Intercession and Science

Once in a while some zealous atheist, agnostic, or deist will throw down a challenge: “If God answers prayers, we should be able to prove it with an experiment. But we see no statistically significant difference between groups of sick people who are prayed for and groups who are not. Therefore: A) there is no God, or B) we can’t be sure if there is a God, or  C) God does not involve Himself with us.”

It seems like a strong argument at first. If God really does respond to intercession, then we ought to be able to observe that response in contrast with a lack of response corresponding to a lack of intercession. Intercession is an action, healing or whatever response is or would be an equal and opposite reaction, while on the other hand whatever is in motion tends to stay in motion – those who are sick or in need will continue to be so unless they are helped.

There are some problems with this argument.

First, let’s take a look at the Temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11)… It is Lent after all.

  1. Turn stones into bread – Jesus could solve world hunger and win over all the crowds this way. (Jn. 6:26 – “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”) He responds, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
  2. Fly around Jerusalem – Jesus could publicly manifest Himself with abundant clarity in a way that would leave everyone in awe. (Mt. 16:4 – “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign…” And in the same chapter, v. 17 – “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.”) He responds, “You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
  3. Make a compromise – Jesus could rule over the Earth without the Cross, without the public ministry, and generally without much effort. (Jn. 18:36 – “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And Lk. 24:26 – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”) He responds, “Get away, Satan! For it is written, ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.'”

Christ’s Temptations provide the first major counterpoint to the skeptic, which is that God is not primarily concerned with making this life easy for us. We are promised that we will receive whatever we ask in His Name (Lk. 11:9, Jn. 14:13), but we are also promised trouble and suffering, the acceptance of which is even a condition of discipleship (Mt. 10: 16-39). These two promises do not square with each other unless we see that Jesus does not mean we will be given whatever material convenience we want, like a genie would do for us, but that we will be given every spiritual gift truly suited for us for which we pray sincerely. Virtues are the goods which truly help us.

Furthermore, God is wise to our tests and designs (Jn. 2:24). And no, He does not care to play along. A mysterious kingdom needs a mysterious road to lead to it. The New Jerusalem is nothing like the New Rome. Citizenship in the one is gained by unyielding faith in a crucified carpenter as God Incarnate, while in the other citizenship would be gained by simple obedience to an opulent and benevolent dictator.

Let us consider another passage, Mk. 9:14-29, where Jesus heals a possessed child. The crowd gathers, and the boy’s father explains the damage the demon has done over the years… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus does not take kindly to the word “if”: “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then we are given the famous line, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus rebukes the spirit and tells his disciples that this kind of demon only comes out “through prayer.”

This episode gives us an insight into the project of the public ministry – it is not primarily about fixing people’s inconveniences, it is about fixing people’s souls. Jesus waited to do a good deed until the boy’s father manifested faith… This was His prerogative, since He came to draw people away from the world to Himself. The Christ did not open a miraculous hospital, or an infinite soup kitchen, or an infallible psychic hotline; rather, He told people to beg for God’s forgiveness (Mt. 4:17), to sin no more (Jn. 8:11), and to extend faith in God to Him as well (Jn. 14:1). Fixing people’s earthly problems were and are for Christ merely a means to an end: moving people to repentance, conversion, discipleship, and finally perfection in union with Himself and the Father. Just because we don’t get exactly what material convenience we want, when we want, how we want it, does not mean that God does not exist or concern Himself with us. When He doesn’t give worldly help, even when asked sincerely, it’s because He knows that to give us some particular opportunity to forsake the world and cling to Him in abandonment to His will is better than to give us what we’re asking for. (Remember the dichotomy of promises!)

We are not in the same position. It does not belong to us to help others conditionally to the same extent as God because we do not have the same privileged insight into people’s souls that He has, and even if we did we would not always know how best to use that knowledge. Sometimes we can be quite sure that withholding some help will be good for another – like when we allow a child to “learn the hard way” – but by and large we have a duty to provide basic goods for others we encounter and are able to help. We do need to open hospitals. We do need to run soup kitchens. (No psychic hotlines, however.) In fact, we would never be able to show love for each other without the opportunity to do these kinds of selfless acts.

So, can we test God’s response to prayer and prove with statistically significant results that He does indeed answer them? As it turns out, we actually can. Anyone who prays earnestly and frequently for help to become virtuous and holy will become virtuous and holy. And you can survey the lives of the saints and see that this is indeed how they prayed.

I will now teach you a short but powerful prayer which if you repeat often and with sincerity will change your life radically by changing you radically: “Oh Lord, help me to become a saint as soon as possible and at any cost to myself! Amen.”

Don’t be afraid to have this prayer answered.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: screenshot from the film Aladdin (1992)

The Optic Nerve and Amoris Laetitia

As we read the Gospels, we can often feel that certain persons and events are such caricatures of prophetic fulfillment that there must have been some kind of embellishment on the part of some redactor with a theological agenda. Everyone’s heard it before – “Jesus gave the 5,000 the miracle of SHARING… You don’t have to believe the multiplication was real, that was probably something the Matthean community used to show that it was like God giving manna in the desert.”

Sound familiar?

Every word in the Gospels is chosen very carefully, yes. But it is not Catholic, and indeed, it is downright foolish to think that because some action “fits” with a prophecy, it must be untrue. (Suppose it didn’t “fit” – then doubt would be cast in the other direction.) So when the most obvious prophecies are clearly fulfilled, say, in the Lord’s Passion and Death, we cannot simply call it “too bad to be true.” Hear Paul address the Antiochenes: “The inhabitants of Jerusalem and their leaders failed to recognize him, and by condemning him they fulfilled the oracles of the prophets that are read sabbath after sabbath.” (Acts 13: 27)

Our eyes become accustomed to darkness. That does not mean that it isn’t still dark. The pupil dilates to allow more light to enter the eye so an image can be produced. We all know, though, that sometimes we see things in the dark that aren’t really there. The dark allows for illusions and distortions, no matter how well we think we have accommodated – there is no replacement for a truly well-lit environment. Therefore, ignorance of the content of prophecy is one thing, while ignorance of oneself in relation to it is quite another. The best example is Christ’s prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial which would come not centuries later but only hours. Can we really not understand how Peter could make that mistake, even given that prediction?

The eye of the soul can become accustomed to darkness just as the eye of the body. It is built to take in the brightest Light while fully opened, although it cannot for now… But it will open to find whatever light there is in the darkness, for it will always be drawn to light, as man always seeks the good even if he is mistaken about what the good actually is. The Western world has all but completely abandoned itself to liberality, consequentialism, and Modernism. It presents, therefore, a great pressure on the Church, and sometimes the world entices those in the Church most responsible for fighting against it, just as it does anyone else. They are drawn in by the shade of the zeitgeist, and their souls’ pupils dilate. This allows for errors which to many are plain to see. But the darker it becomes, the more difficult it can be to tell what one actually sees in the dim light still available.

We do well to remember this as the Amoris plot thickens, wherein we are seeing shepherds gently – even mercifully – picking up lost sheep and then carrying those sheep to the jaws of the wolf. The same scene is lit differently for different people, according to the light in their mind and heart, that is, in their soul.

It is easy for some to see the difference between a single adulterous act in some particular circumstance that might – just might – mitigate culpability for that act and deciding after taking counsel on the “internal forum” (presumably away from that mitigating circumstance) to continue doing that same adulterous act habitually.

It is easy for some to see the difference between a temptation, which can never excuse from sin, and a psychological disorder, which can. (1 Cor. 10:13… “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Also, Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, Can. 18… “If anyone shall say that the Commandments of God are even for a man who is justified and confirmed in grace impossible to observe: let him be anathema.”)

It is easy for some to see the difference between the conscience of a minister of Holy Communion being bound (c. 915) and the conscience of a communicant being bound (c. 916).

It is easy for some to see the difference between the authentic development of doctrine combined with a fair use of the historical-critical method and the complete relegation of Christian truth not only to an impenetrable cloister of history but also to the shifting, subjective, and fallible consciences of individuals. (Jn. 18:38… “‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?'” Also, Decree of the Holy Office of July 3, 1907, “Lamentibili,” Condemned Proposition #4… “The magisterium of the Church, even by dogmatic definitions, cannot determine the genuine sense of the Sacred Scriptures.”)

It is easy for some to see the difference between the ideal presented by the Gospels (perfect poverty, chastity, and obedience together with the Beatitudes) and the ideal presented by defenders of Amoris (merely following the Commandments), which is not only a dreary and hopeless vision of humanity completely at odds with Catholic doctrine but is also as legalist as can be, seeing as for them following the law is the ideal, rather than the ideal being the transforming union, a life of heroic virtue, etc., things which only begin with the law. (Mt. 19:17-21… “‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the Commandments.’ He asked him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus replied,  ‘”You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother”; and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”‘ The young man said to him, ‘All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'”)

It is easy for some to see the difference between dioceses encouraging the faithful to follow the precept of the Church requiring material contribution to the Church for the good of their souls and holding that contribution as even more sacred than the Sacraments to which those dioceses grant access contingent upon that contribution being given… and then insisting on some kind of spiritual and intellectual primacy in the global Church.

But it is not easy for everyone to see these distinctions, especially if they are directly involved.

The tragedy, frustration, and irony, especially of the last example, can be overwhelming. We might sit and waste hours pondering how men who publicly read the words of Christ to the Pharisees, the Sermon on the Mount, etc., etc., “sabbath after sabbath” could obstinately walk into the same kind of pitfalls which the men of Jerusalem did, or at least into ones just as obvious. The answer lies in realizing the darkness which surrounds the eyes of the soul, crowding around the Church as it spills over from secular Western culture. The optic nerve has become accustomed to it, allowing for errors more easily. The amount of light by which the eye was supposed to be able to see, even after the Fall, is not the light by which it currently sees. That light is now painful, and it will be shunned. (See John 1.) This same darkness allowed the men of Jerusalem to think of themselves completely apart from the prophecies they knew by heart as they fulfilled them as clear as day.

Looking into the Gospels, as always, will help to reveal the deeper things of our current situation. In this case it is also true that our current situation will help us to understand the Gospels.

But let no one pride himself on his faith. (Eph. 2: 8-9)

Note: This will be CRM’s only post on Amoris Laetitia. This post is intentionally left void of links to the persons and groups responsible for these dangerous ideas. Let us use the time and energy we would spend investigating particular persons to pray for our clergy instead.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Detail from Gustave Doré, “The Creation of Light,” 1866

The Liturgical Creeps

In my time in parish work, and in my exploration of the world’s great (and little) churches, I have encountered many interesting phenomena. As you might imagine, that involves a spectrum, with the simply “good” on one end and the simply “bad” on the other, with plenty of ho-hum stuff in the middle. But there is also a category of things sort of “in the middle” which don’t really fit well into such a simple paradigm. They deserve their own little separate space.

In psychology, there is something called the “uncanny valley.” Here is a chart:

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At this point, I’m not exactly sure how I would rearrange the variables on this chart to explain these experiences, but they are definitely of the kind that would fit into that valley which just feels “off.”

Electric candles – especially votive candles – are a big one.

Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s less dangerous. Yes, it’s cleaner. But isn’t that all part of what makes it not as good? It seems far “less human” than it should. All you do is put in a coin… Some electrons move… And there you go. That’s it. No careful management of the flame as you transfer it from a candle already lit, no satisfaction of getting your wick to light, no organic timeline for when it will go out, and nothing is actually burnt up and “wasted” on God. The last bit is probably the most important. Here’s 2 Sam. 24:22-24:

But Araunah said to David: “Let my lord the king take it and offer up what is good in his sight. See, here are the oxen for burnt offerings, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of oxen for wood. All this does Araunah give to the king.” Araunah then said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept your offering.” The king, however, replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy it from you at the proper price, for I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

King David was worried about not spending enough himself for a burnt offering of oxen. One can only imagine the king’s reaction if Araunah had offered to put coins into a candle machine that just moves electricity in a circle.

This does not necessarily mean that the one using a candle machine is doing a poorer job praying, but perhaps over time it could have an effect on a person’s perception of worship, leading to the thought that what’s in your wallet is more important than what’s in your heart… After all, there are no “suggested donations” for a machine.

Another big one is recorded music.

We don’t accept lip-syncing at concerts. Why would God accept a recording from a CD at Mass? This can be especially prevalent at funerals, where a well-meaning family wants their loved one’s favorite song played, and while it is certainly difficult to deny a grieving family, the songs are often inappropriate and are never anything much more than a catharsis over memories when what the funeral rite is primarily for is prayer for the soul of the deceased.

Recorded music also shows up outside liturgies as “filler,” when silence is, I suppose, too unsettling. You will find this in many churches in Rome, Paris, and beyond. While the music is often “good,” the fact that it is an mp3 means that those voices and instrumentalists are not actually there praying with you – it just sounds like it. And to me that can be a bit more unsettling than silence.

Notice once again the lack of “waste” – it is a mere digital re-presentation of someone else’s work.

On the other hand, once I walked into Wieskirche in Bavaria and there was a magnificent little choral arrangement being sung by a small group. Wonder and joy, the opposite of the liturgical creeps?

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Notice the real candles. The detached altar was nothing to write home about, but everything else was!

The “liturgical creeps” are then, I suppose, when something a little “fake” is helping mediate or ground prayer that reduces the “waste” of human effort. It’s a working definition, at least.

Perhaps you have had the experience yourself. What else fits into the liturgical uncanny valley?

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: Opening title from the popular 90’s kids’ show, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

Uncanny chart: By Smurrayinchester – self-made, based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman at http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2041097

Babel University

There is an old adage that a PhD is given to someone who knows everything there is to know about nothing. This is to say that as someone advances more and more in education, he will have to choose a field, then a sub-field, then finally a very precise issue in some topic within that sub-field on which to write a dissertation. That person might become the world’s foremost expert on the life cycle of African dung beetles, or the influence of Shakespeare on early 19th century Russian literature, or the architectural history of Plano, Texas.

Obviously, a person has to do preliminary studies to prepare to enter a doctoral program and might become extraordinarily well-educated in all manner of topics beyond his own specialty along the way and after earning his doctorate. So while the aphorism is ultimately untrue, there is still something right about it: simply because a person has an advanced degree within some larger field (biochemistry, American history, music theory, etc.,) does not necessarily imply that that he is truly an expert in the entirety of that larger field; it only implies expertise in the narrow sliver of that field which he focuses on. Much less does it imply that he is an expert in “science” or “history” or “art.” Yet often there is indeed such a delusion of grandeur in the academy, and even more so in those who look up to it and aspire to it.

In today’s world, some 18 year old Americans are shipping off to colleges where they will be taught remedial English skills, be coddled with trigger-warnings and safe-spaces, celebrate diversity by forcing everyone to share the same childish values and opinions as themselves, and complain that national election results are making them too distraught to take tests which they will then be allowed to skip. After four exorbitantly expensive years of this foolishness, these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduates will go on to call themselves “well-educated,” and they will be confirmed in this delusion by the society which they will then be poised to run.

There is nothing “higher” about this sort of education, except the greater availability of illicit substances. Students may be free to take all kinds of elective courses, often basing their choices on fleeting interests or even by factors having nothing at all to do with the content of the course itself (such as friends taking the course, having it at a certain time, etc.), or conversely, they will immediately be deeply plunged into their field of choice without ever being exposed to anything outside of it, putting them on the fast-track to knowing everything about nothing. And all of this after a primary and secondary education which probably left them with little more than a rudimentary understanding of algebra, a couple of names and events in world history, and some loosely connected ideas about science. After all, why should one bother to master these topics when they will not be part of one’s profession, especially since in a pinch all the answers can be accessed instantly by consulting WikiOracle? All the specialization without regard for the whole and all the reckless ambition and vanity which can drive educational pursuits create a paradoxical trajectory of learning for the sake of income or for the sake of advancing a political agenda without regard for what one would do if he made enough money to have no need to work anymore or actually accomplished that political agenda. It’s an upward trajectory, but where does it lead? We will never know – the tower is crumbling, just like at Babel.

Fulton Sheen was complaining about some of these exact imbalances of higher education some 60 years ago. Take a second to let that sink in.

It goes without saying that standards of education have dropped over the ages. What “well-educated” used to mean for an adolescent was having obtained serious proficiency in the classical group of liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy – in that order) as well as literature and history, plenty of Latin, and maybe some Greek as well.

Today it means “having a degree.” The argument from authority no longer works so well when appealing to the words of God or the Church, but one can appeal to the opinions of “experts” without feeling a touch of shame. If only Jesus had gone to an Ivy League and wore a lab coat!

The salve for this wound is precisely a return to older standards and methods of education. Since college has in many ways become the new high school, colleges ought to be teaching students at least the basics of the world which they are about to step into, no? Sure, let kids have a major, but a strong core curriculum is absolutely indispensable in these mad times. The tendency toward rapid specialization in education has gone too far. As each individual learns only his own language, the common language disappears, and so too does a recognizably unified culture. We are building a tower to the sky, but our base is shaky and nobody knows anything but his own special craft. The polymaths are gone. Will the West ever see another Alcuin? Another Dante? Another da Vinci? If we do, it will be in spite of our educational priorities, not because of them.

Instead of turning to the treasures of our own culture and seeking to present them in the most effective way possible, Catholic schools often get distracted by trying to be on the “cutting edge.” It is a losing race, of course… We are outspent, especially in primary and secondary education. Most Catholic schools will never be able to beat secular schools at their own game even if they pay the hefty fees of conscience and identity. But we can offer the richness of the Western tradition from the platform of revealed truth without indoor plumbing, let alone without an iPad for every student. Perhaps endlessly trying to “keep up with Principal Jones” is a waste of our time, money, and energy, when we already have on the shelf an incredible product that we own by Divine right and therefore have an educational monopoly on.

We need an academic Pentecost to undo our academic Babel. A rigorous and holistic Catholic liberal arts education is the God-given way to make that happen. Otherwise, our universities will be full of sub-curricula which are so “united” that they will create students who are too “diverse” to share significant goals with each other in a meaningful way.

I will suggest in harmony with the mind of Professor MacIntyre that we as a Church ought to focus much more energy on building up our own communities in sound doctrine and morals, in addition to providing a solid education in secular knowledge. Perhaps parishes could invest “real money” in local homeschooling programs. But whatever the solution is, it will necessarily involve an openness to what has come – and is coming – from above.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: “The Tower of Babel,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

Some Art in Transylvania!

Have you ever heard of Cluj-Napoca? (Me neither until recently.)  Well, it’s the unofficial capital of Transylvania, the most famous region of Romania.

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Yes, like that kids’ movie. But IRL.

I stopped by the other day for a visit, right after Thanksgiving.

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Europe puzzles over America sometimes, and not without reason.

Transylvania has historically been the stronghold of Romanian Catholics (and Hungarian Catholics living in Romania), with most of the country being Eastern Orthodox. The Reformation took its toll on the region, with Saxon influences leaving most if not all of the countryside’s beautiful fortified churches Lutheran.

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The Orthodox cathedral. By the way, Romanians apparently LOVE their flag. It was all over the place.

Anway. I popped into the Greek-Catholic cathedral, which happened to be having a service of some kind. It was PACKED – on a Saturday morning… Didn’t look like a funeral or wedding. No photos from inside, and no apologies for it!

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But now check out the Latin Catholic church in Cluj’s city center, Sfântul Mihail (St. Michael):

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And yes, that’s a Christmas market going up in the corner.

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Setting up a Christmas market in the square outside! How quaint, right?

The church – which is actually not a cathedral despite its size and its city’s cultural centrality in the region – has a checkered history. It was originally Catholic when it was built in the mid 1400’s, then became Lutheran during the Reformation. Shortly after that it was taken over by the Unitarians. Finally the Catholics recovered it in the early 18th century with the support of the Habsburgs.

And now, behold, the largest Advent wreath I have ever feasted my eyes upon…

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Eastern Europe doesn’t have fire codes I guess. #awesome

The Gothic influence was as obvious on the inside as on the outside. It was also obvious that I would not be able to spend too long there staying still, since the place was not heated – cold enough to see your breath! And yet there were still people showing up to pray. Maybe there is a lesson here… Spend more resources on putting fire in people’s hearts than on putting fire in a furnace. (Really, every church I visited had people there PRAYING. Saturday morning and afternoon.)

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Looking over the Novus Ordo altar. You’ll notice the patron in the stained glass above the high altar. I’m generally not a fan of carpets in church, but this was done nicely.

The ambo, on the left side of the nave, was a real treat. I really just couldn’t get enough of it. (It’s even the background on my phone now.) The detail was exquisite!

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This little organ was cool too. Not sure if it’s functional, as there was also a set of pipes in the choir loft.

The wall used to be covered with frescoes, but if I remember correctly what I think I overheard someone saying during a private tour, they got messed up during the Reformation. Here’s part of what’s left:

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Another look at the sanctuary (and the ambo!) before leaving:

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Also there was this thing in the cramped antechamber before the nave:

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Later I saw it in action. A narthex greeter never looked so official!

Off to the Franciscan church I went. The architecture of the city was a bizarre mix of old and new. For example, compare the buildings at this intersection (left) with the library (right):

The Modernism of course comes from the Communism that once infected Eastern Europe. There were some monuments around the city remembering that time and its characters.

No Commies in the Franciscan church. Take a look for yourself!

This was far more baroque or rococo (barocacoco?)… I enjoyed it quite a bit – despite having the same bone chilling temperature as St. Michael’s.

The royal blue, off-white, and gold color scheme definitely worked for me. The use of carpet did not.

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Completely unnecessary stairs: devotional faux-pas or picturesque piety? You decide.

Back out into the city. Here are some other churches, probably all Orthodox (except for the clearly iconoclastic Reformed one):

Hey, what’s that thing with a Cross up on the hill?

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Over the Someșul Mic River, and up the Cetățuia hill to find out…

The monument was nothing too interesting, just another anti-Commie structure. But the view was fantastic.

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And not a sparkling, angsty, hundred-year-old teenager in sight.

With not much left to do, I wandered through the suburbs down the side of the hill.

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I don’t know what the triangular sign means, but I like it.

I wrapped up the day with a nice sit in the city’s central park and buried myself in an oversized helping of kürtőskalács. (Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce it, it means you’re normal. The lady serving it even gave me a funny look when I tried.)

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This thing was HUGE. Tasted a bit like a churro, maybe not as sweet. Delicious.

That just about did it for me. Off to the airport the next day, where I was bombarded by the Duty Free shop with Dracula-you-name-it, including wines of every sort.

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It kind of ruins the fun, like a girl who knows she’s beautiful.

While the outer part of the city (where I stayed) was pretty bleak, I found the center part of “Treasure City,” as it’s called, rather energetic and pleasant. And cold. But the religious spirit of the place was edifying. I was even asked for my last name and my “Christian name” when checking in at my hotel! Can you imagine? All in all, a worthwhile excursion.

And with that, I peaced out on Wizz Air. (It’s real, trust me.)

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Post by: Eamonn Clark

Some art in the Roman Forum!

I was in the Roman Forum the other day to see Santa Maria Antiqua… It is the oldest church in the Forum, connects to the Imperial Palace, was the one-time seat of the Bishop of Rome, and it has some killer frescoes. Due to ongoing renovations and excavations, it is rarely open – this year it allowed visitors in for a few months, and the last time it did so was 1980. Sadly, as of tomorrow (Sunday, 10/30/16) it will be closed for who knows how long (the figure I heard was 20 years). Since you missed your shot, let me provide it for you!

First things first… Behold, the first basilica in the world!

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It has a sunroof.

No, it is not the brick building. That’s the old Roman curia – before it was a Church thing, it was a Roman thing. You are looking through the basilica, which is a ruin. You can see the pillars sticking up out of the ground. Once again, before it was a Church thing, it was a Roman thing. We baptized both ideas, and they stuck around.

Another first… Behold, the first real CCD classroom on planet Earth!

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The church itself is to the right, and leads up towards the Imperial Palace and observation platform. Hold that thought.

Before there was coffee and donuts at RCIA, there was the Oratory of the 40 Martyrs. If you teach Sunday school, here you can go back to your roots. Let’s take a look inside, shall we? (Click to enlarge the photos.)

The Byzantine influence is almost as clear as the weathering. But all throughout the site there are slightly different styles, reflecting the fact that there were many different patrons and artists at work over the ages. Like the rest of the Forum, there are layers, and analyzing this site is made especially difficult by the unique character these frescoes have among contemporary Roman works.

Here’s the exterior of the church:

Santa Maria Antiqua is called “Antiqua” for a reason… She’s been around since the 5th Century! After Constantine, the Forum became more than just a safe place for Christians, it became an opportune place for worship.

Into the church we go!

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The hanging picture is called an “iconostasis.” Notice the use of arches, with the apse in the back (surrounding the iconostasis). Many of the frescoes are in rough shape, but we will look at some of the better preserved ones.

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The left side of the nave.

Yes, even the pillars were decorated. See the one on the right there? This place was like stepping into an ecclesiastical coloring book. Every inch was covered, it seems.

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Close-up of the wall.

Here is an image of some the frescoes in one of two “corner chapels,” on the right side of the nave near the back… It is called the “Chapel of Physicians” (or the “Chapel of the Medical Saints”), where there would be constant intercession for the sick, whether the infirm were present or not. (The other is the “Chapel of St. Theodotus” on the left.) Apparently St. Francis visited this place, by the way, when he was in Rome.

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The saints pray along too! They cover all four sides.

The apse has the earliest Roman image of Mary as a Queen, and the image of the Cross (in the Chapel of St. Theodotus) is notable as well…

Pope John VII was totally enamored with Santa Maria Antiqua. Not only did he commission a ton of work on the church, he also moved there, way back at the start of the 8th Century before there was an Associated Press to misunderstand why he might do such a thing. However, only about a hundred years later, an earthquake would cover much of the church, leaving it dormant for 1,000 years or so. (The Chapel of the Medical Saints apparently remained accessible, and somehow people forgot there was a church attached!)

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Another view. This looks over where the ambo would have been toward the main altar.

Here there was a main altar and a “holy table” further back near the apse where the gifts would have been prepared.

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From the holy table toward the main altar.

To make sure that everyone understood that Christianity was not ditching its Jewish roots, there was significant emphasis on the Old Testament. Here is a sarcophagus with stories of Jonah and some more frescoes of OT events:

It was lunch time in Rome, which beckoned, but in the end the platform won out. The long climb was definitely worth it. Panning left to right:

There’s just too much to point out. Sorry. But do notice that the corner of the church is on the top left. The rest of the view is mainly out towards the Quirinal Hill and Capitoline Hill (the Forum is on the Palatine).

Considering that you will probably never actually be inside this amazing church… you’re welcome for the quick glimpse inside!

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Some art in Spain!

Back when I was in seminary…

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Aren’t cameras the best?

…I found a book at our “free store” that really struck me. It was the autobiography of St. Anthony Claret (get it, especially if you are a “professional” evangelizer!), whose feast day is today. He was something of a mix between Fulton Sheen, John Vianney, and Oscar Romero – he conquered the art of mass media evangelization, worked non-stop to the point where he was manifestly aided by extraordinary graces, and in the meantime managed to build up industry wherever he went to support the impoverished and uneducated.

Well, this past weekend I hopped on a plane to Barcelona to pay the saint a visit.

Barcelona is great. It is fun, not too expensive, and super Gothic. There is actually even a neighborhood called the “Gothic Quarter.” But we’ll come back to that.

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After finally figuring out how the train station worked (which took over an hour), I headed out into the foothills of Catalonia toward Vic, the apex of my pilgrimage.

The architecture, as I described to a friend in the USA through some very expensive text messages, was “low medieval, quaint, and Catalonian,” but most of the structures in the old city are probably only early 18th century. It felt like I had gone through a time machine nonetheless. I mean, where else do you find a statue of St. Joseph and the Christ Child over a dentist’s office (left photo)?

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Notice the similarity between this church and convent/rectory and the mission churches in the southeast of the USA.

The place was pretty packed with churches, but none were open Saturday except the cathedral. But not even a vigil there! I guess everyone gets up early on Sunday.

Alas! I had arrived. And sadly, this church too, would remain closed the whole of the day. Evening prayer outside would have to suffice. Horseshoes, hand grenades, and pilgrimages, right? And I have an excuse to return now, too!

I spent a good deal of time at the cathedral instead.

The Diocese of Vic has a pretty proud ecclesiastical history. They are actually even operating a whole episcopal museum near the cathedral.

The nave is large and dark, nothing too extraordinary, though the pillars are rather thick. What I found so distinctive about the interior was the mural of the stages of the crucifixion (as distinct from the Stations) which covers the entire upper wall, on all sides. Behold, a few samples.

It calls to mind El Greco, doesn’t it? But there is a touch of something else.

I discovered a new saint, buried in an exquisite side chapel: St. Bernat Calbó, 13th Century Bishop of Vic.

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It turns out St. Michael of the Saints (17th Century Trinitarian priest) is also buried in Vic, which is his hometown. Double reason to go back… I only found out as I was writing this post!

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Lettuce pray.

Back to Barcelona. Sunday morning I went to the cathedral for the 10:30 Mass, in Catalan (the main language of the region). But first I stopped in this church, which I think is the “Basilica de Mercé” though I could be mistaken. (Use your best Catalan skills to translate.)

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Finally I got to the cathedral, which is actually NOT Sagrada Familia, despite what you may have thought. More on that place in a bit. First, feast your eyes on this…

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They were being persnickety about pictures in the main nave – which I approve of – but I snagged a real keeper of what are undoubtedly the coolest choir stalls I have ever seen.

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The picture does not do these babies justice.

There were several side chapels, a few of which looked like this (pardon the tilt, I shot through a grille):

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The cathedral is also home to St. Eulalia, a 3rd century martyr, aged about 13!

I went to the harbor for a bite to eat, then I was off to Sagrada Familia for a Holy Hour… On my way I bumped into a guy who saw me at Mass way back at the cathedral – I was wearing a shirt with my Alma Mater on it, and he recognized it. (A small, American, Catholic, liberal arts college is not usually an international attention-grabber, but this was not the first time this had happened to me, believe it or not.) Had a nice chat, in English!

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The fact that construction is still ongoing since the 19th Century adds a touch of mystique.

Antoni Gaudi was a genius. We will have to do a whole article on him, or even just on Sagrada Familia. Take a look at just a little of what is going on in this place’s exterior:

Unfortunately, all visits to the main nave are ticketed, including for Mass, which is not on a schedule anyway. AND THEY WERE SOLD OUT OF TICKETS. I did go down for free to the lower church/crypt, but it was packed and Mass was going on (and without a chasuble… grrrrrrrr…).  So it was not very conducive to mental prayer, unless I was going to Mass for the second time. I went back upstairs for a walk around, then figured I’d go back to the cathedral for an hour – but THAT WAS NOW BEING TICKETED TOO. I’ve heard of “pay to play,” but “pay to pray” was a new one. Where is Pope Francis when you need him?

And with that, I returned to Rome, mostly a happy camper.

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St. Anthony Claret, pray for us!

Post by: Eamonn Clark