Inaugural Speech of The Oratorio – Rome, October 21, 2020

A blessed Feast of St. John Paul II to all, in these strange days in the Church.

Please enjoy my speech at the opening of the lay men’s group I have just begun with several friends here in Rome. A reminder that we are still fundraising – more info here.

Eamonn Clark, STL, President of the Oratorio

Rome and the Spiritual Life

“Memories” and “opportunities.” Perhaps there are no two words which capture what Rome is better than these. It’s not “splendid architecture,” “fine wine,” or even “beautiful women” – I assure you, you can find all these things in Paris, and in other places too! No, Rome is a place of memories and a place of opportunities. In fact, in some way, for us they are one and the same.

First, some memories.

About 14,000 years ago, the Palatine Hill began to be host to a small village. How could these people have known what was to come of their small foundation? Certainly, they could not have dreamed of it.

As more settlements were built over the millennia, they slowly merged into one until a city was formed. By the time we reach the end of the reign of the mythical King Romulus near the close of the 8th century B.C., Moses had already left Egypt some 500 years ago, and Isaiah was then busy confronting King Ahaz about the sign to come of a Virgin with Child – evidently, God had been working more quickly than men.

The City grew. Seven kings of Rome came and went, and the Republic began, initiating a period of non-stop conflicts and crises which somehow never seemed to destroy the City entirely – not unlike the Kings of Israel and Judah and their nemeses – but rather saw its incremental expansion of power and terrain, all over the Mediterranean. The Republic ended with an ironic catastrophe: the ambitious and extraordinarily popular Julius Caesar slowly secured himself a position as the “dictator pro vita” through various power-grabs, which alarmed the senate who feared the end of the Republic and a return to a kingdom. They killed him, of course, and accidentally paved the way for the inauguration not of a mere kingdom, but of an empire. Strange things are reported to have happened in the moments following the death of Caesar, here in the City, supernatural things, says Virgil: “Who dare say the Sun is false? He and no other warns us when dark uprising threaten, when treachery and hidden wars are gathering strength. He and no other was moved to pity Rome on the day that Caesar died, when he veiled his radiance in gloom and darkness, and a godless age feared everlasting night. Yet in this hour Earth also and the plains of Ocean, ill-boding dogs and birds that spell mischief, sent signs which heralded disaster. How oft before our eyes did Etna deluge the fields of the Cyclopes with a torrent from her burst furnaces, hurling thereon balls of fire and molten rocks. Germany heard the noise of battle sweep across the sky and, even without precedent, the Alps rocked with earthquakes. A voice boomed through the silent groves for all to hear, a deafening voice, and phantoms of unearthly pallor were seen in the falling darkness. Horror beyond words, beasts uttered human speech; rivers stood still, the earth gaped upon; in the temples ivory images wept for grief, and beads of sweat covered bronze statues. King of waterways, the Po swept forests along in the swirl of his frenzied current, carrying with him over the plain cattle and stalls alike. Nor in that same hour did sinister filaments cease to appear in ominous entrails or blood to flow from wells or our hillside towns to echo all night with the howl of wolves. Never fell more lightning from a cloudless sky; never was comet’s alarming glare so often seen.” It was at this moment in time that everything began to change. An imperial reign began with Caesar Augustus which he would oversee for some 40 years – a familiar number – and 27 years into that reign – 3 years short of 30 – a Child was born of a Virgin. No mere king had come into Judah, either. Interestingly, it is rumored that Augustus was inspired by a dream one night, around the year 1 AD, to build an altar to a ruler that had been born far away, and this altar supposedly now rests buried underneath the Ara Caeli, atop the Capitoline Hill.

Augustus’ adopted son Tiberius became his successor. He regarded Augustus as a god, we should remember, beginning the whole sad cult of the emperors. It was Tiberius who sent Pontius Pilate to the north to govern what they both must have thought of as the ancient version of “flyover country.” In fact, Tiberius signed the document giving Pilate authority to use capital punishment in a little room just on the slope of the Quirinal Hill, right near the Angelicum, which you can see preserved today. The governor of Judea would find himself caught up in a conflict eerily similar to what had been unfolding in far-away Italy just a generation ago and into his own time – a figure rising to an alarming degree of power and influence, claiming His Father to be God and maybe Himself as well, killed by those pleading their loyalty to Rome… and then the ironic catastrophe was followed by the ushering in of something even greater and more powerful than had been feared – not a kingdom, and not even an empire, but a Church, with a true “dictator pro vita,” One Who will never die, and truly supernatural things coming in the wake of His booming voice crying out from the Cross – the sun was darkened, the curtain of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, the Earth shook, and many of the dead were raised up and later appeared in Jerusalem. Just as well, prophetic and Divine words were spoken by mere men not too long after – like mere animals using human speech! The Roman guards who “became like dead men” (Matthew 28:4) and no doubt eventually ran away at the second earthquake which occurred when the Emperor of the Universe rose from the grave were a sign of things to come. Some weeks later, the fire of the Holy Spirit came down, at the “dedication” of the New Temple, so unlike to the Temple whose remnants now possibly sit as prizes in the Arch of Titus in the Forum after its final destruction, and the Good News was preached for the first time from the cenacle by the foremost representatives of Christ’s Mystical Body. As Acts 2:10 tells us, there were Romans there to hear the first apostolic preaching – this was certainly not by chance. The “death of Rome” was now the Holy Spirit’s special goal, in order to replace it with something much more glorious.

It was Rome, then, where Jesus Christ’s Church would have to go to be most firmly established, going out of Jerusalem, much as God had “escaped” from the old Temple whose veil He tore from top to bottom and went out into the Nations – out to the wicked Assyrians, Babylonians, and even the Romans who had crucified Him. And so it was that the very same fisherman from Galilee would find his way down here, to preach especially to the Jews who had already been dwelling in this place for quite a while. Peter stayed here until his brutal death, just around the corner, which he must have known would come, not only from common sense but also from the time that he walked on the shores of Galilee with the Risen Christ, Who told him of his coming martyrdom, and Who had turned him back along the Appian Way as he tried to move on from here, a site which is known and preserved as “Quo Vadis Domine.” When Peter was living on the Aventine at what is now S. Prisca, he would have looked over in this direction at night and seen the glowing embers of the bodies upon the pikes atop what was the Vatican Hill, a warning to would-be rebels that the cruelties of Nero’s wicked circus awaited them should they have a mind to oppose him. John also made a famous appearance, though the attempt at killing him did not go the way it was planned – he emerged from a pot of boiling oil unscathed, converting the crowd to the Faith, though the Emperor Domitian was unfortunately not persuaded. But of all the wonders Our Lord has worked in the hearts of men, perhaps none has been greater than what was done in Paul, who, lest we forget, was the one-time leader of the Jewish version of ISIS who became “the Apostle.” It is Paul, a Roman citizen, who most especially confirms the integrity and veracity of the witness of the original disciples – he came from outside the apostolic college of Jerusalem, though being no less appointed by Christ to preach, especially to the Gentiles. For about two years he ministered in this City alongside Peter unto his own all-too-predictable martyrdom, and his sacred bones are with us today, still crying out in testimony to the immense sanctity he received from the Lord – “I want to know Christ, and the power of His Resurrection and participation in His sufferings, so that I might somehow attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)

There is no need to describe the bitter persecutions of the wicked Emperors Nero, Domitian, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian and the ultimate heroism of the early martyrs – Clement, Agnes, Cecilia, Ignatius, Sebastian, Pancras, Lawrence – especially Lawrence, who, like Peter, had made it out of Rome but turned back to face his impending death, which came on the Viminal Hill by fire… Almost every stone it seems has been marked with the blood of a saint, who chose the distant joys of the Heavenly Jerusalem over the worldly glory of Rome.

I’ve already mentioned the Ara Caeli. Constantine’s mother St. Helen rests there, whose collection of relics from her Holy Land excursion are kept at her old palace in what is now Santa Croce in Gerusalemme – and if one stands beneath the Capitoline Hill in Piazza Venezia looking north down the Via del Corso, through Piazza del Popolo and basically straight up the Via Flaminia – a long way to look, but not so far to walk – there one finds the bridge where her son was converted, Ponte Milvio, where he fought 1,708 years ago one week from today. This event triggered the first Golden Age of Christendom, bringing us the great construction projects and politico-religious shifts that we still enjoy the fruits of today. Our brothers and sisters came up from obscurity and stopped their semi-clandestine worship in the farmlands and catacombs and emerged victorious through Christ’s Providence into the center of the City, with Pope St. Sylvester leading the charge. The conciliar Tradition began shortly thereafter, with First Nicaea, at the request of none other than Constantine himself. Soon after this, the canon of Sacred Scripture was being solidified, by Pope St. Damasus and St. Jerome, right here, just down the road.

The Empire slowly waned – the Church did not. As the Emperors became less relevant, the popes became more relevant, among them St. Innocent I, St. Hilarius, St. Zosimus, and so on, all here, each knowing the same hills and many of the same churches which we know.

With the Donation of Pepin in 756, the Papal States came into existence, and the Bishop of Rome became a sovereign king, as is right and just. Only 44 years later, the Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, on a round piece of porphyry which today sits near the entrance of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. The tables had turned; the Church, and the Bishop of Rome, were now the reference point in the “caput mundi,” the capital of the world.

While we certainly face a troubling period in the Church today, the centuries around the turn of the First Millennium were arguably much worse. The wicked Counts of Tusculum, the Theophylacti family, rose to power and brought a level of perversion to the papacy that is practically unthinkable, with so many clergy of the Church, including especially here in the City, falling into the most shameful of sins, as St. Peter Damian relates in his ever-relevant book on the topic. But this was not to last. From the Benedictine abbey at St. Paul’s tomb, the Abbot Hildebrand rose to the Throne of St. Peter as Gregory VII, initiating a reform that the saint would use to purge so many evils from the Earth. In the century and a half afterward came some of the most important moments in the world of religious life: the Cistercians were formed at Cîteaux, St. Norbert founded his Premonstratensians, and then came the two great mendicant orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic. These two great men were both in the City, but Dominic had more of a personal impact here, not only by bringing so many of his own men to Rome to study, and working countless miracles in various locations, but also by reforming female religious life, bringing the women together from S. Maria in Trastevere to San Sisto Vecchio, which convent was eventually moved to Ss. Domenico e Sisto on the Quirinal Hill, before finally going on to Monte Mario, where the same community dwells today.

St. Dominic’s greatest spiritual daughter, St. Catherine, would help steady the Bark of Peter in the following unbelievably turbulent century full of plague and anti-popes, in part by dragging Gregory XI from France back to his true home here, and she rests now just down the road at S. Maria Sopra Minerva. Not too long after this tumultuous time came the terrible errors of the so-called “Reformation.” So many men and women in Rome met the challenge, including St. Ignatius of Loyola and our own special friend St. Philip Neri, who became active in the years around the great Council of Trent, at which point the level of religiosity in Rome was perhaps at an all-time low. Philip spent a long time in Rome as a layman, until finally he realized that God wanted Holy Orders for him. His little group of men, many of them laity, who gathered around him not long after his ordination sought to fix the problems of a lack of devotion and pious learning in the City, starting with themselves.

The Roman liturgy by now was proliferating all over the Earth, including in the New World, the missions of which were watched closely by the popes, into the 19th Century. Special mention must be made of Blessed Pope Pius IX of happy memory, whose epic reign included the unfortunate loss of the Papal States with the violent and anticlerical unification of Italy. He still had the guts to hold an Ecumenical Council in the Vatican, while the unifiers looked on with hunger at their desired capital before finally taking it in 1870. The First Vatican Council only officially closed 90 years later, in 1960.

At last, we emerge into the realm of living memory. The World Wars touched Rome but only barely – perhaps the confused and ambitious bully Napoleon had had a worse effect some 140 years earlier, to whom we owe the injustice of so many churches belonging to the State; though, it is true, this no doubt saved many sanctuaries from being “improved” in the 1970’s. The kindness, zeal, and prudence of the Venerable Pope Pius XII not only kept the Germans from flattening the City but it also converted the rabbi of Tempio Maggiore. Then came several saintly popes who would lead and implement the most recent Council, especially our dear friend John Paul II, who charged students to “learn Rome,” “imparare Roma,” and whose impact on this City was enormous, even approaching that of Pius IX. As we can see, there is plenty to learn, and it is worth learning – it is spiritual food, is it not? Of course, this is only an appetizer; the omissions of this summary are vast, as you well know.

All this brings us to today, to current joys and sorrows, and to our own personal memories. Just as the first settlers on the Palatine came here and lived together in a tight-knit group, so have we, and we too draw closer and closer to become a “little city” of our own. The same question is before us: how can we know what awaits us and our small foundation? Well, we have looked at the past, and that helps us to think of our future.

Now then, onto some opportunities.

We all know that we can go to Mass with the Holy Father, or visit the tombs of several apostles and other saints, both those well-known and those somewhat obscure to us, or climb to one of the great vistas of the City and marvel at its reality as a present testimony to its past, which is itself a testimony to the Faith. Likewise, we know of the ancient churches and the sprawling subterranean complexes which lie just beneath the visible City, both of which have such a special place in Christian history. All of these are indeed opportunities – like a spiritual playground, and I want to emphasize this; the City is a place to be used to elevate the heart and the mind to God. It is a spiritual tool. And its great instrumentality in the present is directly a function of its past which we have just examined, if only briefly. It is an immense treasure trove of material for deep reflection on what God did in the Incarnation, and on what it means to be a Christian. However, there is more to consider.

The fact is in front of us in this moment: Rome is international. After all, here we are. It’s not simply that we are some “stranieri” passing through, like the foreigners in Jerusalem at Pentecost who were brought there for Divine instruction through Providence alone. No, rather we have come here intentionally from afar to meet God and listen to Him by sitting around the feet of St. Peter. We are here to study, to teach, to work for the Lord in various ways. Rome remains the “caput mundi” for those of us who wish to know the Church from a global perspective, that is, to understand the “catholic” part of the Catholic Church. They say that Rome is a village – well, it is in some ways, but it can also be quite isolating, especially for us laymen, and above all for those among us who haven’t yet quite mastered Italian, or maybe still can’t even use the subjunctive correctly! So, the reality is that many of us are in need of intentional community, and by that community so many possibilities can manifest themselves. The whole world opens up through these friendships, let alone the City of Rome.

But not only can we not flourish here without a good social network; we also require support in the spiritual life. No matter how far we have advanced in the life of prayer, there is always further to go, and the diversity of experiences which we have in virtue of our different backgrounds makes us each have something to contribute, even if it is small. Each of us is an expert in our own life history, from which we can hopefully draw edifying spiritual lessons for the whole group. On top of this, we have the chance to plead the Lord on each other’s behalf. Praying together for one another, for our intentions, for our families, creates a bond of spiritual fraternity which goes to the heart of the purpose of our efforts. Transcending mere natural association helps us to orient our lives around our common destiny in eternity. In spiritual concord we find that the narrow gate becomes a little bit wider, so to speak. As the Psalm says, “How pleasant it is when brothers live in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” (Psalms 133:1) With a union of charity magnified by fervent prayer and mutual edification, we tap into the graces which God has already shared with each of us. “Without cost you have received. Without cost you are to give.” (Matthew 10:8) This verse speaks of the initial preaching of the Twelve, wherein they are instructed not only to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand but also to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and drive out demons.”

We must indeed help each other in our spiritual journey here on Earth as brothers. But the whole world too stands in need of help. To be more specific, Europe needs to be evangelized – including Italy – and Rome is no exception. Just as St. Phillip Neri faced a Rome full of spiritual squalor, so too do we. The secular state of Italy has weakened the Catholic heart of the peninsula to the point of being overflowing with an anemic and grotesque kind of “cultural Catholicism” which poisons minds much like the culture of Judaism did the Pharisees, leaving those of us who insist on the plain truths and demands of the Gospel and of the Church as “unmerciful,” “unpastoral,” “unkind,” and so on. It is a mindset which chiefly afflicts the young, and also a certain type of clerical subculture. Yet let us be on our guard, for this attitude has a grip not only on those who seek to interpret the Gospel into a bizarre mix of feel-good storytelling and impossible moral ideals, but also on those who might be tempted to announce the truth in a corner and leave the rest of the works of mercy to others. It is just as easy to forget not to try to turn stones into bread in the desert as it is to forget that there are people stuck out in the desert who need food – both material and spiritual. Such “country club Catholicism” is a species of “cafeteria Catholicism”: taking only a part instead of taking the whole. Granted, we are not pastors, designated missionaries, or any such thing, yet there are indeed works of mercy which we can undertake, and there are indeed pastors and missionaries and others whom we can encourage and aid in their important ministries. Rome is full of clergy and religious who would more than appreciate having a little help with their work. Why not assist where we can? And why not take other initiatives that are appropriate for us as laymen?

The last opportunity to note is the one which pulls these other opportunities into itself, and it is what draws us here today: the Oratorio. It is my sincere prayer that our diverse backgrounds, connections, and talents will allow our common faith and zeal to bring forth wonderful fruit in this, our little village, and in the City of Rome for years to come.

Blessing the Hour

Eamonn Clark, STL

There are a few Marian devotions which have become extremely popular over the centuries. The rosary of course, but also the Angelus (at 6:00 AM, 12:00 PM, and 6:00 PM), and the ubiquitous May Crowning devotions. All beautiful and worthy exercises of piety. However, there is another devotion which is shorter, simpler, and practiced by several saints, including St. John Vianney and St. Anthony Claret, two of my personal favorites. It is called “blessing the hour.”

It goes like this. Every waking hour, on the hour, one prays a “Hail Mary,” dedicating the following 60 minutes to Our Lady. 8:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” 9:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” 10:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” Etc.

That’s it.

By doing this, one reminds oneself to sanctify the whole day. It’s a great opportunity to pause, for just 10 seconds, and consider whether one is living up to the standards of the Gospel given the activities of the preceding hour, and then to make a resolution to do better in the next hour, asking the Blessed Virgin Mary for her help. She certainly likes to be asked for such favors, and she certainly likes to grant them – so why deny her the pleasure, meanwhile denying ourselves of her powerful help?

Over time, this practice will help one to keep up a constant kind of awareness and familiarity with the Lord and His Mother, in accord with St. Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17) If we are intent on one day making our eternity to be with such Friends, we ought to get in the happy habit of conversing with them at least every 60 minutes, no? And so, at the hour of our death, we are ready to spend every minute like those ten seconds each hour, but with so much more pleasure, peace, and love:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Main image: A statue of the Virgin with Child, outside Santa Sabina, in Rome

St. Thomas Aquinas on how to ensure your prayer is answered – in 4 easy steps!

Eamonn Clark, STL

It’s a shocking claim, but it’s eminently sensible… if you want a guaranteed answer to your prayer, you must only do four things. And note that I mean the kind of answer that you are actually looking for, rather than getting something different which God wants for you instead (which would be better for you than your own idea anyway).

St. Thomas Aquinas lays out the four steps, or aspects, in the Summa Theologica, II-II q. 83, a. 15. They are:

To pray piously – If we are asking God for something rudely, as if we are entitled to it, we are not praying very well. A pious prayer is humble, respectful, and sincere.

To pray perseveringly – When we really want something, we will typically keep asking until we obtain it. So it is that when we pray for a favor in a fleeting way, we are not desiring that favor very seriously. Why then should we expect Providence to match our desires? We might fall into presumption if such prayers were answered and end up not even praying piously for favors the next time around.

To pray for what is useful for salvation – Despite what it may seem, God does not actually particularly care about the score of the big football game coming up. (In fact, it can be sinful to pray for certain outcomes in such things, unless one has some extraordinary vested interest in them.) While God will grant little favors sometimes that make our lives more pleasant or convenient, normally by the natural order of things, these are small potatoes. Even miraculous physical healings are low on the list of God’s priorities – just look at how Christ did not open up a miraculous hospital in Galilee to heal every single sick person, though He could have done so. What God really wants is our everlasting friendship.

To pray for oneself – People have free will. They can accept grace or resist it. It is not possible to merit another human being’s salvation, although we can assist in a way. However, when we desire our own salvation we have immediately put ourselves on the right path by that very act of the will. Our free will is moving in the right direction already.

That’s it! It may sound underwhelming, but it’s surely not. With this formula, we can obtain Heaven, thus fulfilling the purpose of our existence. God will never deny a soul that earnestly seeks its own salvation through humble and frequent prayer for favors that relate to growth in charity and avoiding falling into Hell. Do you want to obtain the courage needed to go to Confession? You will have it. Do you want to become more temperate? It will be given to you. Do you want to enjoy a deeper friendship with the Lord and be a great saint? He wants to give it to you. All you must do is ask in the right way, and it is sure to come to you.

Do you have an Admiral Ackbar in your spiritual journey?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Those “in the know” who also have a grip on spiritual theology already know what this post is about. For those who don’t, please allow me to introduce you to Admiral Ackbar, Commander of the Naval fleet of the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire, most notably in the Battle of Endor, as seen in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Read all about it on Wookieepedia. Well, here is his most famous line, with nearly 7 million views to date:

The evil Galactic Empire and yes, even the Sith, are wily and clever… They set traps, and we need someone to yell at us to let us know, as we’re so busy with everything else in our ship. We need an Admiral Ackbar… We need a spiritual director.

“Oh there’s not enough time for Father to do that for me.” Well, if everyone in the parish wanted spiritual direction, that would be the case, but if you bother to read Catholic blogs like this one then you’re probably in a small minority in your parish environment. So I don’t think that’s plausible in your case.

“Well, maybe Father would be able to make the time, but it’s me who’s too busy.” Oh. Okay. That Netflix binge/afternoon tea/yogalates class/whatever it is must be very important to you not to be able to have a serious conversation about your soul for an hour a month. Come on. You can do it, if you prioritize it.

“Okay. Fine. But isn’t spiritual direction really only for priests, seminarians, candidates for religious life, etc.?” No, though they form the bulk of those who are interested (and are normally required to have such a discipline). But if you are really seeking to grow in the spiritual life, you will need help from someone who knows the path before you, who can keep you accountable, and who will tell you bluntly when necessary: it’s a trap! It’s a huge advantage…

So, what are you waiting for? Why not ask someone to be your spiritual Admiral Ackbar today?

“I no longer call you servants…”

Eamonn Clark, STL

Here’s a one-minute Gospel reflection for you today.

We read the Parable of the Wedding Feast at Mass…

The one who shows up without a wedding garment is rejected in the following way:

“How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.

The Last Supper Discourses in John give us the great “turn” from servile fear to filial or reverential fear, acknowledged by Christ in the words (John 15:15), “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

We know that Judas is among them. Now watch (Matthew 26: 48-50):

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Friend. Where is your wedding garment? How did you get in here? I can no longer even call you a servant. You do not know the gift of the Eucharist, you do not know my love, you do not know the Church. You have no virtue, no love for me. You have no wedding garment, you bring the world in with you instead of purity. Friend… The darkness and pain which you lead me to this terrible night, you yourself will experience forever. If only you had loved me… You have not learned what my Father has given me to teach. Friend… You will indeed taste the Eucharist, as your lips touch my sacred Blood pouring already from my face. But it is to your shame. You are not prepared for the Banquet… Friend… Friend…

Just as David wept for Absalom, so does Christ sorrow over every soul that is lost, even the most wicked. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)

He is always a Friend to us… Even if we are far from Him, He is always close to us.

Some Quick Thoughts on “Vocation”

Eamonn Clark, STL

The fullest I have ever seen a very large church, other than the papal basilicas for a major event, was this past autumn in Naples. I had intended to pay a visit to this particular church, but I did not know it was the feast of a saint entombed there. The church was the Gesù Nuovo, and the saint was Giuseppe Moscati.

It was more than standing room only. Packed to the walls.

The Gesù Nuovo is a perplexing structure. On the outside, it looks a bit like a Communist library. But on the inside, as you can see, it reminds one of the Lateran or some similarly impressive church. One might be somewhat inclined to say the same of Giuseppe Moscati – a man who “on the outside” did not “look” the way saints normally appear, but who nonetheless was burning with charity. For those who aren’t aware, Giuseppe Moscati was not a priest or a religious. He was not a hermit, and he was not even particularly involved in ecclesiastical affairs. He was a medical doctor and researcher. And here was his path to sanctification… While he was a miracle worker, he was holy because of his love of God and of souls, which love was made manifest by running hospitals, conducting medical research, and so forth.

The impetus for sharing this example and the following thoughts is a recent article in Crux on the alleged non-existence of the “vocation to the single life.” I found the analysis good in the sense of pointing out the issues with the idea of being “called to remain as one is” and the problems one might find therein (ranging from self-deprecating despair at “being left out” to presumptive self-indulgence in “not committing”), but lacking in the way of distinctions and context. I think we want to say that St. Giuseppe Moscati had a vocation, but we also want to make it clear what that actually means.

I would like then to offer a paradigm, based on Thomistic principles, for understanding what a “vocation” is, and also opine briefly how one can “discern” that vocation.

What is a vocation? It seems we can distinguish between two genera of vocations: to be something, and to do something. I’ve asked many kids what they want to be when they grow up – and the standard answers follow. Never has one of them said, “a spouse,” or “a parent,” until after I ask about that. Then they all agree, if they are old enough, “Yes, well of course, but I wasn’t thinking about that.” Leaving aside the troubling fact that family life is just presumed without a thought by so many youth, it is also unfortunate that there is no training in kids (or even adults) to think of what to be rather than what to do. As the old adage goes, agere sequitur esse – doing follows being. Until a thing exists in such-and-such a way, it will not be able to do such-and-such an action. Fish cannot ride bicycles, orchids cannot play the violin, and something that does not exist cannot do anything at all. (As obvious as this may seem, its relevance cannot be overstated today – think especially about what men and women can and cannot do because of what they are respectively.)

A “vocation of being” is a call from God to enter a certain state of life, such as marriage or priesthood. In the strict sense, one who enters into a state of life has then fulfilled that vocation – the call is answered, and the vocation ceases insofar as the movement towards “being” is complete. One now is a spouse, or a priest, or a religious… So such a person only “has a vocation” in the sense that he or she was called to become what he or she now is.

The question is now before us. What about “single life”? Well, using the word in the strict sense, a person who is already single cannot be “called” to remain single, insofar as there is no invitation to change from being one thing to being another; rather, if God simply wants such a person to stay as he or she is, that’s that. In some cases, God may indeed want a single person to take certain vows and enter a consecrated state, but maybe not all. It is true that Giuseppe Moscati did take a vow of chastity, and this does change what one is in a certain sense (making one “sacred” in a way) but he was not thereby enrolled in any special order or society. The Saint simply already was otherwise in the right state of life.

There are people who do not have a vocation to religious life, or to marriage, or to Holy Orders, or to the Orders of Virgins, Widows, or any other special kind of consecrated single life. And there are even people who should not take a private vow of chastity, despite all that, unlike Giuseppe Moscati. Sometimes, such a person has a very good reason not to “commit” to such a state, whether spiritual or natural. Other times, one might have tried to enter consecrated single life and been turned away by the local bishop or by one’s spiritual director, whether for good reasons or not. So it is very important not to assume that such individuals are just being selfish, lazy, or inconstant, even if some are. They have no vocation of being, except to keep being what they already are – but this is like inviting someone to a table he is already sitting at… It doesn’t really make sense to speak in such a way.

The “vocation of doing” is the work which one’s vocation of being (or state of life once attained) is ordered towards that God wants one to do. The priest is a pastor, or a hospital chaplain, or a professor in a seminary. The husband and father is an electrician, a grocer, a banker. Etc. Giuseppe Moscati’s vocation of doing was clearly that of medicine. In this sense, he had a vocation, full stop. And so does everyone who has the capacity for any kind of work have a vocation of this sort; we must at least invest in the profit of our own souls with our time and energy, even if we do not multiply what we have been given in great quantities through much prayer and preaching; or at least that is one plausible way to read the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

Well then, now that we have clarified a bit what we mean by “vocation,” how does one “figure it out”? I would suggest that “figuring it out” is actually the fundamental problem with the mindset that often surrounds this topic, with men and women both. If one scans the vast literature on the subject, one will encounter two realities: first, this literature is all very recent. Second, this literature typically urges one to “go do stuff” in order to “discern” one’s vocation. I propose that the latter is a function of the former. And, to be clear, I do not mean to suggest that one should not read such books, or that they are “bad,” but I do want to say that they should be seen in the context of the broader history of the treatment of this subject. (In fact, I profited myself quite a bit from one very popular “discernment” book, and then the author became my spiritual director for a year – it was great!)

We are in a hyper-informed society. You are reading this blog post because you were on some other website and saw a link, or someone emailed this to you, or you were scrolling through tags on WordPress and saw it; despite what I would like to imagine, not many people are checking my website directly. You might go on from here to check the daily news, watch a DIY video on YouTube, scroll through some other social media, then maybe look at some product reviews on Amazon… etc. Until recently in human history, that would be considered a pretty extraordinary amount of “non-human” information to collect and process. 100 years ago, to read the daily newspaper was sufficient. 1,000 years ago, only the most highly educated were really reading books at all, and to own more than a few volumes would have been rare indeed… one’s personal reading schedule would have been extremely minimal by today’s standards.

But the medievals had time to think about what they were reading. There was no pressure to hurry up and get on to the next thing. After all, you might only get this one chance to read St. Augustine’s Confessions – as there is only one copy in the university (unless you are up for copying it by hand, which was regularly done by students) – so you had better make it count, and the pace of work would have reflected this reality.

What does any of this have to do with vocational discernment? Well, of the few books that people were reading in the “good old days,” manuals on “how to discern your vocation” were not among them, at least to my knowledge. Sure, there are some lines in the Fathers and some nice quotations from various saints that have been around a long time, but I would suppose that there were no dedicated manuscripts until somewhat recently, at least after St. Ignatius of Loyola, and then things only really seem to have started moving along in the last 100 years or so. Maybe I am wrong – let me know in the comments – but it seems that if there is some substantial text that I am unaware of, it is probably somewhat obscure.

Anyway, the point is that the idea that to “discern” one needs to go visit this or that place, have this or that experience, pray in such-and-such a way, talk with these people and those people, then even try out the life for a while and see if it’s a good fit… Maybe this is not always the best approach. Sure, it is necessary to know at least something about what the options are, what one is getting into, and to make sure it is realistic, but here’s the center of the problem – someone who is actively living the Faith usually already has a lot of information. What is typically needed more is a moment to process that information, not add to it! The question simply should be, does x make sense in my life right now, or could it make sense in the foreseeable future? For example, a man who is visiting a seminary already has a “sign” that he should enter formation – of all the things he could be doing today, somehow his life has led him here. Does it make sense that he should turn around and go in some other direction? Maybe… but there should be a very good reason.

This brings me to a final consideration. It concerns the question of celibacy. (See my post on practical ways to improve in chastity here.) The young person – and sometimes even someone a bit older – will have this question in some version or other: “Can I really do that?”

Not unlike the foregoing, the basic way to “figure it out” is to ask what one’s life already consists of and what it realistically could consist of in the foreseeable future. Basically, an unmarried person who somewhat easily overcomes temptations against the 6th Commandment and lives chastity with pleasure should assume that he or she has the gift to remain unmarried; if this state is “within reach,” then work should be done to achieve it. This is simply the principle underlying the admonition of Christ, reiterated by St. Paul, that those who can remain unmarried should do so… The celibate state, if lived rightly, is an aid both to contemplation and to active ministry – but especially to contemplation. (More on that in an upcoming post.) If one can begin to live Heaven on Earth, without driving Himself into Hell through pride or despair (which can come on their own or as reactions to opposite ways of dealing with neuroses rooted in going “too far” in perfection) then he or she should. Why throw away the gift if you have it? Don’t bury the talent.

The future glory of our bodies

Eamonn Clark, STL

In my License thesis (on socialism and how it is so very unlike Christian charity), I had a small section on the gifts of the resurrection. Why? Well, in the context of my essay I wanted to show how the various socialist action-items are not only fulfilled but surpassed in Heaven… instead of merely recovering Eden and its preternatural gifts, which we cannot do, we get something even better. I would suppose that not many people even know that there are such gifts in the resurrection; and I know for a fact that many people struggle with this seemingly strange doctrine in the first place, namely, that after we die, our flesh will in fact be reanimated when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. So, in this post, I will go through a few points: first, the basic doctrine and its metaphysical fittingness; second, why this doctrine is so important and is actually much easier to believe than it appears; and third, a very short description of and reflection on the gifts of the resurrection.

The Article of Faith – gravely binding upon the conscience, to be believed by anyone taking the name of Christian – is stated in the Creed: “I believe . . . in the resurrection of the body.” This doctrine has extremely sound Scriptural foundations, in the Old Testament, in the Gospels, and in the Epistles, especially in the preaching of Paul (including in Acts). We will limit ourselves to mentioning only a few passages. First, the Vision of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. Second, the dialogue of Christ with the Sadducees in Matthew 22. Third, Paul’s preaching in 1 Corinthians 15. This list could be multiplied… It is a clear doctrine of Sacred Scripture. This eschatological hope was implanted too in those true believing Jews from of old – as we see from the words of Martha in John 11:24 before her brother Lazarus is raised – and the doctrine was taught very firmly in the early Church by the Fathers. The doctrine means that when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, the souls of the dead will receive their flesh again and have biological life, just like Jesus did – and just like those who rose with Him and appeared to people in the Holy City of Jerusalem. (We forget about that incident – we shouldn’t. Nobody would make this stuff up. See Matthew 27:52-53.)

The general resurrection makes sense of the reality of the human being. The immortality of the soul is demonstrable from natural reason; in short, the immaterial powers of the soul (the intellect and will) cannot come from the body and therefore cannot be destroyed by the body’s corruption. But we are more than souls, we are a body-soul composite. We are not souls trapped in bodies, ghosts condemned to dwell in a puppet-like mechanism until we finally escape… We most certainly do not become angels, which are beings who never had flesh and never will. No, we are really made from the dust of the Earth, as Genesis 2 teaches, and so the body is a good thing made by a Good God which is integral to what we are. The Manichaeans, the Albigensians, and the Buddhists are wrong. So, it seems appropriate that God would want to give us our bodies for eternity, seeing as He bothered to give them to us in the first place. Finally, we are what we eat – and if we are receiving the Lord in the Eucharist, which is Him in the Resurrection, well, we are united already with Him in this way. It is the “pledge of future glory” which the prayer “O Sacrum Convivium” speaks of…

So much for the doctrine. Why is it so easy to believe? First, God never lies and is never confused. Fair enough – to believe God is the fundamental aspect of faith – but what is there to help us “grip onto” this teaching? Well, the same God Who teaches it gave us the reassurance of it by His own Resurrection. He also raised up His dear Mother – who makes appearances, sometimes to large crowds, such as at Pontmain or Fatima.

On a theoretical level, it is “easier” to raise the dead than to create a new human. We have grown so familiar with the latter that it seems utterly boring, but the truth is that it is an utterly “strange” thing: the soul is made from nothing by an act of pure power, while blind matter is organized by a complex process into a body with the disposition to receive that soul. In short, God makes the new human when there was no human. At the resurrection, God makes something from something only; He takes the parts and puts them back together. He did it the first time without you existing at all, so why is it so hard for Him to do it when you already exist? It’s not. It’s “easier,” even, though all things are easy for God.

Finally, a short description and reflection on the gifts of the resurrection, which are derived from what we know of Christ’s glorified and risen Body. If God is going to raise up our bodies, certainly these strange and wonderful things are no difficulty at all for Him. First, immortality (or impassibility). This speaks for itself… We will no longer be subject to death or bodily corruption of any kind. Second, subtlety (or subtility). Just like Christ, Who appeared in the Upper Room when the doors were locked, our bodies will no longer be bound by physical barriers. Third, agility. Again, like Christ, we can appear here and there quickly. Fourth, clarity. Like the “pre-vision” of the Risen Christ in the Transfiguration, our bodies will be filled with light (like Moses’ face, which needed to be veiled – or like other saints who had such luminescence, which phenomenon makes sense of the “halo”).

We will be less like dust from which our bodies were made, more like air; closer to God, further from the ground from which we will rise. We will be powerful and glorious, not only in spirit but in body. Nothing will hold us back… nothing will contain the joy of our soul, not even the natural limitations of “normal” bodily life. Having surpassed mere “bios,” the life of the body, we will be living in full “zoe,” the life of the spirit, fully subjecting the body to that happiness and conformity with the Will of God in which we will find our constant delight and peace. We will be completely free in our total selves.

The Trinity Matters: Relations of Origin

Eamonn Clark, STL

See Part 1 here – it is really hard to jump in without at least seeing Part 1 (Question 27).

We are looking now at Question 28. Article 1 regards the question of whether there are real relations in God (there are); Article 2 is about whether the relations are the Divine Essence (they are); Article 3 is on the distinction of the relations between each other (they are really distinct); Article 4 asks whether there are four relations, namely, paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession (there are only these four).

Article 1 has a clear opponent, as stated in the “sed contra”: Sabellianism. If there are not real relations in God, then there are only relations in our way of understanding God. That would mean God only “appears” as Father, or as Son, or as Holy Spirit, depending on how we encounter God, but that God is not actually these Three in reality. But what does it mean for there to be relations in God, Who is absolutely simple, with no parts whatsoever? This is the point of Article 1… it’s not a simple text, so let’s go through it carefully.

The first thing that is done is to describe what exactly “relation” is to begin with. Nerds will recall that relation is one of the 9 genera of accidents set forth in Aristotle’s Categories, the others being quantity, quality, habitus, time, location, situation, action, and passion. Relation is that which signifies regard to another. The stone has a relation with the Earth (or rather with bodies in general), which is its inclination to move towards the center. The son has a real relation to his father, but not to a tree, at least not in the same way (procession of the same nature – man from man… there is a kind of relation by position as well, or by action and passion, such as being on this side of a tree, or touching the tree, etc., but this kind of relation more “formal” than “accidental” – but we are getting ahead of ourselves). The man also has a relation to animality (that is, “animal-ness” as an idea, or as a genus), which is that he is a part of that genus. This is a logical relation, not a real relation, because the genus as such does not even exist really except in its individual instantiations, like in “this animal.” So it is something which the mind does – it pulls apart these ideas and compares them. This is quite unlike the man in relation to his father, or the stone in relation to the Earth – these are relations inherent in the things themselves, and thus they are real relations. The Persons have (or are) real relations because the Son and the Holy Spirit proceed from principles of the same nature (the Divine Essence), which is analogous to the man and his father who generated the other man who is his son (both are men). The Son is really from the Father, and the Holy Spirit is really from the Father and the Son. It’s not just a way of speaking.

The Objections are difficult, but worth a shot.

Objection 1 quotes Boethius’ De Trinitate (a strikingly short but rather dense text), where he seems to deny relation in God. Thomas makes a fine distinction developed out of the body of the answer (which, to be honest, seems to depart a bit from Aristotle… but I digress and am probably wrong anyway). Relation exists in God in a way that is not “inherently towards something else” (viz., creatures), but only denotes “regard to another,” viz., one Person with respect to another Person. This is unlike creatures in relation to God, and unlike mere logical relations which only exist in our way of thinking.

Objection 2 again quotes Boethius, saying that God’s relations are relations of “the same to the same,” but since “the same” is only a logical relation (because we have to create a mental image of a thing being related to itself in order to grasp the idea), it seems that only logical relations exist in God. Well, of course, Boethius himself is not looking to deny real relations in God, and Thomas distinguishes between that which is absolutely and numerically the same and that which is the same according to a genus or species. In this “genus,” God, there are three Persons, related in a certain sense like three men – there are three, but they are all “man,” which is one specific substance, or all “animal,” which is one generic substance. Of course, the difference with the Trinity is that there is only one God numerically (unlike with the three men who are three persons), so the comparison is only partial.

Objection 3 compares and contrasts God’s relation to creatures (which is only a logical relation, as God in no way depends on creatures and exists totally “apart” from them, perfectly subsistent in Himself) and the Father to the Son. The Father and the Son are of the same Divine Nature, unlike creation, so it is a real relation between Them.

Objection 4 is maybe the most interesting. If logical relations are those which only exist in the mind, and the Word is generated by the Divine Intellect, how is there anything but a logical relation? Well, logical relations exist by observation, not by procession. The intellect is real, that which comes from it is also real, so there is real relation between them, just like between a father and a son – or in this case, the Father and the Son.

The question posed by Article 2 sounds bizarre but is quite important for us to consider: are relations in God the same as His Essence? The short answer is, yes. We “adore the distinction of the Persons, and the Equality of Their Majesty,” as the Church’s liturgy teaches us.

The controversy that this Article takes on was all the rage at the time, if I recall correctly. Is the Father “paternal” because of the Son (viz., “Look! This Divine Person has a Son, so He has the quality of paternity from His Son!”), or is the Father “paternal” in Himself (viz. “Look! That is the Father! He must have a Son!”)? Gilbert de la Porrée said the former, Thomas says the latter; Gilbert later retracted his position at Rheims, as Thomas notes.

The Cathedral at Rheims.

There are two ways a relation can be predicated of something (meaning “said” of something). The first way is the way Gilbert exclusively considered… The dog bites the cat, so the dog is in a “biting” relation to the cat, and the cat is in a “bitten” relation to the dog; this is the most formal kind of relation, but it is not the real accident of relation. The accident of relation actually inheres in (or exists in) the subject, like the father’s paternity (“father-ness”) exists in him because of his real relation to his son (by a procession of the same nature – man from man). But God has no accidents in Himself due to His perfect simplicity, so whatever is predicated of God is the same as God, so what would normally be an accidental real relation would be an essential or substantial relation after the manner of an accidental relation. (Confused yet? Take a deep breath and buckle up.) So too, the way a father is related to his son is that of a procession of the same nature which inheres in the father and in the son with regard to each other, viz., a real relation inhering in the subject insofar as it regards another. However, unlike creatures, not only does God not have a real relation to whatever is not God, but God also does not change, and so His Persons are those specific unchanging Persons from all eternity, in all their distinct Personalities – the Father is Father always, and the Son is Son always. So paternity and filiation (“sonship”) do not “happen” but are eternal, therefore inherent to the Father and Son respectively, and therefore are not affixed or “assistant” as a result of some relation. (NB: I am going a bit beyond what Thomas says here.) In the end, the relations are therefore actually what God is Himself in His Persons, though not in His Essence when considered apart from the Persons. What this means is that to know the Divine relations (paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession) is to know the Divine Persons, which is to know the Divine Essence (though the Persons may be spoken of as such rather than as the Divine Essence “in general”), but to know the Divine Essence is insufficient for natural reason (without revelation) to know the relations and the Persons, because to know the Divine Essence from reason alone (without faith) is not to know that there are opposing terms within the Divine Essence (which are signified by the relations).

Objection 1 develops this last point about the Divine Essence and relations being spoken of independently; the relations are the Divine Essence, but they are not spoken of under the mode of substance, as this would imply a relation improper to Divine Simplicity, namely, one unlike a relation of the three men to each other in their nature as men in the relevant sense (identity), more like a stone in relation to the Earth.

Objection 2 sounds more complex than it really is. In creatures, relation exists within the creature, and the creature is more than the relation it possesses (the dog is more than its “biting-ness,” the father is more than the father of his son, the stone is more than its character of being drawn toward the Earth, etc.). In God, this is not so – the relation is the same as the Substance, which is God. But the descriptor “relation” does not exhaust the mystery of what God is – nor is “relation” even used in the normal way, as we have seen.

Objection 3 follows upon the preceding Objection and says that even though relation signifies in some real way what God is, this is not everything that God is (which would be a problem for His perfection, as it would mean God exists in relation to something else entirely, thus not being Self-subsistent and fully actual). God contains all perfections within Himself, as He is their source.

Onto Article 3, a short one which is taking on Sabellianism yet again. This might be one of if not the most important Articles in the entire Treatise. If the relations are all really the Divine Essence (God), wouldn’t they all actually be themselves the same? No, says Boethius, says Thomas, and says the Church. How?

The argument is simple. We have established that there are real relations in God, which have “regard to another.” We have established that the terms of these relations are opposed to one another by the logic of procession (the Intellect generates the Word, the Will spirates the Holy Spirit), which means that there is real relation, as already discussed in Question 27 and the last post in this series. To have real relations means to have opposing terms – a real “from where,” and a real “where to,” so to speak, as we see in processions, including interior processions (i.e. the thought I have of myself is not actually myself). The key is this: that which is really opposed necessarily implies a real distinction. Just as “left” is really distinct from “right,” so too is Intellect distinct from Word, and Will distinct from Love/Spirit/Gift (more on the Names of the Holy Spirit later). The terms are opposed, therefore they are really distinct, while still being contained within the same Substance, viz., God. There’s the Mystery: the fact that there is within this single and perfectly simple Substance, God, a collection of oppositions, thus allowing for real distinctions within God. Three Whos, One What.

The Objections are basically clarifications of this point, so we leave them aside, though they are worth a read.

We’re almost done. Article 4 is asking whether there are only four relations in God – paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession. This Article is curious in that it does not have a “sed contra” but only an opposing wrong answer proposed in the final Objection (5), which, unlike the first four Objections that propose more than four relations, instead argues that there are fewer.

There are only these four relations. Relation can be based either on quantity (like double and half) or based on an action/passion (doing/receiving action, like the dog biting the cat, or even like the human father generating his son who receives being from him). There is no quantity in the Divine Essence, as God is infinite Being. So, the relations must be action/passion. They are the acts of the interior processions, of course, which have already been described: the Intellect generating the Word, and the Will spirating the Holy Spirit. Now, the relations are described “from both ends” as it were – from the origin and the final term (the “beginning” and “end”). It’s clear with the Father and the Son: paternity and filiation. With the Holy Spirit, there is no “normal” vocabulary, so we designate the relation of the principle of the Holy Spirit (the Father and the Son) as “spiration” and the relation of the Holy Spirit to His principle as “procession.”

Objection 1 is worth a look. The argument is that the relation between a mind and its object is a real relation (as with the will and its object which it loves, so the following argument holds also for the Holy Spirit) because they are really different things. So it seems that there are more than four relations in God. But since God is knowing and loving God, the Divine Intellect and Will are the same as their objects (and therefore only logically distinct and logically related, like the way anything is “related to itself”). How then, can there be such diversity in these acts (knowing and loving) as to allow for real relations? Well, the Word is in a real relation by the opposition found in intelligible and interior procession, as described previously… The Word is that by which God understands Himself, which has the real relation, real opposition, and real distinction spoken of earlier, even though the Word is also the Divine Essence, the object of understanding. As described above, the key is the real distinction that is allowed for by the opposition of terms – intellect and word – which leads us to this strange but coherent “both/and” with the Word being both not the object of understanding but the concept by which the object is understood insofar as He is the Word, and as the object of understanding which is God Himself, the Divine Essence.

Objections 2 through 4 deal with some other errors about what counts as relation in God. Objection 5 is our last stop. Isn’t there only one relation between the Father and the Son, a paternal-filial relation? Just as there is one road between Athens and Thebes, it seems there is only this one relation between the Father and the Son. However, we already see the problem in the proposed name for this single relation (which is my own invention, mind you): there are two parts. The human son is not father to his own father, nor is the father son to his own son. While one takes a single road from Athens to Thebes and from Thebes to Athens, you go northwest and southeast respectively. You could say, however, that some things have this “absolute” mutual relation, perhaps like numbers, though we leave this discussion aside. The point is that to describe filiation is not to describe paternity, and this also applies to the spiration-procession relations which are between the Holy Spirit and the Father and the Son.

Whew. We made it. Next time, we finally answer the burning question: what exactly is a person anyway?

There is no such thing as an “internet atheist”

Eamonn Clark, STL

The other day I happened across a video of a well-known scientist (Lawrence Krauss) who also frequently engages in discussions about religion. I marveled at the shallowness and predictability of his talking points… “Science tells us everything now!” Hmm. “Define your own meaning in life!” Okay, got it. “Nobody really believes in this stuff, at least in the First World!” Ugh… where’s the science there? “Bronze Age myths!” Alright then. “Compassion and logic-based morality!” Yup, sure.

He went on and on. Childish, frustrating, and boring. Most of all, tragically ironic. As folks like this use their otherwise brilliant minds to describe how awe-inspiring the universe is with all its complexities and all its mysteries which have yet to be unlocked, they don’t ever seem to realize that the possibility of doing that can’t explain itself. The “self” is not an empirical datum, nor is intelligibility.

I thought about doing a line-by-line summary of the video, breaking down how incredibly wrongheaded almost each and every point was, but it occurred to me that not only would this take an inordinate amount of time (as there are just so many things wrong!) but that a better point might be made instead.

In my younger years, I would have been eager to rush down into the comboxes of such videos (or of other platforms) and try to wrestle with the people who are busy cheering on such things like so: “He’s such a freethinker!” “God is Santa Claus for adults!” “This is the most logical thing ever spoken by a human being,” etc. Today, while I do engage in a bit of textual dialogue with unbelievers, I don’t go into the comboxes very much at all anymore. The problem, it seems, is not only with the mindset that internet atheists bring to the arena, it’s precisely that I as a believer and apologist have a tendency to see them as “internet atheists” in an “arena.”

It’s possible to be on amicable terms with someone hiding behind a screen name, but it is not really possible to be friends. Someone who is really hyped up on the “New Atheist” ideology might indeed be a nice person “IRL” (in real life), but as a keyboard warrior, he will usually not be. He will tend to be as smug as a bug and ready to joust aggressively with any believer who dares question the “dogmatic non-dogmas” of the New Atheism. The one who ventures to ask subtle questions about causation or the roots of intelligibility, for instance, will be met with the standard polemical tropes about “the God of the gaps” and “metaphysical mumbo jumbo” and “empirical observation and logic” and what have you, with maybe an f-bomb or two thrown in for good measure. The cleverest ones will bring up Kant.

Anyway, that’s half the problem. The other side is that the bait is taken at all. The believer who wanders into the combox to pose pointed questions will be pounced on – which may then provoke an equal and opposite reaction. Observe:

“You can be moral without God.” “What does morality really mean without a lawgiver?” “So you just obey a monster who punishes you for looking at girls? I wouldn’t want to worship such a God.” “Look at how bad the Communists were in the last century! That’s what atheism does! How is that moral?!” “Stop cherry-picking. How about all those pedophiles at church?”

And so it goes. More and more aggression until it is little more than name-calling.

What’s the solution? Well, whatever it is, it will involve either creating an open space online for sincere dialogue for those who actually want to have it (which is difficult), or actually getting people “AFK” (away from keyboard) and seeing them “IRL” as real people with flesh and blood, with memories, desires, families, and souls (which can also be difficult though in a different way). In the case of the disciples of the New Atheists and their ideology, as with most people, the obstacles to belief frequently lie in large part in the will, not only the intellect. They have sensed something bad about the Catholic Faith – or religion in general – and/or sensed something good about their ideology. Maybe it was the people… it was probably the people, or at least this probably factored in somehow. The first “missionary” step then would consist in being a neighbor to one’s friend by having discussions on important things in sincerity and truth, rather than trying to “own” an opponent on Reddit. Many arguments are won at the price of losing souls.

There is no such thing as an “internet atheist.” There are only people.

P.S. – I offer my own combox here for inquisitive unbelievers… Have at it, friends!

An Abandoned Rite

Fr. Grzegorz Brodacki, O.Cist.

“Holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way.” We find this statement in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the last ecumenical council (§4). Here many will say, not without irony, that the subsequent radical reform of the Roman rite (or rather its destruction followed by the creation of something completely new) showed very well what such “preservation in the future and fostering in every way” mean in practice. However, such an abandonment of an existing rite, even though not to such extent and not on the universal level, is not something unprecedented in the history of the Church’s liturgy. In the course of the 17th century the Cistercian Order almost unanimously abandoned its rite of the Mass so as to accept the Roman rite with few features of their own rite.

What were the reasons for which the authorities of the Order decided to stop using the proper Cistercian rite? To answer to that question, we must know something about its history and its character.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 in Burgundy in France out of a desire to renew the monastic life by returning to the literal adherence to the Rule of Saint Benedict. However, while the Rule speaks much about the structure of the canonical hours, it is completely silent about the rite of the Mass. What is more, Saint Benedict does not even indicate how often the Mass should be celebrated in the monastery. So, the first generations of the Cistercian monks had to find other principles to arrange the rite of their Mass. One of the principles was authenticity; they decided to use only renowned sources. This mainly regards the textual layer of the rite. The chant books were copied in Metz which at that time enjoyed the reputation of having the purest Gregorian tradition. Also, the texts of the missal (called at that time the “sacramentary”) were taken from the most respected churches of Burgundy.

Other principles were simplicity and poverty. One can say that properly these two principles shaped mostly the external layer of the Cistercian rite. The substance of the rite – taken from the existing monastic customs and from neighbouring churches – remained intact, but the Cistercians decided to remove or simplify all that they saw as accidental and superfluous.

Let us take a look at a typical conventual mass celebrated every day at a Cistercian abbey. The first difference with respect to the other rites at the time was the scarcity of ministers: for Sundays and feasts the priest was accompanied by a deacon and subdeacon, while on ordinary days even the subdeacon was unnecessary.

Just after the preparatory prayers at the foot of the altar, the ministers proceeded to the preparation of the chalice, but the pouring of the water was reserved to the priest. Once the lesson had been sung, the subdeacon could join the choir to help in singing.

Hauterive

Before the gospel, the deacon asked the abbot for his blessing. After the Credo, the deacon brought the sacred vessels (let us remember – these already contained the wine with water) to the altar, but there was no special offertory prayer other than In spiritu humilitatis. Then, only on feast days and only at this moment, incense was used. The way of incensing was quite curious: the priest traced a circle over the offerings with the thurible, then incensed the right side of the altar, the left one and again the right and the left side of the base of the altar. After that, he gave the thurible to the deacon who in turn incensed the right side of the altar cross and then went behind the altar to the left side to do the same there.

The Canon of the mass was substantially identical to its counterparts elsewhere. It is important however to point out two particularities: first, the elevation of the sacred species was introduced somehow reluctantly and gradually, so it became universal only in the 15th century. Secondly, kneeling was practiced to a limited degree. The community knelt down for the Canon only on ferial days, while the sacred ministers did not kneel ever.

The Pater noster was followed by a series of prayers for peace and, at least at the beginning, for the reconquest of the Holy Land. Also, the way of distribution of the Holy Communion was quite remarkable. The sign of peace was given uniquely to those who were to receive Communion. In conformity with the Rule of Saint Benedict, the monks approached the altar by seniority, they knelt on the highest degree and received the species of bread directly on the tongue. Similarly, kneeling on the left side of the altar, they drank the consecrated wine without touching with their hands the chalice held by the deacon and subdeacon. Then they passed to the sacristan standing between the altar and choir and drank a little bit of unconsecrated wine in order to “purify themselves,” probably from the possible remnants of the sacred species in the mouth.

At this point the role of the celebrant was practically over. He had only to wash his hands at the piscina (i.e. a kind of a little well placed at the right side of the altar), recite the postcommunion prayer, and then could go back to the sacristy, with no final blessing, which is noteworthy. In the meanwhile, the sacred ministers were occupied with purification of the sacred vessels, not upon the altar but at the ministerium (i.e. credence table). The rite of purification was quite complex: it consisted of several ablutions with wine and water and even of licking the paten.

Even this summary description of the Cistercian Mass gives one an idea of the extreme simplicity and sobriety of the medieval rite. However, not only this was its weak point. The situation was even more difficult, since there was no detailed and exhaustive description of its ceremonies. Actually, the medieval Usus contained special chapters speaking about various types of the mass (conventual with two ministers, conventual with one minister, private mass), but those descriptions were anything but complete and satisfying. As long as the Order was vivacious, conscious of the richness of its proper tradition, the new generations of priests were taught the rite by their elders. By contrast, after the Council of Trent, when a new generation of men joined the Order, the sense of the Order’s own identity, expressed in large part by liturgical customs, faded more and more. Those men knew almost exclusively the post-Trent Roman rite which at that time was spreading with astonishing success, enjoyed the authority of the pontiff, corresponded to the spiritual tastes and needs of the epoch and, last but not least, was meticulously described.

We can suppose that all those factors provoked a gradual abandonment of the medieval Cistercian rite. The first step towards its romanisation, made 1611, was a permission to say private masses according to the Roman missal granted to the monks of the Order. To facilitate that new possibility, in 1617 the Roman Ritus servandus was inserted into the new edition of the Cistercian missal, since there was no Cistercian counterpart to it. In the following year the general chapter formally adopted the Roman Ritus celebrandi. Liturgical unrest was in the air. Claude Vaussin, who was elected general abbot in 1645, decided to publish liturgical books that would put an end to the increasing liturgical confusion, and doubtlessly also to the fights between the “traditionalists” and the partisans of the Romeward trend. Eventually, in 1656 under his authority the Breviarium cisterciense juxta Romanum was published, and one year later came the analogous Missale cisterciense juxta novissimam Romani recognitum correctionem. Thus, the traditional Cistercian rite (with the small exception of the Congregation of Castile) ceased to exist. While the romanisation was not total and complete, as there remained, for example, several Cistercian features for the rites of Holy Week, the rite’s substance was henceforth purely Roman.

During the first half of the 20th century there was a considerable renewal of the Cistercian Order in both branches (the Strict and Common Observances) which led at least three monasteries (Hauterive, Poblet, and the now-closed Boquen) to restore the primitive rite that had fallen into disuse, but even those attempts ended in a debacle after the introduction of St. Paul VI’s Novus Ordo Missae.

As we can see, the necessity of protecting the liturgical richness of the Church has not only been urgent in our own times. Undeniably, the abolition of the traditional Roman rite was something unusual in the history of the Church; however, the abandonment of the primitive Cistercian rite shows to us a phenomenon which differed only in scope, not in quality. The lesson that we can take from this is that every liturgical tradition is worthy of protection and cultivation. Nowadays many speak about regionalization, decentralization, and the exaltation of minorities, but few are able to apply these principles to the liturgical life of the Church. If we believe that the Holy Spirit leads the Church and inspires various communities growing in Her bosom to express their faith, their charism, and their way of life, even through liturgical forms, a blind unification cannot be understood as anything other than a big mistake and a deep impoverishment.

Fr. Grzegorz Brodacki, O.Cist. is a priest and monk of the Cistercian Archabbey of Jędrzejów in Poland.