30 November 2007

Spe Salvi!

Our Holy Father's latest brilliance has been published, Spe salvi, "In hope we are saved. . ."

Look for reflections, homiletic references, and other, less formal, gushings about this document coming soon!

Beautiful Word, beautiful feet

St Andrew: Romans 10.9-18 and Matthew 4.18-22
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert
the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

Believe with your heart and be justified; confess with your mouth and be saved: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That’s a great deal! But here’s the catch: before anyone can believe, before anyone can confess—and it follows that before anyone can be justified or saved—they must first hear the Word of Christ spoken aloud and come to know the name of the Lord. Paul writes, “…faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” There’s lots of hearing going on! So much hearing, so much being heard. Now, we know that it is the Word of Christ being heard. But who is speaking? Who is doing all the talking? Paul quotes Isaiah, “Their voice has gone forth to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” Who is this plural possessive; who is “their”? To whom do these voices and words belong? Again, Paul quoting Isaiah, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!” And we add: how true and good the tongues of those who speak the word of truth and see the Lord’s justice done!

They were fishermen, fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus called out to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Why is this proposal remotely appealing? I mean, do we have any inkling why two sensible pair of hard-working fishermen would abandon their nets and their father to follow an itinerant preacher on his odd-ball and apparently doomed quest to trawl for souls and save the ones who would be saved? The Word speaks and we listen. Jesus called Peter and Andrew and “at once they left their nets and followed him.” Jesus called James and John and “immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.” At once. Immediately. This is the power of the word to overwhelm, to seduce and capture, to lure in and arrest more than just the imagination, more than just one’s deep longing for risk or novelty: Word speaks to Word. The Word once spoken strikes the Word once infused. Creator speaks to creature. Image and likeness. Chord and note. Texture and touch. Jesus calls and they follow.

And they follow on feet growing more beautiful with every step. Each step a word. Each word a name. Each name a soul, a mouth to confess, a heart to believe, a tongue to proclaim the Word. Each word a step. Each step a name. And with every step and name and soul, the fishers of men called by Christ net a back-breaking haul, a net ripping load. Having become preachers by hearing the Word and following Christ, these fishermen have also become apostles (ones sent out and away) and they have become prophets (ones who see justice at The End and warn).

Let’s ask with Paul: do we not hear? Certainly we do. Do we not preach? Certainly we do! Do our voices for Christ go forth to all the earth? Our words to the ends of the world? What do preachers do if not speak the word of truth and hunger to see God’s justice done? We leave behind our nets: the teacher’s chalkboard, the architect’s rulers, the social workers files, the chemist’s chemicals, the student’s tests. We leave behind the professor’s committees, the linguist’s books, the businessman’s deals and lawyer’s arguments. We walk away to walk with. We walk away to speak Christ’s word so that his name is known to all peoples in all tongues for all time. We walk behind Jesus, following Christ. We walk with Jesus, becoming Christ. We become Christ to preach his saving Word so that all who hear may believe, all who believe may be justified, and all who are justified may see God’s justice done among the living and the dead.

How beautiful are the feet and hands and tongues and hearts of those who bring the good news! And those who receive him!

29 November 2007

FREE Indulgences (. . .sorta. . .)

Click HERE to receive a partial indulgence! You

must also say a decade of the rosary, go to

confession, buy me a book, and pray for the Holy Father's intentions. . .(whistling....)

HEY! We Dominicans used to get away with it all

the time. . .(sulking). . .I hate modernity. . .

(sulking. . . .)

26 November 2007

"Liberal" Priest & the Extraordinary Form

Hat tip to Fr. Z. for pointing out this excellent piece by Fr. Michael Kerper. If, like me, you are a priest who would rather boil and eat America Magazine than read it, take the time to read this piece. If you are one of those priests who think America Magazine, Commonweal, and NCR(eporter) should be added to the biblical canon, pay attention to the highlighted parts of the article. Fr. Kerper is showing us what it means to serve in humility!

America Magazine: December 3, 2007 (pdf)

My Second First Mass

Fr. Michael Kerper

ON SEPT. 23 I walked down the center aisle of our parish church, genuflected and made the sign of the cross while saying, In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Thus began my first Mass according to the Roman Missal of 1962 more than 22 years after my first experience of celebrating the Eucharist. When Pope Benedict XVI issued his letter of July 7 eliminating most restrictions on the use of the so-called Tridentine Mass, my reaction oscillated between mild irritation (Will this ignite conflict? How will we ever provide such Masses?) and vague interest (Is there perhaps some hidden treasure in the old Mass?). Within a week, letters trickled in. Some demanded a Latin Mass every Sunday, insisting that the pope had “mandated” its regular celebration. Others were more reasonable. In August, I met with a dozen parishioners who wanted the Mass. The meeting became steamy as I explained that I had never said the “old” Mass as a priest and had served such Masses as an altar boy for only two years before everything changed. Some thought I was just feigning ignorance to avoid doing it.

A few days after the meeting, I obtained a 1962 missal, looked through it, and concluded, reluctantly, that I knew more Latin than I had thought. My original cranky demurral crumbled under the force of my own pastoral self-understanding, which had been largely shaped by the Second Vatican Council. As a promoter of the widest range of pluralism within the church, how could I refuse to deal with an approved liturgical form? As a pastor who has tried to respond to people alienated by the perceived rigid conservatism of the church, how could I walk away from people alienated by priests like myself—progressive, “low church” pastors who have no ear for traditional piety? An examination of conscience revealed an imbalance in my pastoral approach: a gracious openness to the left (like feminists, pro-choice advocates, people cohabiting and secular Catholics) and an instant skepticism toward the right (traditionalists).

Having decided to offer the Tridentine Mass, I began the arduous project of recovering—and reinforcing—my Latin grammar and vocabulary so that I could celebrate the liturgy in a prayerful, intelligible way. As I studied the Latin texts and intricate rituals I had never noticed as a boy, I discovered that the old rite’s priestly spirituality and theology were exactly the opposite of what I had expected. Whereas I had looked for the “high priest/king of the parish” spirituality, I found instead a spirituality of “unworthy instrument for the sake of the people.”

The old Missal’s rubrical micromanagement made me feel like a mere machine, devoid of personality; but, I wondered, is that really so bad? I actually felt liberated from a persistent need to perform, to engage, to be forever a friendly celebrant. When I saw a photo of the old Latin Mass in our local newspaper, I suddenly recognized the rite’s ingenious ability to shrink the priest. Shot from the choir loft, I was a mere speck of green, dwarfed by the high altar. The focal point was not the priest but the gathering of the people. And isn’t that a valid image of the church, the people of God?

The act of praying the Roman Canon slowly and in low voice accented my own smallness and mere instrumentality more than anything else. Plodding through the first 50 or so words of the Canon, I felt intense loneliness. As I moved along, however, I also heard the absolute silence behind me, 450 people of all ages praying, all bound mysteriously to the words I uttered and to the ritual actions I haltingly and clumsily performed. Following the consecration, I fell into a paradoxical experience of intense solitude as I gazed at the Sacrament and an inexplicable feeling of solidarity with the multitude behind me.

Even as I cherish this experience, I must confess that I felt awkward, stiff and not myself. Some of the rubrical requirements, like not using one’s thumbs and index fingers after the consecration except to touch the host, paralyzed me. As a style, it doesn’t really fit me (I also can’t imagine wearing lace). But as a priest, I must adapt to many styles and perform many onerous tasks. Why should this be any different? Perhaps we have here a new form of priestly asceticism: pastoral adaptation for the sake of a few. My reluctant engagement with the Latin Mass has not undermined my own priestly spirituality, born of Vatican II. Rather, it has complemented and reinforced the council’s teaching that the priest is an instrument of Christ called to serve everyone, regardless of theological or liturgical style. Ultimately it means little whether Mass is in Latin or in the vernacular, whether I see the people praying or hear their silence behind. For sure, I have my preference, but service must always trump that.

The Mother of All Critiques?

A few posts down from this one, I ask regular readers to give me some serious feedback on my homilies. Since I firmly believe that the preacher preaches to himself first and that I've been feeling that my homilies have been somewhat BLAH lately, I thought it would be a good idea to hear from those of you who listen. Below is an exemplary critique from a former student of mine. This is what I'm looking for, folks!

I think you tend to sound more Protestant in your homilies with respect to delivery and style, or at least what my very narrow experience of Protestant preaching has been. Your content is, obviously, Catholic, but the mannerisms of speech can come across to me as a cross between a Baptist minister and a car salesman and like you're trying to be too clever. Now, a decent amount of the Protestant delivery feeling could be my Bostonian upbringing shining through and really more about northern vs. southern speech, but I think that there is a legitimate issue there as well. You sound every bit the academic that you are when you are speaking, and that's fine in general but sometimes it can result in sounding talked AT versus talked TO/WITH, particularly with the over-reliance on rhetorical devices. Answering your own questions to that degree (case in point: The Resurrection! So What?) can feel exclusive and condescending.

I've had you in classes before, and you were probably my favorite professor in college, and I think you should go more that direction in your homilies because in class you tend to draw out of your students more than what they necessarily even know they have to give. I think that in your homilies you sometimes are not as personable as you really are. Of course the point is to communicate Christ, but the packaging matters, and you will reach more people if your manner is more personally engaging. You are really great one on one, but that seems like it's getting lost in the written homilies that I'm reading because you are not meeting people where they are. People who are experiencing suffering as they try to live in faithful accordance with their vocations need to be able to go to Church for comfort as they carry their crosses. You don't know who is having these struggles, and when people in crisis go to Church to be comforted and fed, I'm not sure that your more recent homilies would fill that need. It's not the content that is the problem. Right now I really would like to, and need to hear about the resurrection of the body, but it took me 3 times reading through your homily to really feel like I get most of it, and even then some of it probably did go straight over my head. Most of your recent homilies I have been barely skimming as I have them on my friends list. You could convey the exact same ideas in a far more accessible way and I think it would reach more people, better preparing them to be transformed by the Eucharist.

I think it's almost like you're combining preaching with being an opinion columnist, now that I just glanced at a few more of your posts. You can be hard hitting and brave in speaking the truth while still being accessible and relatable to people. In a certain way, I feel like the priesthood and midwifery are quite similar. You don't control what happens, and neither does the mother/individual Christian who undergoes birth/theosis, but how you exhort, educate, and support does enable a more or less grace filled transformation into bearing fruit. I hope that this helps you and does not offend, and look forward to seeing how your homilies change over the next few weeks.


Reprinted with permission

Two mites, two scandals

34th Week OT(M): Daniel 1.1-6, 8-20 and Luke 21.1-4
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

When mixing the dough for baking bread the proportion of water to flour you use really matters to the result. The same is true for mixing concrete—too much water or too little water threatens the stability and strength of your art—whether you intend walk on it or spread jam on it. We also use the notion of proportion in our ethical decisions as well: ratio of mercy to justice; whether or not this or that reason tilts the scales for or against making a choice. Think about all those moments in your life when you weigh portions in relation to one another and then pick out what you conclude to be the useful, the good, the beautiful, and the desirable and leave behind what you conclude to be the unworkable, the ugly, the harmful, and the just plain wrong. I would daresay that we humans are creatures of chance (we take risks), planning (we take control), and proportion (we weigh options). Is this sort of calculation—ethical, financial, spiritual—a gospel habit, a Christian virtue?

Jesus praises the widow in this gospel b/c she does not risk, plan, or weigh proportionate options when she drops her two coins into the collection box. She doesn’t offer a reasonable amount, a prudent portion given her income,. Nor does she weigh benefit against cost. She offers her whole livelihood. Jesus says, “I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest.” How does Jesus reach this obviously erroneous conclusion? The widow gives freely, completely, without reservation out of her poverty, her lack. The others give of their surplus wealth. She has acquired the virtue—the good habit—of magnanimous sacrifice. The virtue that Jesus himself will practice by dying gratuitously on the cross at Golgotha.

We know the Scandal of the Passion and the Cross: Christ our King is whipped, ridiculed, and executed as a criminal by the Roman and Jewish authorities. This is a scandal because he has claimed again and again to be the Christ, the Anointed One of God, one who possesses divine power to heal, heavenly authority over demons, and the prestige of being the only Son of God. Power never yields to weakness. Authority never abdicates its place of honor, its elevated status.

There is another scandal here as well: the Scandal of Excessive Generosity. For creation to be redeemed, for all of God’s creation to be brought back into right relationship with its Creator, nothing more is strictly required than that the Creator bring us back. A simple act of divine will. SNAP! And we are back right where we were in Eden. We could skip all of this “growing in perfection” business. In other words, we were salvageable as creatures of a loving Creator through a more prudent, a more calculated and less risky means: divine fiat. Instead, we are made righteous, made “children of the light” through the messy, wasteful, and ultimately ugly sacrifice of the Father’s only Son on the cross. For the practical among us, for reasonable souls, the planners and the risk-takers, this choice, this plan of salvation though suffering and death is “too much,” excessive and strictly unnecessary. Why not save us out of the surplus of divine wealth?

Jesus watches a widow drop two coins in the collection box, but in her he sees a kindred soul: one who gives not just a large portion of her wealth, not a calculated percentage of her leftover income but one who gives everything she has, her whole livelihood. And he sees in this widow a vision of his own sacrifice on the cross, his own excessively generous, needlessly gratuitous offering of body and blood for the reconciliation of creation to its Creator. It would have been more practical to leave Christ among us! To have skipped his suffering and death! But then, how would our Father have shown us His abundant love? His exceeding compassion?

Our faith is not an investment in risk-taking, planning, or prudently calculating cost/benefit. Our faith is a wildly generous, open-handed, open-hearted, full-throttled run, a redemptive marathon sprinted behind our Chosen Victim. We cannot give a portion of ourselves, a piece of our surplus wealth. We must give our whole livelihood, everything, all of it. . .nothing less was given for us.

25 November 2007

Can a King rule from a Cross?

Christ our King!

Christ the King (C): 2 Sam 5.1-3; Col 1.12-20; and Luke 23.35-43
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

This time next year the U.S. will have a new president. For some, this will be a glorious moment in history. For others, it will be a source of near-crippling anxiety. The build-up to that moment is already under way and again for some this is a drama worthy of Shakespeare, for others it’s a comedy, a farce. . .worthy of, well, also worthy of the Bard himself. Regardless of what you think of the process and all of its possible outcomes, we are plopped down in front of a question that has occupied the best and worst human minds since the first two cavemen got together to hunt for supper: who leads? Who decides? Who will rise to the top and show the way? And why should anyone follow the one who walks out in front? Do we follow strength? Courage? Expediency? Vision? Self-interests? Charisma? Do we follow prejudice? Tribal custom? Mythical spirit? Patriotic zeal? Do we elect our leaders? Select them? Let God (or the gods) send them to us? Do they inherit leadership? Or take it by force? By wealth? By charm? Add to these the anxieties we feel as Christians. Will our virtues be respected? Our rights as citizens be honored and protected? Will we be forced to participate in intrinsically evil acts or tolerate policies and actions that violate our most basic teachings? What does it mean for us, we Christians, to be leaders in the Church, in the world? Though not an explicitly political solemnity, this Solemnity of Christ the King raises worrisome questions for us precisely because it answers infallibly the question of who it is that ought to rule our hearts: Christ Jesus, King and servant. Who is Christ as King? Who is he as servant? And what do these two titles tell us about how we are to be leaders in the Church and in the world?

We have two starkly opposed images of Christ the King: first born of all creation, head of the body, the Church AND the suffering servant, a ridiculed criminal nailed to a Roman cross. Savior and rebel. Messiah and rabble-rouser. Only Son of God and only a son of Joseph and Mary. He is the image of the invisible God and a convicted insurgent. He is the beginning, preeminent in all things and he is “King of the Jews,” sneered at and executed by the state. We know from Paul that the Son of God “took on the form of a slave, to be human like one of us,” and we know that he reigns in heaven at the right hand of the Father. The political question for us Christians, the leadership question for us is: How does a king rule while nailed to a cross?

Jesus hangs on the cross, nailed hands and feet to the wood. Pilate has placed a sign above Jesus’ head. It reads, “This is the King of the Jews.” The Roman soldiers, reading the sign, shout up at him, mocking him, “Hey, if you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” Without waiting for an answer, the soldiers give him vinegar to drink. More mocking, more scorn. For a Roman there is nothing more ignoble, more inhuman than to die a rebel, executed on a cross. It is the punishment reserved for lowest of the low. Their mocking of Christ is not only morally acceptable; it is required. It is part of the punishment. Stripping Jesus of his human dignity, stripping him of his identity, his vocation is just part of the price they make him pay for allegedly defying Roman rule. Nothing about Jesus’ teaching rises to the nobility and art of Roman philosophy. Nothing he did—heal the sick, forgive the sinner, feed the hungry—nothing about his ministry strikes the Romans as particularly religious or moral. Why save the weak from disease? Why rescue the poor from their fate? Why look with favor on slaves, foreigners, atheists, and cowards? Honor the gods, your family and ancestors, your country, and show no mercy to your enemies. The soldiers’ taunt—“Save yourself if you are King!”—is a spiteful but nonetheless predictable display of Roman disdain for weakness.

Given all of this, how does Christ rule from his cross? One thief, hanging next to our Lord on a cross of his own, says to Jesus, reviling him, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other thief, hanging on his cross on the other side, says, “Have you no fear of God. . .we are guilty of our crimes and we have received a just punishment but this man has done nothing criminal.” This thief admits his guilt and asks Christ for mercy. He receives it. Jesus says to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” And this is how the suffering servant, the slave of God’s slaves, the broken king on a cross, this is how he rules from his crossed-wooden throne: he shows compassion to those left without hope. And, if you will follow him to his Good Friday tomb, rise again with him on Easter morning, and live forever in his presence on the Last Day, you will do the same. Otherwise, your baptismal vow “to follow Christ” means nothing at all.

Let’s ask our question one more time: how does a king rule while nailed to a cross? The weakest answer we could muster is: he rules by example. So did the Romans. We could say that he rules by moral force. Well, so did the Romans. They ruled by what they thought of as a moral order, an imperial imperative to bring the Pax Romana to the world. We could answer: he rules by invoking in us a kind of patriotic fervor for the Church. How dare the Romans and the Jews kill Christ! They must pay for their blasphemy! Is hatred and revenge our destiny as Christians? If not by example or moral imperative or an incitement of righteous vengeance, how then does Christ the King rule while nailed to a cross? How does he rule even now? We cannot forget that our suffering servant, our broken and bleeding Jesus is the one who delivered us from the power of darkness; gave us to his Father’s kingdom as sons and daughters, heirs to the wealth of eternity; in him we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. He is more than merciful; he is Mercy. He is more than loving, he is Love.

Paul reminds us and we cannot forget: “…in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Christ the Crucified rules from his cross because in him “all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him…” Christ for us is everything. There can for us be no appeal to economic efficiency, political expediency, popular demand, or incremental progress. Christ rules by transforming cold hearts, by turning hard heads, by overthrowing obstinate wills; he rules in virtue, in strength, by being for us weak in condemnation and mighty in compassion. And we, as his body, his members can be nothing less, nothing weaker. We are subjects of a Crucified King.

Here we are, Lord, your bone and your flesh. Make of us mighty slaves, strong servants; make of us virtuous rebels, holy insurgents. Make of us a compassionate nation, a merciful tribe; make us a sacred people, a church bought by the blood of the cross and given away, freely given as a gift to the world.

Help make me a better preacher. . .

I need some feedback from regular readers/listeners. . .

My homilies have been kinda BLAH lately. I haven't really enjoyed writing them or preaching them. This is very unusual b/c the one thing I truly look forward to in my week is praying over the readings, writing the homilies, and preaching them. It seems like I've gotten into a rut. . .maybe lost some nerve or energy or Spirit or something. . .I dunno. I had hoped that the ad experimentum over at my other site--kNOt + homi(lies)--would challenge me, but I got sick and then started traveling and I haven't had time to do much over there. . .

What do you think? I'm not fishing for compliments here. I really need some feedback. Some constructive criticism. Even if you think nothing is awry here, please tell me how to improve.

What would you like to hear more about/less about in these homilies?
Are these homilies too "moral"? Do they need to be more doctrinal?
More on social justice/peace issues?
Am I being too "preachy" or "finger-wagging"?
Am I getting too professorial, too didactic?
Am I just saying the same things over and over again?
Should I concentrate more on practical spirituality?
Or more on biblical interpretation?
Do you connect with a more or less literary style?
Maybe something less rhetorical and more straightforward?
Do I need to be more/less "aggressive" in taking on issues?

Right now, I think of myself as a fairly competent exhortatory preacher, meaning I want my homilies to fire folks up or arouse in you an urge to do something. Scripture is vital, of course, and tradition and magisterium.

But is there more that I need to consider? Leave me comments! And remember, please: I need criticism not compliments!

Thanks and God bless, Fr. Philip, OP