TSD 8: Who are we?

Identity and dignity in church and society

Ethnogenesis is a fancy word for the creation of an ethnic group—the coming into being of a distinct people with shared traits and habits and traditions. It’s a concept with political as well as theological significance: It’s clear in the Scriptures that the “nations” have existences and duties of their own.

Five years ago, before talk of identity and nationalism came to center stage, I argued that American identity is mostly about participation in the shared life of this land and culture (such as it is). Then, during the most recent presidential campaign, I pleaded with Catholics to reject the racialist ethno-nationalism that seemed to be gaining steam. These interventions can be summarized in this way: Americans are a distinct people, but they are not a static people.

(I always liked this background image.)

The tensions inherent in this reality lead people to favor one half to the exclusion of the other. Those with a more individualist or cosmopolitan bent will focus what is changeable; those who want to assert a stricter cultural and political identity will try, sometimes desperately, to conjure up metaphysical descriptions of what is shared and enduring.

If we’re going to obsess over being members of a distinct and dignified ethnos, may I suggest that we begin our search closer to home? Rather than shoehorning ourselves into some disputed and inherently secular national or ethnic or (God forbid) racial identity, why don’t we focus on reviving Catholic identity? This means more than shared belief: It means shared habits and traditions that set us apart and bind us together, like Friday abstinence from meat and, well, observing the liturgical calendar.

That’s an ethnogenesis worthy of our Baptismal dignity—one ordered to heaven and not to earthly comfort and power.


These Seven Days

…in the Ordinary Form

It is the sixth Sunday of Easter. The readings are Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; and John 14:23-29.

The tone of the Gospel readings has undergone a shift since the halcyon days after the Resurrection. We are returning to a time of preparation and even apprehension, as Jesus gets the Apostles ready for when He will no longer be bodily present and it will be the Spirit who gives them strength.

This is our era of salvation history. Like the Apostles after the Ascension and after Pentecost, we do no have the human Jesus (though we do have the Eucharist) to confirm our faith and confidence. But we do have the Spirit, to which we can and must respond, as they did in today’s reading from Acts.

On Jesus’ admonition not to be “troubled or afraid,” St. Augustine writes:

But there is a peace which is serenity of thought, tranquility of mind, simplicity of heart, the bond of love, the fellowship of charity. None will be able to come to the inheritance of the Lord who do not observe this testament of peace.


Thursday, May 30, is the Ascension of the Lord and a Holy Day of Obligation in the American dioceses within the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, Newark, New York, Omaha, and Philadelphia. (Do not get me started on the ridiculous practice of bumping Ascension Thursday to Sunday. Read this jeremiad if you want my thoughts on the matter.)

We could spend this entire newsletter talking about the Ascension in art history. I’ll simply present two paintings, similar in era and composition but strikingly different in color and tone:

Pietro Perugino, late 15th century: bright, warm, prayerful, symbolic.

Il Garofalo, early 16th century: light & dark, saturated, frightening, realistic.


Friday, May 31, is the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Elizabeth. Originally celebrated in early July, the feast was moved to place it more suitably in the Gospel narrative: between the Annunciation (March 25) and the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24).

This is such a human moment: two pregnant women, sisters, embracing one another in joy and friendship. Their conversation as recorded in Luke’s Gospel (1:39-56) is a little stilted, I suppose, but so rich:

Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

And then, of course, comes the magnificent Magnificat.

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This is one of several studies of the Visitation painted by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century.


…in the Extraordinary Form

It is the Fifth Sunday after Easter. The Epistle is James 1:22-27 and the Gospel is John 16:23-30.

The reading from James directly echoes the words of Christ about hearers versus doers of the Word:

Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27)

The commentators point out that James was writing to a community beset by legalism. While his words are an effective anti-sola-fide apologia, reading them only as that, rather than using them to interrogate our own habits and virtues, would seem be against their very spirit.


Monday through Wednesday, May 27 through 29, are the Lesser Rogation Days. We discussed these a few weeks ago, on the occasion of the Greater Rogation Day. These three days always precede the Ascension, serving as a brief period of penance pegged both to the return of our Lord to His heavenly home and to the meteorological calendar, in order to beg Him for a secure and fruitful growing season and harvest.

While all obligations associated with the Rogation Days have long since been lifted, processions remain traditional observances, as do these prayers, which conclude:

Almighty and Everlasting God, we commend unto Thee Thy Holy Catholic Church: that Thou wouldst grant unto Her peace, unity, and Thy protection, while shielding Her against the attacks of Her enemies and subjecting to Her the powers of evil. We thank Thee, O Lord, for the many blessings Thou hast bestowed upon us, and we beseech Thee to assist us to live peaceful and tranquil lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Monday, May 27, is the feast of the Venerable Bede. “Undoubtedly the most learned man of his time,” St. Bede was given the title by which he is best known, “venerable,” shortly after his death. It is attested, for instance, in Blessed Alcuin, the tremendous scholar to Charlemagne, who was tutored by a student of Bede.

The portrait of the scholar, Bede rarely left his Benedictine monastery, where he dedicated himself primarily to studying and commenting upon Scripture. His works can never been fully counted, though his Ecclesiastical History of the English People is surely his most important work—a pioneering piece of historical literature and an irreplaceable guide to antiquity in England. Finished just before his death in 735, the book concludes:

And I pray thee, loving Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously given me to drink in with delight the words of Thy knowledge, so Thou wouldst mercifully grant me to attain one day to Thee, the fountain of all wisdom and to appear forever before Thy face.

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The Last Chapter by modern Irish painter J. Doyle Penrose depicts the dictation of the final verses of a translation of John’s Gospel, after which the Venerable Bede died with the Gloria Patri on his lips.


And lastly, here is the introit for Ascension Day:

Viri Galilaei, quid admiramini, aspicientes in caelum? Alleluja: quem admodum vidistis eum ascendentem in caelum, ita veniet, alleluja, alleluja, alleluja. Omnes gentes plaudite manibus, jubilate Deo in voce exsultationis.

Ye men of Galilee, why wonder you, looking up to Heaven? Alleluia. He shall so come as you have seen Him going up into Heaven, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. O clap your hands, all ye nations shout unto God, with the voice of exultation.

Dom Johner gives a challenging cast (p. 211) to the first words of this chant, where the angels admonish the Apostles to quit gawking:

The Apostles may not stand still and rest. Now is the time of labor, of strife, of suffering. Now they must fulfill the commission with which the Lord charged them. Now they must sow the seed in tears, in sweat, and in sorrow. Not till later will the time come for repose, for blissful contemplation of God.


Those Seven Days…

…in Catholic Twitter

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Hungarian ambassador to the Vatican Eduard Habsburg (yep, those Habsburgs) has a video of an ancient form of chant being brought back to life (click through for video):

Sorry not sorry:

The audio in the nested tweet here is truly incredible: The celebrity feminist scholar Naomi Wolf finds out, on live radio, that basic historical-legal research would’ve disproved the thesis of the book she was promoting:

I’m predisposed to like Fr. Ambrose Dobrozsi (just ordained in Cincinnati last weekend!) due to his given name, but takes like this help, too:

Jake’s not Catholic, but this newsletter likes him anyways:

…in the Content Mines

Constance Hull has a charitable and sharp look at the value of priestly celibacy and the dangers of breaking vows: “A priest leaving the priesthood causes pain, confusion, division, and scandal. The decision may be necessary, but we cannot equate a priest leaving the priesthood to someone simply changing jobs. “

I was grateful for this fair-minded and, frankly, courageous piece by the Catholic News Agency’s Ed Condon on the complicated legacy of Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

The early returns are good for Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, about a Catholic objector to service in Hitler’s army. When it comes out in America, my review will appear here.

I will always link favorable reviews of Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra here. This one at The New Criterion is from the usually crotchety Jay Nordlinger of National Review.

This somewhat stream-of-consciousness read-through of James Chappel’s Catholic Modern, on the Church’s fitful embrace of modernity through the twentieth century, is intriguing.

As for me…

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My monthly “Letter from Catholic America” appears in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. It’s about building realistic models of family life that neither order the family around the market nor try to recapture some perfect moment from the past:

The idea of the father spending the majority of his waking hours away from the family; the expectation that a family would relocate several times to chase economic opportunity; the assumption that households are to be made up of nuclear families—parents and their children—who are not deeply embedded in extended families and other communities of social and economic support: These would have been considered strange and serious hardships to most people before the Industrial Revolution—and a good many afterward, too.

That we consider these conditions normal is not some kind of hard-nosed realism, but a capitulation to the hegemony of the market, placing its needs above genuine family values like stability and leisure and communion.

(Ignore the subheadings on the website; they confuse more than clarify.)

Feedback, &c.

Did I miss something important? Get something wrong? Do you have ideas for how to improve These Seven Days? Drop me a line at tsd.brandonmcg@gmail.com. This is a work in progress, and your feedback will help to make it the best it can be.

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