After Prodigal: A Brief Look at Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘The Judge’

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck
MTS Student, History of Christianity,
University of Notre Dame

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At least on the surface, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is a simple enough narrative: a greedy son demands his inheritance from his father, and takes it to a “distant country” where he squanders it and is forced to seek work at a pig farm.  After dayprodigalsons of working among the swine, he realizes how far he has fallen since leaving his father’s home. The father, filled with compassion, sights his son returning from a long way off and runs to embrace him.

Aside from the slight grumbling of the older son, the story wraps up neatly with the reconciliation of father and son. Upon simply returning home, the son is greeted with an embrace, a robe, and a fattened calf.

But imagine this story through a different lens – one in which the context is not first-century Palestine but twenty-first century United States, and in which the father in the story does not represent God but is instead a very human father every bit as flawed as the son. In a world all too accustomed to divorce and broken homes, it does not seem too difficult to imagine a situation in which reconciliation is not as easy as simply returning home.

I recently saw Robert Downey Jr.’s new film The Judge, and was struck by the way it attempts to re-imagine the parable of the prodigal son. The Judge tells the story of Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a successful, big-time defense attorney who returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for the first time in twenty years for his mother’s funeral. I will not give away much else beyond that, but suffice it to say that when Palmer left home, he left behind a string of hurt feelings and broken relationships that have only grown worse in his absence.

At the heart of The Judge, like the parable, is the theme of reconciliation—but in the film the path toward reconciliation is messy, complicated and painful. The characters struggle to shoulder the demands of forgiveness and reconciliation, at times being consumed by their own pain and offended egos, and at other times displaying radical acts of selflessness.  And as we see, the path to peace demands real sacrifice: each character has to adapt to a new reality and take steps toward repairing the damage and pain wrought by the family’s previous life together.

The Judge seems to approach the parable of the prodigal son from a new perspective, one that takes place after the son has already returned home (at least physically).  It attempts to explore what true reconciliation might look like when those seeking it must navigate the hurt egos, the broken hearts and the deep pain caused by long absence and un-resolved conflicts.

This film is a reminder that authentic reconciliation between human beings is a difficult and pain-staking process. It is not automatic, and calls for patience, mercy,  and intentionality. True reconciliation demands time, sacrifice and conversion. It is never a one-way street, regardless of who is to blame for the rupture. Each person involved needs to give something up: forgiveness must be extended, wounds must be given time to heal, and relationships must be re-established.  Reconciliation is a difficult and uncomfortable process, if only because it must navigate the complex, messy and broken relationships that are all too common in a fallen world.

The Judge offers a contemplation on this daunting complexity of authentic reconciliation, and is especially appropriate in the midst of ongoing discussions sparked by the Extraordinary Synod and the upcoming October 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family. While this film might not provide answers to the many difficult questions facing the Church and families today, it certainly gives us much to think about.


What We’re Reading Today: Birth, Death, and Car Edition

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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With Notre Dame back from fall break, we’re back to posting our Monday, Wednesday, and Friday links.

1) Artur Rosman offers some thoughts on child-rearing and the spiritual life, taken from Janet Martin Soskice. Perhaps this piece speaks to me after spending half of the night awake with my own son for reasons that he (and the cosmos) are unable to express. Here is the passage from Soskice:

It would be rash to suggest that exaltation of the spiritual life (so fashioned) has always in Christian history meant the denigration of family life. There are many examples of theologians and poets who have praised the daily round and trivial task. But for the most part such things as attending to a squalling baby are seen as honorable duties, consonant with God’s purposes, rather than spiritually edifying in themselves. Most Christian women, for instance, think that what they do around the home is worthy in God’s service–they do not think they have not been taught to think, of it as spiritual. And here monastic figures who, apparently, found God over the washing up or sweeping the floor will be called to mind; but these are not really to the point, since servile tasks were recommended because they left the mind free to contemplate. What we want is a monk who finds God while cooking a meal with one child clamoring for a drink, another who needs a bottom wiped, and a baby throwing up over his shoulder.

2) Jessica Keating, one of our assistant editors (who wrote a piece on Caveny’s ’70s Church last week), offers a theological and cultural assessment of death and dying in light of Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her own life over at Ethika Politika. Letting Keating speak for herself:

Maynard wants her death to be on her terms, as painless and as uncomplicated as possible; she wants to die comfortably in her own bed, surrounded by her family and friends, in control of her body and mind. We all want a death like this; indeed, Catholics petition for this kind of death every night in Compline when they pray, “Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” This certainly includes a death without suffering, but it does not foreclose the possibility that a peaceful death may be a painful one. We need only look to the witness of the martyrs to see such a logic unfold. With the advance of medical technology and utilitarian idealism, however, it seems this may become for many the only kind of acceptable death. Unhinged from a scriptural and ecclesial imagination, the idea of a peaceful death has been reduced merely to the absence of pain, and a painless death has begun to chip away the value of a life with suffering. Likewise, death has begun to chip away at the value of life, and in this configuration death is easily commodified. If we can’t master death, at least we can control it, make it more efficient and convenient, and make it involve less suffering, less anguish. And yet …

Read the rest of the piece. It may be the best that you read on the topic.

3) Lastly, a really excellent piece on the role of cars in shaping the practices of worship among young adults from First Things. The piece is by David T. Koyzis.

Now virtually every family has at least one automobile, and this reality has transformed not only our cities, but also our churches. Here’s Graber:

Cars have made distance less of a factor in our lives. For this reason, church goers can choose from a marketplace of churches. But in order to decide, they have to narrow down the options, and when they do, they (naturally) consider their personal preferences first. They’ll try on different churches and see what “fits.”
Pastors, in reaction, are today forced to account for these new dynamics of affinity. Because church shoppers are exploring their options, area pastors often respond by targeting “felt needs.” For pastors, attracting and retaining church goers often means preaching on the topics people are looking for.

The most important consequence of this trend is that the gathered church—as distinct from the church as corpus Christi, which is all-encompassing—has been reduced to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals who can join and quit, or come and go at their discretion. The church, like any other commodity in the marketplace, exists only to serve the needs of its individual members. In this respect John Locke’s definition, scarcely deemed orthodox in seventeenth-century England, seems uncontroversial today: “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (emphases mine). Note the contrast to the scriptural definition of Church as the covenant community of those called by God into a living relationship with him.

Questions of architecture, of creating churches that are not simply a mirror image of suburbia, is not a left or right issue. It’s a deeply theological one, related to how we understand the Church.




The Daily Office and the Village Effect

profileTRANS (1)Jon R. Jordan

Dean of Students

Coram Deo Academy, Dallas, TX

A recent interview on NPR highlighted the universal human need for smaller, intimate community that involves regular “face-to-face contact.” Psychologist Susan Pinker’s new book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter extols the benefits of living “in a community of about 150 people.”

In a world of megachurches, megastadiums, megamalls, and megauniversities, it is difficult for some of us to imagine what it would mean to live in a community no larger than 150 people. In my own ecclesial life here in the “Bible belt,” I have never even been a member of a church or parish that small. While the ideal size for a parish is a fascinating question—and my hunch is that in many ways smaller is better—there is more to the village effect than mere size of one’s community.

“You can create your own village effect. Get out of your car to talk to your neighbors. Talk in person to your colleagues instead of shooting them emails. Build in face-to-face contact with friends the way you would exercise. Look for schools where the emphasis is on teacher-student interaction, not on high-tech bells and whistles.” Susan Pinker

I don’t think I am ready to commit to saying that we must shrink our parishes. There are many benefits of small, but there are also many benefits of large. So for those of us in large cities and large parishes, how can we create our own village effect? One place to start is by not creating our own village effect at all, but by participating in one created long before we came along: the Daily Office.

Pinker reminds us that there is a great difference between the types of relationships we have online, and those which “develop naturally through frequent in-person contact.” Villages have an advantage over Urban centers because this frequent in-person contact happens all the time. Part of our problem is that we simply do not see each other in-person often enough.

The Daily Office does not directly solve this problem; it does not somehow force us into more frequent contact with one another. But it certainly provides an avenue for such contact.

The Office is written in a way that assumes it will be read in community. There is an officiant, there is a reader, and there are the people. There are Versicles and Responses. We are asked at times to listen while others speak, and we are asked at other times to speak in unison. The Office can certainly be prayed alone, but it was meant to be prayed together.

I went on a backpacking trip last Spring with a group of friends, mostly from our small group. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I Complinehad a growing desire to more regularly pray the Office. I brought my Book of Common Prayer, figuring I would have few excuses for not praying while I spent a few days in the middle of Big Bend National Park. During our long hikes and evenings at the campsite, my recent move into the Anglican tradition came up in conversations with a few of my Baptist and Presbyterian friends. Somewhere along the way I mentioned Compline (the final prayer service of the day to be prayed before one falls asleep), and suggested that we try it together that night.

With no campfire (thanks to a burn-ban), and fading headlamp batteries, four of us sat side-by-side passing one Prayer Book back and forth as we tried to figure out what to say next. I imagine this would have been a hilarious scene to watch, as we dropped the book multiple times and often had to practice our responses a time or two before we said them “for real.” Though Compline that night was awkward at times, and impractical at others, I could not help but get the sense that we were not the only group of guys who have tried to pray together in limited light in the middle of the wilderness. Though we could barely see each others faces, this memory sticks in my mind as one of the more intimate face-to-face contacts I have shared with that group of men. Since the trip I have enjoyed hearing how the prayers we shared that evening were being shared by each of us with our own friends, families, and students.

We could have each gone our own separate ways to have individual “quiet times” that evening. But we would have missed out on an opportunity to participate in the village effect—not only with each other—but also with the countless women and men throughout history that have prayed the same prayers before they went off to bed. I may never be part of an intimate community limited to only 150 people. But praying the Office, especially when prayed face-to-face with others, is gradually serving as a catalyst to my own enjoyment of the effect of living in such an intimate community.


Do Not Be Afraid: The Spiritual Legacy of Saint John Paul II

Chris LabadieChris Labadie

MA Candidate, Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary

Director of Liturgy, Saint John’s University Campus Ministry


Every Sunday afternoon I gather with a couple of the undergraduates who work in our Campus Ministry office for liturgy planning. We pray the collect of the Sunday which we are planning, we go around the circle reading what the lectionary offers us, and then I open with a question, “What are your thoughts?” What I want is for these young students to get used to actually listening to what they are hearing in the weekly readings. As they listen and make connections I want them to be able to voice those connections by offering thematic possibilities for hymns, choral pieces, and ritual SaintJohnsUniversityactions that will serve our campus community well in the liturgy. What I invariably get are a couple moments of silence as I look from person to person, trying to catch their eye. Finally, as if in pain, someone mumbles a thought in the form of a question: “Something about sheep?” That triggers someone else to offer the idea of God as a shepherd, leading and protecting his flock. The ideas can begin to flow more freely at this point and the planning can really begin.

At a recent meeting of this liturgy planning team one of our youngest members, a freshman, looked like she really had some idea to share. I poked and prodded until the student finally offered the suggestion of a piece they thought might work for the liturgy we were planning. It was a piece that I too had been thinking about and I told them as much, hoping to encourage further suggestions. I asked why there was such hesitancy whenever I asked for suggestions and the response I received was one that I have heard in many of my interactions as a campus minister: “I didn’t want to sound stupid.” Most everyone encounters this feeling at some point in their lives, perhaps especially those of us engaged in ministry! What if we say something wrong? What if someone thinks our opinion is worthless or is offended by what we say? It can be a paralyzing fear, and it sure seemed to be for these students when it came to liturgy planning. I know that in my own experience of ministry there have been times when I was paralyzed by the fear of doing or saying something that was wrong. I am positive that some great moments of grace, some great moments of encountering Christ, have been missed because I was too afraid to make a misstep. But what is worse, being so unable to take the risk that we let the moment of grace pass us by, or taking the risk by reaching out for that encounter with Christ even if we do not find what we were expecting?

This week we celebrated the first liturgical feast of Saint John Paul II. In an unusual liturgical phenomenon his feast day is not celebrated on the day of his death but on the anniversary of the inauguration of his pontificate, October 22. On that day in 1978 the new Pope offered the homily which in many ways would come to define the message of his pontificate. He knew that the young JPIIPopegeneration of people around the world were in a state of flux after almost two decades of social change. Many were unsure what role Christ had in their lives. They were paralyzed with the fear that if they followed Christ they might be ostracized. The Holy Father challenged that all with four simple words: Do not be afraid. He challenged the young people of the world to be open to Christ, even when the political, economic, and cultural situations would say otherwise. Do not be afraid. It is only when we are open to Christ that we are able to overcome the paralyzing fears that can plague us – in ministry, in our relationships, in offering a hymn suggestion at a liturgy planning meeting.

This is the message that I have tried to take to heart in my own ministry, and it was the message that I offered to the student that day: Do not ever be afraid to offer something, to speak up, to put yourself forward. It is the only way that we are going to have those moments of grace. It is the only way that we are going to encounter Christ in one another. The student was able to offer a few more suggestions during the meeting and has been more open in subsequent interactions. I hope that all of us can have experiences that build confidence in the knowledge that when we offer something of ourselves to others in the name of Christ we can never be stupid, we can never fail. Do not be afraid.



An Interview with the Papal Nuncio to Ireland

Oblation-Pic-LT-286x300Laura Taylor 

House of Brigid

Wexford, Ireland

This past Saturday night, my Irish parish celebrated its 40th anniversary at a spectacular Mass celebrated by the Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, along with our bishop, parish priests, and clergy from all around our diocese.  During this momentous liturgy, the nuncio formally commissioned this year’s House of Brigid volunteers, which made things extra special for us!

Teach Bhríde VI Commissioning

Archbishop Brown, a fellow Notre Dame graduate, had kindly accepted my request earlier in the week for an interview after the Mass. What follows is a beautiful, articulate, and thought-provoking summation of the Catholic Church’s current situation in Ireland, which encompasses a range of important social, theological, and ecclesial issues:

How do you think young adults perceive the Catholic Church as an institution both in Ireland and in the global community?

That’s a great question. I think, you know, that the challenge for us as Catholics is precisely to get young adults not to perceive the Church as an institution. The Church, in the end, can only be understood completely through the eyes of faith. Certainly, as your question implies, in large segments of the young adult population, the Church is seen as a human institution. It does a lot of good for people, it takes care of a lot of poor people, it’s like Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in a certain sense, or in Ireland, the GAA, which is the Gaelic Athletic Association. People see the Church as an institution, and our challenge, really, is to get young people to see that the Church is the presence of Jesus, and the Church is Him. The Church is the encounter with Jesus fundamentally in the Eucharist. And that is a non-institutional way of seeing the Church– seeing the Church not as an institution, but as the presence of Christ, seeing Him at the center of the Church, understanding the entire thing as a relationship of love between ourselves and the person of Jesus Christ.

The Church, of course, in a theological sense, She is described as the spouse of Christ. St. Paul has a beautiful imagery in his Letter to the Ephesians of the Church as His bride, “washed and made clean” in baptism. That spousal relationship between Christ and the Church, that relationship of love, that mystical relationship, that interpersonal relationship is what we need to communicate to people and get them away from seeing the Church as another human institution with its scandals, and difficulties, its structures, its money, its organization and all of that. And when people make that switch, when their eyes are opened to the reality of the Church, that God is here, that the Eucharist is Him, that in the Scriptures, He is speaking–then something changes in their hearts, and they fall in love with the Church. So that’s what our challenge is.

Recent surveys have showed a marked difference in the percentage of young adult Irish Catholics who attend Sunday Mass versus older Irish Catholics of the previous generation. As these young adults have children of their own, studies have shown that it is often the grandparents who take children to Mass. What kind of formation do you think needs to take place in order to encourage those children to continue going to Mass, and also, in turn, the parents?

Your question reflects the reality of the situation quite precisely. That’s quite clearly the situation. The Church in every country has a different history, a different heritage, a different background, a different experience. We should always remember that Ireland is the only English-speaking country in the entire world with a Catholic majority. The only Catholic, English-speaking country in the entire world– there’s no other country where everyone speaks English and is Catholic as in Ireland. It’s a bit unusual. Most of us English-speaking Catholics live as a minority, in America, in England, in Australia, and we’re used to being a minority. And I think that in some ways, there are challenges of being a minority, but there are also some advantages. Because as a Catholic, when you’re in a minority population like in America or in England, or in parts of northern Ireland, you grow up with a sense of being different. In the sense that you realize little by little that you’re Catholic and you’re not just like everybody else. That’s more difficult, that kind of mentality, in Ireland, where everybody is Catholic.  Basically everybody is baptized, more or less. It’s more difficult for people to take a step back and be a little more critical of the surrounding culture, when that whole surrounding culture is basically Catholic, or was Catholic. It requires a different way of seeing things. I guess my point in simple terms is, it’s easier I think to be a Catholic in a minority population.

Being in a majority population, as in Ireland, presents its own difficulties. There certainly is the difficulty here of lower Mass attendance among young people. Overall Mass attendance in Ireland, if you look at the overall population, and the number of people at Sunday Mass, it’s not that bad at all, statistically. In fact, it’s probably about what it is in America, or maybe slightly higher here.  But as your question points out, the population that’s going to Mass here would be older than the population in America. Now, we have to evangelize young people. We have to get them to become excited about the Church, in the terms in which we discussed your first question–getting them to realize that the Church is this encounter with Christ, this encounter with a living person, God made man, who loves them.

Now how do we do that if they’re not coming to Mass? One of the things which is to the advantage of the Church is that most of the schools here are Catholic schools. In fact, the great majority of schools are Catholic schools. So as part of the normal schooling, to which all the kids are coming, there is a Catholic connection to that. I think that, whereas it’s true that in Ireland there will be some Catholic schools in some areas that will be given to the State in order to run secular schools—that will happen—it’s still extremely important that that Catholic Church keeps a large number of its schools so that we can have contact with young people and their parents; because in the Catholic schools in Ireland, they’re preparing for their First Communion and Confirmation. That is a connection to people who are not practicing. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t see those people. It really is something we need to take advantage of, and see as something that really can bring people into contact with Christ.

What are some of the challenges you and the Irish Church face in promoting the New Evangelization?

The major challenge, I think, would be the legacy of scandals in the Church. Today in 2014, I can say there is NO institution anywhere in the world that has more rigorous child protection standards than the Catholic Church in Ireland. And the Church is exemplary in what it’s doing today in terms of child protection. But there’s a legacy of scandals–we’ve had two decades of scandal. We have to realize that faith is caught, not taught. When people are presented constantly for a long period of time with counter-examples, not of saints and holiness, but of criminals and failures, it creates a spiritual deadness in people’s hearts. Now how do we overcome that?

We overcome that by being zealous, by being holy, by praying, by realizing that Ireland was converted by men and women who were immersed in prayer and the liturgy–the monks and nuns. That’s how this Church began on this island– these miracle-working, ascetical men and women who went to live the monastic life, they became people of prayer, witnesses of faith, ascetical witnesses, spiritual witnesses. That’s exactly what we need: a new generation of saints in Ireland, a new generation of those kinds of people. And they are here! I’ve seen them with my own eyes. They’re not heralded, people are not writing articles about them, but there are saints in Ireland today– people who are living their faith with great generosity, with great fervor, with great commitment, and that’s what will change the situation. We have un-canonized saints who I think would be wonderful if the Church moved towards canonization, like Matt Talbot in Dublin, an amazing figure; the Jesuit Fr. John Sullivan, an incredible hero of the faith. We need to promote those figures and give people the experience of holiness, to show people that holiness is possible, in order to counteract this legacy of the scandals, where people are presented with a series of criminals and failures.

Over the past decade, the economic situation in Ireland has changed a great deal. The boom of the Celtic Tiger has given way to higher rates of unemployment and economic recession. Has there been any indication that financial difficulties have prompted a resurgence of cultivating a spiritual or liturgical life by people returning to the Church? Is there a way in which the Church can be reaching out to those whose lives have been impacted by the recession?

Well, the second part of it would be an easier question to answer. The Church does reach out to people who have been negatively impacted by the financial crisis. The amount of charitable work done by the Catholic Church in Ireland is immense: food kitchens, the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul…a huge amount is going on, largely unheralded and really very, very impressive. On a practical level, the Church is doing a lot in that area. I don’t think that the economic difficulty in itself will correlate to a spiritual rebirth, I really don’t—it’s a great question, though. I think what we need, again, are witnesses to faith, holy men and women who pray, who live their faith with conviction, who aren’t afraid to speak about their faith. That’s what will convert, and re-convert people in Ireland to the Catholic faith. The fact they’re a little bit richer or poorer…I don’t think that will have a huge effect on that. I don’t think the pure economics will have much effect on people’s faith.

What are some of the effects you’ve seen in the Irish Catholic Church since the 50th International Eucharistic Congress held here in 2012?

I think that the liturgy–for example, people used to complain, I used to hear this a lot when I was in America, actually I worked at an Irish parish in the Bronx at the beginning of my priesthood in the late ’80s. People used to say the liturgy in Ireland wasn’t celebrated with great devotion, it was kind of mechanical and rapid, with an over-emphasis on simply the ex opere operato, the idea of just doing it and getting it finished. I think the Eucharistic Congress was a tremendous gift to the Church in 2012; it focused our attention on the liturgy. I wouldn’t want to say it changed in itself the liturgical situation, but it focused our attention on the liturgy. I’ve been all over Ireland in the last almost three years–north and south, east and west–and I’ve seen the Mass celebrated with devotion, with beautiful music, with good preaching.

So I think the liturgical situation in Ireland is quite good actually, and improving, with good music, and good participation in general; of course there’s always going to be small defects here and there, that’s always the case. But I think the Eucharistic Congress helped us to focus our attention on Jesus in the Eucharist, on the dignified, reverent, prayerful celebration of the Mass. And that has been my experience of what’s going on in Ireland. People want a dignified, prayerful celebration of the Mass. You know those stories of Mass being over in 11 minutes? I’ve never seen that, and I don’t know if it happens anymore. So I think there has been a liturgical rebirth here.

Since we share an alma mater and there will be Notre Dame students, teachers, and people in the ND community reading this article on our blog, looking back on your experience as an undergraduate studying at Notre Dame, how did you find the liturgical life? Did it affect you in any particularly significant way?

I arrived at Notre Dame in the autumn of 1977. I think we would all probably say that the 1970′s were not the liturgical zenith in the Church’s history, you know? So all of the kind of trendiness of the 1970′s was in painful, cringe-worthy evidence at the time. All I would say is, that the Church in general, and Notre Dame in particular, and I’m holding in my hand this beautiful new Newman Hymnal, which is an absolute work of art, beautiful, fantastic music…I think in all honesty, the experience of liturgy at ND in the late ’70s, for me, was not spectacular. It’s gotten only better. I was actually back at Notre Dame for a sabbatical year from 2006-2007, and the liturgy was absolutely splendid. Extraordinarily beautifully celebrated. I couldn’t speak more highly about the way the liturgy is celebrated at Notre Dame now.  The 1970′s were only ten years after the end of Second Vatican Council, there was a lot of euphoria, experiments going on, some of it was cringe-worthy, but a lot of it’s been purified. I think at Notre Dame now the liturgy is celebrated quite beautifully. It’s wonderful, it’s really great.

What are some of your thoughts on the value of the liturgy today?

The liturgy is our life—there’s so much one can say about that. People are converted by the liturgy. If I’m not mistaken, Cardinal Lustiger, the Cardinal of Paris—who’s now deceased, he’s gone to God–born into a Jewish family in Paris, he wandered into Notre Dame on a Holy Thursday liturgy. He saw the liturgy and basically was converted by the liturgy on Holy Thursday.

The liturgy is so important, it’s our encounter with Christ. It’s a foretaste of the life of the world to come. It should be a moment of heaven on earth, really. Liturgy does not detach us or separate us from everyday life, but it brings us into the encounter with Christ, who is our life. So I think it’s incredibly important that liturgy should be celebrated beautifully, and reverently, and prayerfully. If liturgy is celebrated prayerfully, everything else will follow. Everything else will follow. I can’t think of anything more important than celebrating the liturgy properly and beautifully.

 Last question! So as people in general, and the media in particular, continue focus on declining Mass attendance, lower rates of financial contributions to the Church, and continued allegations of misconduct within the institutional Church, it can be very easy for people to become discouraged. And yet there are parishes in Ireland and throughout the world who persevere in living the Gospel and bringing the Good News to others. Where have you observed signs of this hopefulness in Ireland?

I think parish life in Ireland is undergoing a renewal. The parish where you are here in Clonard is extraordinary in what’s going on: the different ministries, the enthusiasm for the faith. That’s one very, very positive thing. There are groups in Ireland who are involved in evangelization, which are very, very effective, and very beautiful—NET Ministries, have you heard of them? They’re really great, they’re terrific, I’m a huge fan of NET ministries. There’s another group called Youth 2000, they’re great. I preached at their summer retreat– they had a thousand kids at it, and this is Ireland, too which is a small country, a thousand young people at their retreat, beautiful. A third group for young people is Pure in Heart, which is a smaller group kind of focused on St. John Paul the II and Theology of the Body, an excellent group doing great things. Another thing  that’s becoming more and more widespread in Ireland, especially in certain diocese, is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Eucharistic Adoration. There is a HUGE correlation between dioceses and parishes where adoration of Christ the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is practiced and an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. There’s a lot of adoration going on in Ireland, which I think is a real sign of hope.

But your question makes clear that we also have the counter-witness that is propagated all the time by the media. Just do a very objective experiment: go to Google News, take the word “priest” and put it in Google News, now that’s a computer searching stories all over the world in English for the word “p-r-i-e-s-t.” And then look at the twenty stories and ask yourself, these stories that come up, are they positive or negative stories? Then do the same thing with the word perhaps “journalist,” and see what you find. It’s completely objective, it’s a computer doing it, so you’ll see this kind of negativity that’s being propagated, you’ll see it very clearly if you do this little experiment.

In the midst of that, we need to live our faith joyfully and courageously, as Pope Francis says so beautifully, with “contagious apostolic fervor.” That’s exactly what we need, contagious apostolic fervor. That people catch faith from us. Faith comes from hearing–what does that mean? When the disciples saw Jesus praying and they asked him, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” It’s seeing people praying, it’s seeing people of faith that elicits faith in us. So we have to be people of prayer. And the liturgy is prayer par excellence, the center of prayer. And so, a lot of it comes down to the liturgy.


I have to thank His Excellency Archbishop Charles Brown for being gracious enough to take a half hour out of his incredibly busy schedule to sit down for this beautiful, enlightening interview. Archbishop Brown’s words inspire a real, tangible hope for the renewal of the Irish Catholic Church today!

nuncio 1


Three Things We’re Reading: The Jesuit Post, Rick Becker, and the Church of the Nativity


Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Sorry about the lack of links posted this week (thus far). I’m north of Nashville, TN, preparing to speak to a colloquium at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, TN. The talk will be on the salvific nature of beauty, delivered primarily to high school students and featured the theological stylings of Simone Weil, Augustine, Romano Guardini, and Marilynne Robinson. Should be an easy feat, right?

1)  A really beautiful piece from Jason Welle, SJ at The Jesuit Post reflecting on his brother’s diagnosis with cancer and his subsequent death:

But his dying was never without dignity. I asked Tony to let us love him through his sufferings, and we were able to love him all the way through to the end. And in letting us do that, he showed us courage and heroism, and embodied real dignity. Tony’s journey through his own illness, suffering and death was nothing short of courageous; but that he did all this and cared for my dad in his illness and death is simply heroic. Courage and heroism aren’t born in complacency or contentment, nor are they the hallmarks of fearlessness and ordinary strength. They are created in response to trials and suffering, and they’re evidence of the triumph of hope over despair. Dignity too is made possible through courage and heroism, but love makes all of these possible; love in time of affliction is the condition that makes dignity a reality.

2) Rick Becker on a Mass he attended in Denver, Colorado recently:

The recessional hymn concluded, and following a brief prayer of thanksgiving, I genuflected and exited my pew with a glance at my watch – just enough time to get back for the start of the next conference presentation. There was a light rain outside, and I made sure to slow down and hold onto the handrail as I descended the slippery stone staircase from the west transept door.

Right behind me was an elderly couple, and the woman was attempting the navigate the stairs with a cane. She was doing alright with her husband’s help, but I stuck around just in case – and I wasn’t the only one. An usher and another man stood at the top of the stairs watching the couple take each step. Once the woman made it to the sidewalk, the two men nodded to me as if we three had all been part of a covert stair-descent safety team, and then they re-entered the church.

Nothing particularly virtuous about our watching out for that woman – pretty much any decent soul would’ve done the same. And that’s the point – we’re all in this together, insiders and outsiders alike.

3) A really fascinating review of the Church of the Nativity (the church that is “rebuilt” in the run away, popular book, Rebuilt, over at PrayTell by Fritz Bauerschmidt:

Clearly liturgy cannot simply reflect culture, but must also create culture. Is the liturgy at Nativity doing this? White and Corcoran speak (to my ear) somewhat dismissively of “churchpeople” who live in “churchland.” These are those who feel comfortable with terms like “homily” rather than “message”, “RCIA” rather than “Vantage Point,” “Sunday obligation” rather than “weekend experience.” They like things like the Easter Vigil and the Stations of the Cross; words like “novena” and “sodality” trip off their tongues; they enjoy architecture and music that reminds them that they are part of a two-thousand year-old tradition. Perhaps, as Rebuilt at times implies, these are simply people for who Catholicism has become a tribal identity, who care nothing about the lost that Christ would have us seek. But perhaps at least some of these “churchpeople” are those who have been inculturated into the rich tradition of Catholicism and want to pass that along to others. Undoubtedly they are still, in some complex way, postmodern suburbanites. But they are also something else, something that creates friction with their postmodern suburban identity.

I believe that the leadership at Nativity welcomes that friction; indeed, they wish to foster it. They want to resist the consumer culture that not only surrounds but also pervades the Church. They want to, as they put it, “make Church matter,” while rejecting a hermetically sealed “churchland.” I wonder, however, if their dismissal of “churchpeople” and “churchland” is too cavalier. Perhaps, rather than rejecting a pathology in Christ’s body—those who think they somehow “own” the Church and who want to keep trespassers off their property—they are instead rejecting a set of valuable resources for forming Christian identity over and against the culture of consumerism.

All of this is, of course, simply a manifestation of an enduring tension within the process of liturgical inculturation. How do you make Church matter to Timonium Tim without pandering to him, so as to turn him into a consumer? To what extent is it desirable, or even possible, to make Christian liturgical celebration look like, sound like, feel like, a culture’s other forms of celebration? Or does the liturgy inevitable mark out its own space—churchland—populated by its own strange citizens—churchpeople?

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Zachary Wadsworth’s “O Saving Victim”

Mary Catherine Levri

Candidate, Doctor of Musical Arts, University of Notre Dame 

Student assistant, Notre Dame Liturgical Choir

Perhaps you are familiar with the Eucharistic hymn O salutaris hostia.  This frequently used liturgical piece is taken from the last two verses of Thomas Aquinas’s Eucharistic hymn, Verbum supernum, which he composed for the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.  In its English form, these two verses are known as O Saving Victim, and it is often sung at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

 O Saving Victim opening wide
The gate of heaven to us below;
Our foes press on from every side,
Thine aid supply; thy strength bestow.

All praise and thanks to thee ascend
For evermore, blest One in Three;
O grant us life that shall not end
In our true native land with thee.

A confession: for most of my life, I did not like this hymn.  The words never succeeded in grabbing me.  “Gate,” “foes,” “strength,” “immortal,” “native land” – they reminded me of an epic battle in some fantasy world, which seemed to me to have nothing to do with the true presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  On top of this, the usual hymn tunes that we associate with the text sounded tired and boring to me.  Just hearing the organ introduction to one of these tunes would cause me to inwardly roll my eyes, check my watch, and steel myself for what would feel like the longest two verses of any hymn ever written.  On a deeper, more serious level, a sadness would creep into my heart: why did I feel nothing but irritation during this hymn,  which was meant for our Lord present in the Eucharist?  Try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to like it, so I forgot about it.  To my memory, in my work as a church musician, I have never willfully planned O salutaris as a piece of music for the liturgy.

This past summer, I attended a sacred music conference in Indianapolis and joined a choir directed by a wonderful choral conductor from the Netherlands.  He handed out a new piece about which he was very excited.  “It’s a great piece!” he said, “and the music goes very well with the text.”  The piece was titled O Saving Victim, and it was by a young American composer, Zachary Wadsworth.  Our conductor began taking us through the piece, remarking on how often the key area seemed to change.  The choir gave it an uncomfortable first try.  “This is weird,” I thought.  Wadsworth had given us a modern take on O salutaris, and it was not immediately easy on the ear.

As the choir grew accustomed to the piece, however, my feelings began to change.  As strange as the piece was, there was something honest at its core.  It contained moments of painful dissonance as well as moments of ethereal consonant harmony.  At time14568158586_8b2d489bcc_zs, the voicing of the piece created a tremendously full sound, but at one particular moment, it sounded like there were only a few people singing from the back of a cave.  The phrases would move along placidly, but sometimes they would stop on an unrecognizably dissonant chord at the loudest dynamic level.  This made the voice of the text “All praise and thanks to thee ascend” sound as if it was frightened.  I recognized my own experience in the summation of all these musical elements, and for the first time in my life, I actually heard the text.  In fact, it was as if until then, I had never heard a real prayer before – and now I could say it.  Years after I had given up on O salutaris, this new setting of it by Wadsworth had given me a way of praying that I could recognize and own.  It was as if the piece had been written for me.

Have you ever felt like giving up on a prayer, or even giving up on going to Mass?  Perhaps the words of the liturgy have long felt like they have no meaning for you.  You stand, kneel, sit, and move your lips, but your actions have no interior life.  The music is irritating, and nothing the priest says has any pertinence to what you are going through.  More upsetting than anything else, the gratitude with which you have been taught to receive the Eucharist simply is not there. The bread looks like bread and the wine looks like wine.  Your faith seems to be a lost cause.

So many members of the Church have experienced what I have described and have taken it as a reason to leave and find a livelier church, a more spirited music, or another more edifying way to spend their Sunday mornings.  I would suggest a different approach:  take your frustrating experience as a reason to wait for the Holy Spirit.

The mystery of the Church is unchanging, and yet, she grows.  The deposit of faith is absolute, and yet, new saints continue to shed never-before-seen lights on it.  The liturgical tradition of the Church is ancient, and yet, we see how it is continually shaped and reformed.  Tradition is a living thing, sustained at all times by the breath of the Holy Spirit; the dfrancisco-de-zurbaran-st-francis-kneelingepths of it are unfathomable, and there are as many gazes on it as there are saints whom God desires to raise up.  Perhaps your dry spot, or your inability to “get” a certain text, is the call of the
Holy Spirit, asking you to wait for Him.  Maybe He will surprise you with a devotion to a saint who always puzzled you or a feast that you have not yet discovered.  Or perhaps your new take on an old truth will be the light that refreshes a poor soul, just as Zachary Wadsworth’s O Saving Victim did for me.  Instead of leaving the Church when your passion for her has died, ask the Holy Spirit for a way to fall in love again.  Tradition is a living thing – allow it do some work on you.

It took thirty years for Tradition to convince me of the worth of O salutaris.  One could say that the Holy Spirit is slow to move, but it might be that He knew I needed that much time before the hymn could mean something to me.  The fruits of it were worth the wait: I cannot hesitate now to tell you what the text means to me.  Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is our portal to Heaven, and the foes pressing on from every side are the demons of fear, anxiety, doubt, and self-loathing that convince us to stay away from His mercy.  It is only with His help that we can summon the courage to worship, to praise and thank Him in the midst of the battle with ourselves.  Our true native land is Heaven, and it is in that blessed place that we will cease to be strangers to ourselves, to one another, and to God.  That Heavenly life with Him will not end – the battle is a moment, but that happy peace will be forever.

So, this past August, I willfully requested that the Liturgical Choir sing the Wadsworth O Saving Victim at the 10:00 AM Mass in the Basilica.  For them who sang it and those who listened, this probably seemed like a routine choice – a familiar text that has a regular place in the liturgy. Only the Holy Spirit knew the thirty-year story behind it – and how many more stories there must be!  Do not give up the battle for your faith!  No matter how dry your dry spot feels, wait for Him, and without ceasing ask, “Thine aid supply, thy strength bestow.”


Synod 2014: The Danger Zone

Tim KenneyTimothy J. Kenney ’14 MTS Candidate, 

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

As the III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family closes its session, the Church will begin to look ahead to the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family that will convene in 2015. I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how we as a Church should approach the Synod in the interim and what we should expect to be produced from these discussions. This is in no uncertain terms a difficult task and so I will turn for help to my fellow Kenney (he spells it wrong), Mr. Kenny Loggins. Friends, prepare yourselves. highwayWe’re heading into the Danger Zone.

The debates around matters of Marriage and Family have long been heated and divisive. Early reports from the Synod have only added to this, as each side seems set on inserting its own perspective for what the bishops have actually said. If only we had a close-minded Church, then it would be very clear which side of the debate the Church is on and who can “claim” her authority. The Church’s detractors would closely study her teaching only to condemn it while her supporters would celebrate it without having any idea what it really says. But as it is, we have a Church that seeks dialogue and uses communication rather than brute force.

In this spirit, there is a real need to actually look at what the Synod is saying. There is an incredible danger in asserting that there has been a “seismic shift” in the faith proclaimed by the Church. Expecting some great departure from current teaching would be unrealistic, uncharacteristic, unprecedented, and contrary to the entire idea of faith built upon Tradition. 20141017-Churches-1The Church isn’t presenting a political platform that can change or dissolve when the voters don’t like it. It is seeking to interpret God’s revelation to humanity and put this into pastoral action. However, there would be an even greater danger in expecting that Church teaching will not be developed whatsoever following the Synod. While standing by its dogmatic claims, the Church can still address issues within its pastoral ministry. This is an opportunity for the bishops to consider those marginalized by its current approach marriage and family life and consider how it can better minister to them. Pope Francis called together the Extraordinary General Assembly precisely because he felt there were matters the Church needed to address. The Church is seeking a way to better respond without ignoring how these issues have been addressed in the past. We as a Church need the courage to look inward, say there is something in our pastoral mission that can be handled better, and then do it without feeling like we are overturning the Christian faith.

Any rash decisions or ill planned pastoral approaches from the Synod put the Church in serious danger of leading the faithful astray and further alienating the already marginalized from community and true self-expression. Careful reflection and well thought out responses are required for such hot topics. This is exactly the type of tough, imposing task that the Church was meant to embrace. let-the-discussions-beginRather than avoiding controversial issues because they are hard to talk about, the Church has a responsibility to fully engage those areas where it is most needed. This Synod is without a doubt, to quote the great Kenny Loggins, on a “highway to the Danger Zone.” It is an opportunity for the Church to talk about the tough issues and reminds us of two things to keep in mind throughout the Synod:

1) There is no obvious or easy solution to these questions being discussed by the Bishops. It is a challenging and serious matter that should not be taken lightly. 2) We as a Church need to embrace this challenge and confidently dive “right into the Danger Zone.” Only through real understanding and dialogue with the marginalized can we respond pastorally to their situation. There has been so much anticipation surrounding the Synod because it is addressing topics that are so controversial and important to present society, which is great news. The Church must always be presented in context to the faithful; otherwise the Bride of Christ is being received completely out of touch with the rest of the world. True, the Church does at times stand apart from the world. She is our ark in times of trouble, the refuge in which Christians can remain firm and confident in their faith. Jesus reminds us to take comfort in the fact that

“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.” (Jn 15:18)

The Church does not, however, ignore the world. We cannot stand firmly upon our faith without being fully aware of what we are standing for. 2194111_07e06541ba_mTo do so would be childish, not childlike. Ignorance of the world at large makes us like children huddled under the covers out of fear of what might be hiding under the bed. Rather, our mission as Church is to go outside of our Comfort Zone and headfirst into the Danger Zone in an effort to shine a light in the darkness. Only by shining the light of Christ throughout the world can the Church’s ministry be available where it is needed most. Vatican II, as stated in Gaudium et Spes, helps ground the concerns of the Church in the concerns of the world. The Church cannot be intentionally antagonistic to the world if it is to be a link between the world and the Kingdom. We cannot keep the Gospel message to ourselves, but neither can we proclaim it to those we do not understand. The role of the Church is to be a minister to the world. Plunging straight into the Danger Zone makes possible so much opportunity for the Church. For her detractors, if they are going to disagree with the faith she presents, at least they know that the Church has thoroughly discussed and thought out the beliefs in question. In turn, the Church asks that the detractors put as much thought into why they disagree. Open, honest, and helpful dialogue can only follow when both parties are informed. The most intense debates I have ever had were because someone didn’t really know what they were talking about. I know this because most of the time that someone was me. Pray for our bishops. They certainly do not have an easy task ahead of them and I certainly do not envy their position. It is the least we can do for them to pray that their mission and discussion, both now and in the future, will be guided by the Holy Spirit. Finally, if Kenny Loggins is reading this, what’s up. You’ve got a solid first name.

Detroit Mass Mob 3

Mass Mobs: The Ultimate Flash Mob

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Earlier this week, several news sources including the Huffington Post and NPR reported on a growing trend in urban Catholicism, especially Detroit—the Mass Mob. Begun in Buffalo in November 2013, Mass Mobs were inspired by the “flash mob,” where groups of people show up to a certain place at a certain time and either break out into a pre-determined dance routine as in this “Thriller” flash mob or a choral performance as in this “Hallelujah Chorus” flash mob. There has even been an instance of an “Ode to Joy” flash mob orchestra (admittedly this last example was staged for a commercial, but still, awesomeness abounds).

With the Mass Mob, this idea has taken on a sacramental twist: once a month, a group of people attends Mass at a pre-determined place and time. detroit-mass-mobThe locales are often historic churches that are struggling financially, giving people the opportunity to worship in stunningly beautiful spaces and often encouraging them to take action to prevent their closures by contributing money. Apart from the aesthetic benefit for participants, who are opened up to an experience of liturgical architecture and beauty, and parishes, who benefit financially from contributions and receive a morale boost from seeing their often empty church filled to standing room only, there is another obvious benefit to the Mass Mob phenomenon: more people are going to Mass.

When I first heard about this, I worried. I thought, people are making Mass trendy, so what’s going to happen when the trend fades and the media are no longer covering this particular story? Will this kind of flash mob amount to a nothing more than flash in the pan? But the more I read about these events, the more I am all for the Mass Mob: it takes place once per month, so it’s not drawing regular Mass-goers away from their parishes, and it’s in no danger of losing its appeal by becoming routine. By making the Mass Mob an occasional event, the organizers are, in effect, planting seeds. Detroit Mass Mob 2They invite people in to an experience of liturgy in a beautiful space, and (hopefully) those people leave the celebration wanting to enter in to such an experience again before the next month’s gathering. The Mass Mobs are planting seeds within the hearts of those who participate—people who may not attend Sunday Mass under any other circumstances—and these seeds take the shape of a desire for beauty and community. Much has been said in recent posts about the communal aspect of gathering for the Eucharist, and I think that the popularity of the Mass Mobs is a concrete manifestation of these deeply rooted desires for belonging.

Flash mobs bring outsiders in, both directly—inviting strangers to sing and dance and play together, and indirectly—inviting spectators to enter into the joy of the performers, such that the joy of latter becomes the joy of the former. Flash mobs involve normal people who seek to participate in something bigger than themselves. Such people need not be perfect—plenty of wannabe zombies made mistakes in the “Thriller” flash mob. One need not even be part of the original group of flash mob conspirators—see the elderly couple who stood up to join in the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Perhaps they were indeed part of the choir planning the flash mob (one can’t tell from the video who the planners are), perhaps they had simply participated in choirs years earlier and were drawn into the singing by memory and joy. Whatever the reason for their being present, they stood up and joined in the song. Which is exactly what’s happening with the Mass Mobs. detroitmassmobIn their own right, these events are specifically geared toward reaching the people on the peripheries, an act encouraged by Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhoration Evangelii Gaudium (§20), an act central to the flourishing of the New Evangelization. People may be participating in the Mass Mobs because it’s trendy, because they always wanted to see some of the architectural gems of their city and this gives them an excuse to finally do so, or because they’re simply curious. The more important point though, is that once those people enter into the church, they are swept up into the ultimate flash mob—the Body of Christ. Because when you think about it, every single celebration of the Mass can be characterized as a flash mob. Members of the assembly come from all over the place, to gather in this one place, at this one time, and somehow, everyone pretty much knows what to do. And if you don’t know or remember what to do, you can pick it up from your neighbor. It’s not always perfect, because we are human beings. The music might be out of tune, people who haven’t been to Mass in some time might still respond with words from the older translation of the Roman Missal, or everyone might be confused on when exactly to stand before the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, but when we as Catholic Christians enter into the Eucharistic liturgy together, we enter into it with and through Christ our Head, as members of his Body, and all of our imperfections are caught up in the perfection of his self-giving love. Now that’s something to get together with a group of friends you’ve never met and celebrate.

Schoenstatt chapel Marian image

Schoenstatt: A Creative Response to World War I

Danielle PetersDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt
Sisters of Mary
Post-Doctoral Fellow,
Institute for Church Life,
University of Notre Dame

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July 28, 2014 marked the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Many events—from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to Germany’s secret treaty alliance with Turkey—led to this fateful day. Like many Europeans at that time, a young German priest by the name of Joseph Kentenich observed the horrific tragedy unfold. Fr. Joseph KentenichFor him, nothing happened by chance. God was speaking and he sought to hear His voice by deciphering the signs of the time. Fr. Kentenich was the spiritual director for approximately 85 young men of a high school seminary aspiring to be missionaries to Africa. He wrestled with the customary institutional Prussian education of the outgoing nineteenth century which stressed discipline above all and was little concerned with the individual’s needs and gifts. Reflecting on the formalism, drill and lack of freedom he concluded, “I could not stand the way I was educated and I told myself: No, one must not educate in such a way.” Thus he endeavored to design a pedagogical program for the young men between the ages of fifteen and eighteen founded on a clear cultural analysis of Europe’s historical situation. At the heart of this analysis was the observation that Christian culture was threatened by industrialism which considered the human person as a replaceable piece of a huge machine. In this context he perceived that education without a definite ethical and religious foundation is prone to substitute God and his values with technological progress. Observing the inner restlessness and idealism of his charges, Fr. Kentenich considered his main educational goal to promote and challenge self-education and free initiative among the adolescents. To the surprise of the students, he told them: “We want to learn—not only you, but also I. We want to learn from each other. For we are never done learning, especially not in the art of self-education, which represents the work, the activity which will indeed take our whole lifetime.”

The initial emphasis on self-education was well received among the young men. It challenged them to prove to their superiors that they were mature young men who could be reliable and responsible in their studies and conduct. Yet, before long they came to the realization that they cannot rely solely on themselves. Hence, on April 19, 1914 with 28 students as charter members, they founded a Marian Sodality committed to a voluntary and resolute striving for holiness in the school of Our Lady’s education. Schoenstatt chapelUnder the guidance of their spiritual director the young sodalists repaired an old chapel, dating from the twelfth century and located on the school’s campus, to be used for their communal prayer. Soon thereafter, while they were on their summer break, the war broke out. T­he earth shaking event posed extraordinary difficulties on the young men since most expected to be drafted into the military, and thus be removed from the favorable setting of their environment.

Around the same time, on July 18, 1914, Fr. Kentenich read an article in a daily newspaper, Die Allgemeine Rundschau, by the Capuchin Cyprian Fröhlich about the origin of the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii in Italy. It told how an Italian lawyer, Bartolo Longo, had begun this famous shrine in 1871. No apparitions or extra­ordinary miracles were involved. Undoubtedly, thousands of people read this article. Yet, Fr. Kentenich struggled to perceive what God was telling him through this story. After several weeks of prayer and meditation he arrived at the conclusion—though not without a leap of faith—that God was calling him to invite Mary to take up her abode in the sodality chapel. When the students returned from the summer leave, he welcomed them in his inaugural talk for the new school year with the somewhat challenging message that “according to the plan of Divine Provi­dence, the great European War is meant to be an extraordinary help for you in the work of your self-sanctification… [which] is the armor that you shall put on, the sword, with which you shall free your country from its overpowering enemies…” Fr. Kentenich shared his conviction that a new epoch was approaching “with great strides.” Appealing to the high-mindedness of the youth, he contended, “Do not think that in times like these, when momentous decisions are being made, it is something extraordinary, to increase your striving to the highest degree.”

He then proceeded by introducing them in the form of a modest “wish” to one of his “favorite ideas” upon which he had reflected again and again in the past months. Taking as his starting point the scene on Mount Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, Fr. Kentenich made a comparison and asked, “Would it not be possible for our sodality chapel to become at the same time our Tabor where Mary’s glories are revealed?” And he continued, “Without doubt we could not achieve a greater apostolic deed, nor leave a more precious legacy to our successors, than if we were to prevail upon our Queen and Mother to set up her throne here in a special way, to distribute her treasures and work miracles of grace. You can guess what I am aiming at; I want to make this place into a place of pilgrimage, a place of grace.” The realization of this wish according to Fr. Kentenich would be possible under the condition that “each one of us must achieve the highest conceivable degree of perfection and sanctity according to his state of life. Not simply the great and the greater, but the greatest heights ought to be the object of our increased efforts.” Schoenstatt chapel interiorTowards the end of this foundational talk, Fr. Kentenich made clear that his idea is not based on a vision or any other extraordinary experience, but solely on his trying to decipher God’s will. He concluded by saying: “To me it is as if at this moment…Our Lady were speaking to us…: ‘Do not worry about the fulfillment of your desire. Ego diligentes me diligo. I love those who love me (Prv 8:17). Prove to me first that you really love me, that you take your resolution seriously. … This sanctification I demand of you.’”

Indubitably, none of the young men grasped the transcendent nature of that hour. Fr. Kentenich, however, who had dared to take the tremendous leap of faith in the silence of his own heart, was convinced: “How often in world history has not the small and insignificant been the source of the great and greatest? Why should this not also be true in our case?” He later acknowledged that this was the most difficult time of his life, because his faith could only discover a fine ray of light in the darkness. As time went by he would have to endure more painful situations, like imprisonment in the concentration camp at Dachau during World War II from 1942–45, or fourteen years of exile from 1951–65, but by then he was able to base himself on repeated experiences of God’s working in his life.

In retrospect, this talk of October 18, 1914 in the chapel in Schoenstatt was perceived as the Founding Document of a new initiative in the Church: the Schoenstatt Movement. Its source is a unique form of Marian consecration, a covenant between Our Lady and Fr. Kentenich as representative of the young seminarians. Since this covenant was based on the free cooperation of both covenant partners it is called a covenant of love. Patterned after the covenants in salvation history it has a personal character—the covenant of love is sealed between the Mother of God and Schoenstatt’s founder together with his followers—and a local dimension—the shrine, as “our cradle of sanctity” and the educational workshop of Our Lady. Fr. Kentenich’s understanding of the Marian consecration as covenant of love actualizes the mutual giving of self to the covenant partner and thus Mary’s educational task.

From this inconspicuous beginning developed a place of grace, the Schoenstatt Shrine, forming the heart and spiritual headquarters of the International Schoenstatt Movement. During the past one hundred years, this chapel, now called Original Shrine, has been replicated in over two hundred “daughter” shrines around the globe, each built in connection with a retreat center of some kind for education, spiritual formation, and hospitality. These shrines—eleven of which are in the Unites States—have inspired the erection of countless home shrines, Schoenstatt’s unique contribution to the domestic church, and the circulation of thousands of “pilgrim shrines,”all bearing the image of the Mother Thrice Admirable of Schoenstatt, carrying the child Jesus in her arms.

Fr. Joseph Kentenich  with Pope Paul VI

Fr. Joseph Kentenich with Pope Paul VI

Fr. Kentenich is the first German in the history of the Church and internationally among the pioneers who founded an ecclesial movement. Its charism has since spread to 87 countries on all inhabited continents. Schoenstatt’s covenant culture has inspired multiple initiatives within and outside the Church. To name but one: recently São Paulo, Brazil, instituted October 18 as “Covenant of Love Day.” São Paulo’s governor attributes to this decision the fact that Schoenstatt’s covenant of love and the Schoenstatt Shrine in Atibaia/SP have become part of the culture of the more than 43.6 million people living and working in this territory.

We began by noting that Schoenstatt arose in the context of World War I. Its history proves once again that God can write straight on crooked lines. Amidst indescribable destruction and suffering, God found in Fr. Kentenich and the sodalists willing instruments who cooperated in bringing about a movement of Christian renewal in the Church and world. The obstacles which could have been their destruction proved instead to be stepping stones leading them closer to God. A lesson that can be learned by all of us!

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life

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