace, integrates and transforms them.
Archaeologizing—that is, attempting to recapture some particular moment in time—is not the ideal task for a living tradition to undertake. In times of crisis or instability, it may be temporarily useful in order to rediscover a tradition that has been severed. But the fulfillment of traditionalism is not recapturing the past, but revivifying the dialectic.
In future editions, I’ll go into more detail on this theme in architecture and music and liturgy (of course) and even politics. If there is one thread that will run through These Seven Days, bringing life back to tradition may be it.
These Seven Days…
…in the Ordinary Form
It is the Third Sunday of Easter. The readings are Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Revelation 5:11-14; and John 21:1-19.
Now, there is an option to truncate the Gospel to John 21:1-14, and this is upsetting. Those last five verses are the reconciliation of Peter to Christ, when Our Lord asks him three times if he loves Him to heal the lacerations of Peter’s threefold denial. The scene culminates here:
Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time,
"Do you love me?" and he said to him,
"Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."
This is one of my favorite moments in Scripture—raw and relatable and human. Our Lord doesn’t hold Peter’s denial over his head, but He does remind the apostle of it implicitly. And while it evokes shame, that is not its final purpose, which is to give Peter the opportunity, by his own words and actions, to reestablish the relationship that he had damaged. St. Augustine says:
While our Lord was being condemned to death, he feared, and denied Him. But by His resurrection Christ implanted love in his heart, and drove away fear. Peter denied, because he feared to die: but when our Lord was risen from the dead, and by His death destroyed death, what should he fear?
Raphael, Christ’s Charge to Peter, 1515. Notice the other Apostles seemingly attempting to intervene. But Peter’s denials had to be healed, even though it was painful.
The collect for this Sunday also reflects this theme of joyful reconciliation:
May your people exult for ever, O God, in renewed youthfulness of spirit, so that, rejoicing now in the restored glory of our adoption, we may look forward in confident hope to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection. (emphasis added)
There is a threefold rejoicing reflected in this prayer. First, unspoken, is that of our initial adoption in Christ. Second, there is the “restored glory” of our adoption, represented in this Easter season and effected in the Sacrament of Confession. And third, there is the anticipation of our fulfilled glory in Christ.
Friday, May 10 is the feast of St. Damien of Molokai, one of my favorite saints. A figure of international renown in his lifetime, Fr. Damien was born Jozef De Veuster in Belgium in 1840. What he lacked in education and subtlety he made up for with missionary zeal and charity.
Fr. Damien spent nearly a decade serving in Hawaii, building the infrastructure of the Church there with his own hands, before requesting to be assigned to the government’s leper colony on Molokai. There, he served not only the spiritual but the physical and medical needs (as best he could) of the residents. He was widely beloved, and of course contracted the contagious disease himself. After 15 years on Molokai, Fr. Damien died at the age of 49.
Damien’s story has an interesting intersection with one of the most famous writers of the 19th century: Robert Louis Stevenson. After the saint’s death, some Protestant ministers publicly grumbled about the priest’s coarseness and “carelessness” (read: he was too close to the people he served), and Stevenson investigated on a trip to Hawaii. The result was a 6,000 word excoriation of Fr. Damien’s critics, concluding with the line: “and he was your father too, if God had given you the grace to see it.”
Fr. Damien on his deathbed at the age of 49. I usually like to use art, but for this modern saint, there is no substitute for the true image.
…in the Extraordinary Form
It is the Second Sunday after Easter. The Epistle is 1 Peter 2:21-25 and the Gospel is John 10:11-16, the Good Shepherd discourse. The Epistle also addresses the theme of the Good Shepherd, concluding:
For you were as sheep going astray: but you are now converted to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
On John 10:11, Jesus’ declaration that He is the Good Shepherd, St. Gregory writes:
He did what He bade, He set the example of what He commanded: He laid down His life for the sheep, that He might convert His body and blood in our Sacrament, and feed with His flesh the sheep He had redeemed. A path is shewn us wherein to walk, despising death; a stamp is applied to us, and we must submit to the impression. Our first duty is to spend our outward possessions upon the sheep; our last, if it be necessary, is to sacrifice our life for the same sheep.
I am especially taken here by the idea that at every Mass the sacrifice of the Shepherd for His sheep takes place again in the form of the Blessed Sacrament.
A fifth-century mosaic from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. This is a wonderful example of Christian art in the Roman style of the time.
The introit is the Misericordia Domini:
Misericordia Domini plena est terra, alleluja: verbo Domini caeli firmati sunt. Alleluja, alleluja. Exsultate, justi, in Domino: rectos decet collaudatio.
The earth is full of the mercy of the Lord, alleluia: by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, alleluia, alleluia. Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous: praise is comely for the upright.
In his magisterial commentary on the chants of the Church, which will become a staple of this newsletter, Dom Dominic Johner writes:
Tender and mellow tones (thrice the half-tone interval recurs) which sing of God's mercy mark the beginning of this piece. For today is the Sunday of the "Good Shepherd." Everything breathes of His goodness His love, His understanding pity. He knows His own. He acknowledges every indication of good will; He recognizes our weakness and knows how to have compassion on us. All the earth must in very deed praise His merciful love, for He has given His life for everyone.
Thursday, May 9, is the feast of St. Gregory Nazianzen, a 4th century Doctor of the Church. Often remembered in conjunction with his close friend Basil of Caesarea and Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa as the Cappadocian Fathers, or in the Eastern churches along with Basil and John Chrysostom as the Three Holy Hierarchs, Gregory was one of the most prolific and learned writers of the Early Church.
I’ll be honest, this saint was so busy and so productive—and his legacy is so complicated by his reception in the Western and Eastern churches—I can’t distill his life down into a tidy paragraph. Here’s the Wikipedia and Catholic Encyclopedia entries, and here’s an icon by Andrei Rublev, the most famous medieval Russian icon writer:
Those Seven Days…
…in Catholic Twitter
If you’re in or near New York City, check out this event, where holy relics being held captive in museums will be venerated:
Let the reader understand:
Prof. Vermeule is back from his Lenten Twitter fast, and he finds this excellent nugget in a Vatican statement on religious liberty. Repeat after me: There is no neutrality.
And this striking collection of modernist churches can serve as foreshadowing to later commentary here about tradition and innovation in architecture. Better extreme than banal, I say:
…in the Content Mines
The New York Times publishes a genuinely encouraging story about Easter Vigil converts.
This lengthy profile of a former alt-right writer/tweeter/troll includes an interesting tidbit: A friend giving her the writing of St. Augustine pulled her back from a flirtation with neopaganism.
Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea consider what it means to be living in a “post-Christian” world, and what we can do about it.
My wife and all our friends recommend this list of podcasts and audio lectures for homeschoolers, so here you go.
And First Things published this homily given by a Parisian priest in the aftermath of the burning of Notre-Dame.
As for me…
My monthly “Letter from Catholic America” appeared in the Scottish Catholic Observer. It’s about supernatural reality and materialist fantasy, and what genuine pragmatism looks like in a world where God is real:
The notion that this is all there is, that we rely entirely on our own strength and wits for flourishing, that only our subjective judgment and that of our fellow men can be the measure of right and wrong, success or failure — this is not hard-nosed realism, but a fiction just as fantastical as any madman’s delusion.
We do no good to pretend that fantasy is reality. We do no good, in favour of worldly ‘practicality,’ to pretend that sacramental grace can’t elevate and even perfect our nature, that prayer and fasting can’t be genuinely efficacious, or that virtues must be set aside in order to achieve political and professional goals.
As always, you can follow me on Twitter at @brandonmcg.
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