Moral Community and the Saints

SamuelBellafioreSamuel Bellafiore

Music, Philosophy ’15

Undergraduate Fellow

New visions of moral community have arisen in recent years. These views, which often include a troubling redefinition of the person, identify moral community as the collection of thinking, reasoning, problem solving and independently acting persons. At the heart of these views lies a curious assertion: If you are not currently a person and thus a community member, the moral community has no responsibility for you. [1] Many problems, not worth enumerating here, immediately ensue.

One problem that is worth mentioning: no one would dare implement this consistently. For instance, when we talk about environmental policy, we talk about conserving the earth not only because it is valuable in itself but because we have a responsibility to leave future generations a healthy environment. We’re aware that if we don’t care for the earth, we perpetrate a grave crime on our descendants. Our descendants can’t be persons now. They don’t even exist. Yet we intuitively recognize our responsibility to them.

The communion of saints even better belies the modern pretend about what makes moral community. The saints provide a framework for considering what the scholar of the law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” For whom am I responsible? The saints’ lives and our relationship to the saints show us how responsibility stretches throughout time.the-forerunners-of-christ-with-saints-and-martyrs-fra-angelico

The saints strove for holiness out of love for Christ, not to inspire us, but in following after Christ they passed Him on to those who came after them. Intentionally or not, they left a witness that time and distance cannot efface. They were doing what Christ did first and did in the highest degree: “leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.” (1 Peter 2:21)

Some saints, like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theodore Guerin, lived lives of obvious service. They manifested their life’s goal of loving Christ and handing on what they had received. This often took the form of service to and solidarity with the poor. Others like St. Bruno of Cologne left less apparent examples. St. Bruno founded the Carthusians, one of the strictest monastic orders. He spent much of his life in silence and solitude and generally is remembered for, well, very little.

The Church recently celebrated all these saints’ feasts. Whatever these saints did, the Church receives their fruits. Their charity, sacrifice, prayer and tending the deposit of faith enable our Christian life today. We’re told the blood the martyrs is the seed of Christians. Plants cannot grow without seeds, so the saying suggests that without the martyrs’ blood, you and I might not be Christians. There might not be Christians. If the martyrs didn’t die but we still became Christians, we wouldn’t be the same Christians. This goes for all the saints. Over time their charity became charity toward us. Their prayer didn’t benefit only those around them but us too. Their sacrifices likely bear small, unnoticed fruits even today. By living and dying well, the saints cared for us.

We might even say if these saints had not lived their lives of holiness, they would have been derelict not only to their contemporaries but to anyone who came after them. Living their vocation, while foremost an act of loving God, also turns out to be a kind of responsibility to their present and future neighbors. In his Meditations on Christian Doctrine, Blessed John Henry Newman hints at this:

I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes…if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another…Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.

In God’s providence He can raise another, but it is awfully difficult to replace a link in a chain that’s already taut.

By fulfilling their vocations, the saints were kind to us. We shouldn’t give our descendants any less. But the people we call “saints” were humans first, people with loves, frustrations and faults. They became saints. The only way to give the future Church what the saints gave us is to become saints. They show on an ecclesial level what is true globally, that community is not confined to our lifetimes. The saints show that when I act my action does not pertain to me alone. Nor do I influence only the person next to me. What I do, the way I live, may bear a fruit I never see or could never know.

The saints gave something to us. We must give something to our descendants. Then can we ask if we must do something for the saints? What is the relationship between our generation and the ones that preceded us?

Philosophy's favorite mustache.

Philosophy’s favorite mustache.

None other than Friedrich Nietzsche, whose time in a Rome hotel once overlapped with Thérèse of Lisieux’s, provides helpful thoughts on this topic. His second essay in On the Genealogy of Morals calls the relationship between the present generation and its forefathers one “where we modern men have perhaps have the greatest difficulty in grasping its relevance.” (trans. Douglas Smith) He posits the present generation always sees its relationship to ancestors as that of debtor to creditor, except that the debtor can never fully repay the debt. He dislikes this. “A debt is recognized,” he says, “which gnaws incessantly by virtue of the fact that these forefathers, in their continued existence as powerful spirits, never cease to grant the race new advantages and advances in strength.”

It’s an idea you could take too far. Seeing the saints this way would mean seeing them as dominating, menacing forces but there’s a relatio180px-Teresa13anninship between Nietzsche’s point and the saints. The saints’ lives did not end at their deaths. By their heavenly intercession with
God, their lives continue now with even greater efficacy. Their power is the kind Nietzsche despises most — the power of the God who becomes weak and dies on a tree — but he is still right that we have to reckon with our relationship to them, what they have done and still do for us. We might wonder, Should we be trying to repay the saints? Do we have an obligation to them?

 We might as well ask if we should try to repay God. Indeed, that is what we should do. Our relationship to the saints is more like our relationship to God than to our descendants: What we do now may can be an act of kindness to our descendants. But our responsibility, if any, to the saints and to God can be one only of responding in thanksgiving. We’re not the first to ask whether we should try to repay God. The Psalmist did when he inquired, “How can I make a return to the Lord for his goodness to me?” (Psalm 116:12) The question is in part rhetorical. Making this return is impossible, for what God has given is infinite and infinitely more than we could ever give.adorationofthelamb-jvaneyck1

But the Psalmist continues. “I will raise high the cup of salvation and call on the Lord’s name.” Of ourselves, there is no adequate repayment we can give to God. His gifts of love are not loans requiring repayment. But we can render Him the thanksgiving He Himself enables. The Roman Missal says, “although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift” (Common Preface IV). We can offer Him the Eucharist, the bread of life and cup of salvation, but this gift we offer is not ours at all. What we can give Him only what is His already.

So with the saints. If there is any payment we can render them, it is our small participation in the liturgy of heaven, where contemplation and charity are entirely one. “Repaying” the saints, if such a thing is real, is this: living our vocations, receiving and giving life as members of Christ’s Church. If we do this we serve the entire Church, the Bride who is universal over the earth, across time and in heaven. For we are in communion, Christ the Son of the living God.

Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won,
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee.


[1] see, for instance, Mary Ann Warren, On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion or Peter Singer, Practical Ethics


Three Things We’re Reading Today

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we’ll have a piece called three things we’re reading today. Ironically, the post is ultimately about three pieces that we’re reading today.

1) A piece by Rick Becker on holding babies in Church (and what this reveals about our own relationship with God)

Perhaps, in time, after years of this kind of loose supervision, the child will, of his own accord, attend to what the parent seems intent on – namely, God. Until then, patience is a must, along with an unconditional surrender to distracted worship. Children for the most part will eventually follow the cues of the grownups in their lives, and they’ll be still when their parents are still; they’ll contemplate what dad is contemplating; they’ll attend to what mom is attending. But it’ll be the kids themselves who choose to be still and contemplate and attend – not because they have to, but because they want to.

2) Bruce Morrill, S.J. writes a piece over at PrayTell on the nature of community in Catholic worship:

…I would propose that the meet-and-greet sort of gesture inserted at the beginning of the Mass of the Roman Rite seems dissonant with the practical theology of the liturgy. Aidan Kavanagh, inspired by Alexander Schmemann, put it well years ago with his thesis that the liturgy is “the Church doing the world.” The assembly’s work in this regard is to be a symbol of the church and of the new creation, acknowledging God in praise, receiving the word of life, sharing (communio) in the body of Christ, departing in peace to “glorify the Lord by your life.” Yes, one may well know many of the other members assembled and enjoy their company. Yes, one might at times need to recognize in active communio that one needs reconciliation with some other(s) present. And all of this is, of course, to the good. But there is a grave danger in turning communio (crucial to the ecclesiology in the documents of Vatican II) or koinonia into a sort of clubby gathering or a like-minded 0r like-appearing cohort that functionally amounts to the antithesis of how one famous author described the church catholic: “Here comes everybody.”

3) Samantha Schroeder at Ethika Politika talks about the problem with language relative to marrying up, a critique that gets to the heart of a consumerist approach to marriage

It seems that in contemporary American culture, marriage is increasingly becoming a marketplace commodity, wherein the products—husbands and wives, men and women—are appraised not for their intrinsic, unique, ineffable value as human persons, but for their value as producers and consumers in the American marketplace. Karl Marx would have a field day. The language that Coontz and other sources in her article use to refer to the value of women’s education for a satisfying relationship smacks of objectification of the highest order.


Synod 2014: It’s Not Just About Remarriage and Communion

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

I’m not getting a divorce. I do not say this in any way to brag about my willpower relative to marital fidelity. Nor would I ever want to claim that being married and having a family in the modern world is particularly easy. But, I love my wife far more than I did when we got married close to nine years ago. The favorite part of my day is the evening when Kara and I play together with our son, throwing various athletic equipment at his mother. I’m not always a great husband. Nor am I a perfect father. But, I know that being married to Kara has made me a more mature disciple, capable of real love. Marriage and family life is my path to salvation, the way that I am becoming “a partaker in divine life,” to quote one of the Eucharistic prefaces for the Rite of Marriage.

In the midst of much public discourse around the Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family, one would think that the only topic worth talking about relative to marriage and family life is the dilemma of divorce. Based on such coverage, you could easily imagine that the bishops of the Church have gathered together in Rome not to present a vision to the world of the gift of Christian marriage and family. Perhaps, the Synod that is taking place should instead be synodcalled “The Extraordinary Synod for the Possibility of Communion for the Divorce and Remarried.”

Yet, this focus (including by many blogs in the Catholic world) fails to see the opportunity at hand. That is, the sacrament of marriage is not just a rite that the Church performs, one that canonically binds this couple together for the rest of their lives. Rather, marriage is a concrete, bodily way that the couple enters into the Church’s narrative of salvation. It is an encounter with the Good News that Christ is risen from the dead, and that everything about being human (including marriage and sex and raising children and making chili on a Saturday afternoon) is now bathed in resurrection light.

Marriage, in fact, may be the most concrete way for the Church to proclaim what she is ultimately about in the modern world. The Church is not the society of human beings, who gather to escape the world at all costs. We are deeply interested in the world, because it is that which is most human that will be redeemed. The Nuptial Blessings of the Church testify to this:

In happiness may they praise you, O Lord,/in sorrow may they seek you out; may they have the joy of your presence/to assist them in their toil,/and know that you are near/to comfort them in their need;/let them pray to you in the holy assembly/and bear witness to you in the world,/and after a happy old age,/together with the circle of friends that surrounds them,/may the come to the Kingdom of Heaven.

For those of us are married, it is the drama of the salvation of the world itself that plays out in our domestic lives. Kara and I are signs to the world that Christ’s love does not require us to leave behind laughter and joy, watching movies and holding hands, chatting over dinner with non-expensive wine and watching people in public places (a favorite pastime). Marriage is a school of virtue in which we learn to love unto the end, to discover the brilliant light of divine love in caring for a sick spouse or spending 2 AM with a child, who is awake for no discernable reason.

MarriageMore than anything else, this is what the Synod needs to turn its attention to (not my son’s unexplained wakefulness but the vocation of marriage as Eucharistic). If the primary focus remains on threats to marriage in the world, or how the Church responds to divorce, then we’re no better than the disciples who locked themselves up after the Resurrection of Christ. Instead, we need to proclaim to the world that it is the very ordinary, mundane married couple who becomes sacramental signs of salvation for the world. It is this couple, who presents to the Church herself the fullest vision of who she is to become: a sign of Christ’s total self-giving love to the world.

FamilyProcessionPerhaps, then, if the Church really wants to take care of the problem of divorce, the implementation of the Synod at the local level will need to direct more attention to the Good News at the heart of married life. Marriage is not just the source of problems to solve but the primary way that the Church can proclaim and live the Gospel in the modern world. This proclamation is not a series of abstract doctrines proclaimed from on high, a story that remains disconnected from the rest of our lives. Instead, the Good News at the heart of marriage is simply that God has decided to save us through something so mundane, so particular, so bodily, so normal as family life. That God has revealed to us the gift of the created order, and in the context of marriage and family life, we manifest to the world that everything is gift. Marriage and family life is Eucharistic from the beginning: through it we learn to see the fullness of gift, so that we can offer this gift back to the Father.

This Good News of marriage is what the Church must proclaim. We must learn to support those married couples, struggling to live the marriage kerygma in their lives for reasons of poverty, therapeutic understandings of marriage, etc . But, the first step is to offer a vision of married life as so persuasive, so beautiful, so salvific that it actually attracts the attention of the world. And indeed, if Christianity is to survive seculariziation, any form of modern deconstruction, it is probably going to be through the Eucharistic life of the family. For it is precisely here that the heresy of modernity (the separation of the spiritual and the material, the sacred from the profane) is deconstructed:

“If there is a profane song of the world, there must be a gracious canticle of the creatures, a place of prayerful speech on which converges the world’s beauty. We cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God…” (Jean-Louis Chretien, The Ark of Speech, 120).

The gift of married life for the new evangelization is that it reminds the Church and the world alike that matter really matters. That the Gospel takes flesh not merely in ideas or intellectual assents. But in those hidden offerings of Christian love, never to be seen, that define the domestic sphere. Marriage is, thus, permanent not because the Church wants to make couples’ lives difficult. Marriage is permanent, because Christ’s love is permanent. For this reason, the renewal of marriage won’t occur through new rules and regulations (no matter how well thought through). Rather, the renewal of marriage and family life will take place when every couple married in the Church realizes the wonder of the vocation that they undertake. It will take place when the Church, including her ordained ministers, properly see the couple as a prophetic and sacramental sign of Christ’s own love for the world.

That’s what Synod 2014 should be about. If it were, then we might realize the remarkable vision of married life set forth at the Council. Until then, I’d be happy to address the next Synod about this…



Communion of saints

Say What You Really Mean: The Common Language of the Church

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 11.03.46 PMTimothy J. Kenney ’14

MTS Candidate, Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

When I was in 3rd grade I was confronted with the reality of my “expressional” ignorance. After a hard math lesson in which we were first exposed to the imposing object known as the multiplication table, I was informed that I was to report to a room down the hall where a week earlier the entire class had met one on one with the Speech teacher. When I got to the room I was confused when told I would be starting Speech classes for my lisp. “What lithp?” I asked. I was so confused because I had no idea what the teacher was talking about when she patiently explained to me that the way I pronounced my words was different than everyone else. “I don’t think I thound different.” I remained indignant until I met my Mom at the bus stop and she confirmed that, though I knew all the notes, I was not playing the same tune as everyone else.

And so I returned to class every week determined to amend my speaking issues. After all, The West Wing had just started its run on NBC a few weeks before all this and I had set my heart on being president some day. I had to be able to communicate with people. Despite the added challenge that in fixing my lisp I developed a reverse lisp (I worked so hard on “s” not sounding like “th” that my “th” started to sound like an “s,” prolonging Speech class well into the spring semester), I am proud to say I now speak as clearly as possible given that I mutter everything.Kid President

There are a lot of words, many of them quite large, that I don’t know. I have never had much of a handle, for example, on the proper meaning of the word “irony.” I thought I did for a long time and was quite content with how I used it. My personal definition does not, however, change the fact that things I call ironic are in fact not even close. Is my usage of irony ironic? I’m honestly asking here, like I said I haven’t a clue how to really use it. This definition seems to limit what I can say. There is something I am trying to express and I am told that the word I thought summed up a situation is in fact completely unrelated. In much the same way, most of the time people literally use the word “literally” in a completely different way than its intended.

Why did I have to correct my lisp? Why can I not use “ironic” or “literally” the way I want? Why should I listen to other people when they correct my means of expression? Who is to say there is not something wrong with everyone else and not me? It’s not my speaking that is the problem but their hearing. We all feel this tension at times, probably daily, in our own way. We resent others for telling us what to do or expressing their ideas, opinions, and vision of reality that run counter to how we want things to work. We want to say no to “the way things are” and make things the way we want them to be. It is a sentiment as old as Eden.Matrix

The Church calls us out of this self-oriented approach to the world and into community with those around us. Instead of responding with aggravation or resentment, we are called to express ourselves through love. Love witnesses and appreciates what is special and unique in others and seeks community with them. The Church does not call us to silent obedience or to live identical lives, but rather to express our quirks and differences using a common language. When Christians share their unique gifts through the language of virtue and orient their lives toward Christ and his Church, we make this love present. To express ourselves as part of the community and choose not to, as Avery Cardinal Dulles describes it, exalt in personal autonomy, we need a communal understanding through which we can communicate. By using shared means of expression such as prayer, the sacraments, and a creed of common beliefs, we can understand one another and in turn grow with one another in our relationship with God.

I no longer speak with a lisp because I accepted in my own 9 year old way that to be a member of my community I needed to be able to express myself in its own language. There are still times when I get tongue-tied, especially when speaking in front of a lot of people or in class discussions, and the lisp makes a brief return, but even then I am usually the only one who can hear it. And despite my best efforts, I literally could not pick an ironic statement off a page if you paid me. Following the grammar and language of our community can be challenging, but I still embrace the power and possibility contained in expression. Using this language that confuses me as a vehicle for understanding theology, faith, and God, I have found that the biggest words are not in fact the hardest to define. The most profoundly beautiful things are often expressed in the simplest terms. “This is my body.” “Peace be with you.” “Behold the man.” “Amen.” There is a mystery tied up in these words that gives them deeper meaning that we could ever fully grasp. What the Church does offer us, however, is a place to start, from which the possibilities are literally endless.

Jesus calls Simon Peter

Identity and Vocation: Thinking with…Mumford and Sons?

Hope BoettnerHope ’15
Theology Undergraduate Fellow,
Center for Liturgy


As many of you have probably figured out already, I love to start thinking about liturgical and theological topics through the lens of popular media, movies, and music—things we are exposed to on a daily basis. This kind of constant thinking leads me to do bizarre things like bellow, “HEY!!! THAT’S MORAL RELATIVISM!!” when my friends start belting out the song, “Let It Go” from Frozen at the tops of their voices. (You might question why, with all the bellowing over pop culture, I still have friends. I often wonder the same.)


Over the last five years, a folk rock band named Mumford and Sons has proven to be the most fruitful source of media-led pondering sessions for me. Mumford and Sons makes this process easy, because the band often either subtly or not-so-subtly quotes Scripture, Shakespeare, G.K. Chesterton, and the Classics all the time. (The lead singer, Marcus Mumford, was a Classics major in college. If every lead singer of every band went to college and majored in Classics, popular music would be so much more meaningful!)

Today I would like to think about the song, “Awake My Soul” and the ways this song can help us think through our human identities and vocations. St. Elizabeth and St. Peter will later help us to do this in a deeper way, but today we will dip our toes in to the matter by thinking about the song lyrics.


Even if you know the song already, read over the lyrics and chew on them. And then maybe listen to it, too.

The lyrics to the song, “Awake My Soul” are as follows:

How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show

Lend me your hand and we’ll conquer them all
But lend me your heart and I’ll just let you fall
Lend me your eyes, I can change what you see
But your soul you must keep, totally free
Har har, har har, har har, har har

Awake my soul
Awake my soul

How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show
Har har, har har, har har, har har

In these bodies we will live; in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life
In these bodies we will live; in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life

Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker

Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker
You were made to meet your maker

Awake My Soul

The first thing that might jump to our heads after listening to the song or reading the lyrics is the fact that theologically, the basis for the phrase “Awake My Soul” probably comes straight from Psalm 57: 9-12, which cycles through the Liturgy of the Hours in Morning Prayer.

“Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn. I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.”

Sunrise from a rooftop in Nazareth

Sunrise from a rooftop in Nazareth

If we gave ourselves an imaginary assignment in which we had to use this song in order to decide how to define humanity’s identity and humanity’s vocation, I think the definitions that this song best supports are “homo adorans,” meaning “man who worships,” and “homo viator,” which translates to “man on the journey.” But let’s put the song-pondering on hold for a moment and think about defining ourselves, our vocations, and the point of our existence in general. Why might that matter?

Thinking through some other ways of how the human race gets defined can help us understand this. The scientific community refers to humans as “homo sapiens.” Consider, for example, how much scientific, medical, and psychological research focuses on the human brain, thought processes, and why all of that matters for health and quality of life for people. For another example, Karl Marx called humanity “homo faber”—man who works. Ultimately he saw the human person—the worker—as a cog in the machine of a society of production. And the translation of the Greek “zóon politikón” into “homo politicus” tells us about what Aristotle thought about how humanity related to the world—as a political animal that organizes. This Wikipedia article lists somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty different terms that have been used to identify the human species in the recent and not-so-recent past.

All of these different terminologies that have been used over the centuries have real-life consequences. What we think and the assumptions we make (consciously or unconsciously) affect the ways we live and the choices we make. When someone makes claims about how to define humanity, the identity, reality, and point of the human person is reduced to a mere few words. In the same sense, what we call ourselves ought to matter for the way in which we think about our own identities and our own vocations.

Now, let’s go back to the song and to thoughts about “homo adorans” (man who worships) and “homo viator” (man on the journey).

Why might this song support a definition of the human person as “homo adorans”? The phrase after “Awake my soul” in Psalm 57 is: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.” Though that particular verse from the Psalm is not cited in the song, it is an implied theme. In worship, when our souls are awakened, this what we do: we give thanks; we continually sing praises to God. The way the soul would be awakened would necessarily be by praise. So, rooting human identity in relationship to worship of the Maker would be supported. And it’s understood, too, that we don’t always pray for our souls to be awakened. After all, the song begins with a reflection that our hearts are fickle and our eyes are woozy; we don’t always choose the good (we are fickle) and our souls need some corrective lenses because our foci are sometimes wrongly oriented and we cannot see the Beatific Vision.  So, we pray that our souls might be awakened, that we may root ourselves in praise and thanksgiving and adoration of our Creator.

christ-glorified-in-the-court-of-heaven-1430And if, as the song states immediately after “awake my soul,” the ultimate goal is to “meet your Maker,” it is an acknowledgement that although one’s heart might be fickle or one’s eyes might be woozy, humanity in its day-to-day activities (vocational activity) tries to journey toward its Maker. This is where support for “homo viator,” man on the journey, comes into play. And unsurprisingly, the two ways of thinking are related: in order to continue the journey towards the Maker in the capacity as homo viator, human beings must invest their love and thereby their lives in their Maker in the identity of worshiping: homo adorans. If humanity is made to worship, people must realize that they can only be lent others’ hands and not their whole hearts, because ultimately hearts should be oriented toward the Maker. Human identity (in worship) and humanity’s vocation (to journey home toward the Creator) constantly play off of each other. We pray that our souls might be awakened, so that we may praise and adore our Creator, and we hope that that as we praise, we might journey continually closer to our heavenly Home.

Pedro VisitationIcon






Next time, with help from Sts. Elizabeth and Peter, we will think more deeply about the terms “homo adorans” and “homo viator” and why these two definitions might be helpful ways to think about how we can live liturgically.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City

You are Not Alone In This

Renee RodenRenée Roden
AmeriCorps Volunteer

As a young adult in a big city, I find myself in the midst of the stereotypical struggle of so many young adults: the search to find a community. Even more particularly, a community of faith. After a childhood spent in a nourishing, vibrant parish, and collegiate years spent at Notre Dame, which is a hot-bed of communal faith experiences, I find myself, for the first time in my life, in a strange new position of not having an automatically provided faith community. This is uncharted territory. It is, of course, terrifying. But in a way, freeing, to explore the hundreds of different parishes and young adult groups that New York City offers.

Woman praying alone in churchNot having an automatic obligation to a particular community, however, means that you are, for right now, at least, adrift. The ability to go in any direction also leaves open the option of not going in any direction. Recently, I was talking with a friend who is also in the city about the transition from Notre Dame into “adulthood.” We were discussing the conundrum of being community-less. When I asked him what parishes he had been attending, he said that he had been skipping out on church for now, because he had not yet found a community in which to worship. He said that going to church on his own to worship felt clinical.” For an irrational second, I felt like a robot Catholic, who went to Mass with unthinking and heartless regularity, because it had been programmed into me for twenty-two years. Goodness, was I being clinical?

I was struck by that particular word that he used.

Clinical“Clinical” has such a negative connotation, which isn’t quite fair, because we go to clinics with the intent of being healed or made better. In all fairness, we ought to think of them with gratitude and pleasantness. But when someone uses the word “clinical” it usually conjures up an image of something sterile, inefficient, and full of scratchy, uncomfortable furniture in the lobby and cold, metallic furniture in the inner rooms. Clinics are not warm. They are not homey. They are certainly not where most of us feel like the fullest and deepest version of ourselves. Most of us usually feel some brand of very ill and/or exceedingly uncomfortable in a clinic. No one wants to be labeled “clinical.”

“Clinical” is not hip. “Clinical” is not current. “Clinical,” indeed, sounds rather lonely.

Despite the unflattering image that the word clinical brings to mind, it is not wholly inaccurate. Perhaps I ought to be clinical when I go to Mass. When we enter a clinic, we are very aware that we are not well. That everything inside of us is not as it should be. As we enter a place of healing, we are facing our weaknesses and coming to the place where we need help. We face our sins and offer up our first fruits and our failings on the altar.

Ultimately, this is why we go to Mass, to obtain this healing and this re-ordering of our hearts and minds through the communal prayer and action of the Mass. So where does this community fit in when we attend Mass on our own?

Romano Guardini, in his beautiful Meditations Before Mass, defines a congregation as more than a group of people gathered together, a bunch of disparate parts existing in the same room.

“The true congregation is a gathering of those who belong to Christ, the holy people of God, united faith and love. Essentially, it is of His making, a piece of new creation.”

Community is not formed by fellowship, familiar faces, and coffee and doughnuts after Mass; community is formed when all of the congregation lifts up our hearts and voices in praise of God. That is the deep and timeless fellowship that the Mass offers to each of its participants. Through the action of the Mass, the strangers and saints gathered together at Mass become a community.

One morning, I was at Mass at the high school where I now teach. It was 7:15, just a half an hour before the school day began, and the city was just waking up all around us. Just outside the stained glass windows of the chapel, the chatter and chaos of school children gathering for the school day floated up into the stillness of the chapel. I was the only person in the congregation: it was just me and the priest. But, as I said all the prayers of the congregation on my own, the communal language sounding strange in my mouth, I looked over at his Missal. The Eucharistic Prayer was printed in delicate black letters on one page. On the facing page was an ornate, colorful illustration of a priest offering up Mass at an altar. Above the priest, the church ceiling broke open into clouds of heaven, filled with myriad angels and saints crowding around the altar. The painting in the Missal gave me pause, as I considered who else was present in this congregation with me.

Adoration of the Lamb-van EyckThe congregation at Mass is brought there by God, to be participants in the Lamb’s supper, to be a sacrament of the congregation that participates in the Lamb’s eternal supper in heaven. As Guardini goes on to say:

“Each congregation is part of a whole that far surpasses any Sunday gathering; it embraces everyone who believes in Christ in the same city, the same country, over the whole earth.”

The Mass is truly a cosmic event. For, in the Mass, we are united to the hosts of believers all over the world, and throughout space and time. The true congregation of each Mass is the communion of saints: our beloved fellow humans still striving for sainthood, and the blessed in heaven. It is a large and joyful clinic of sinners seeking salvation and praising the one who offers it to them. Each Mass, whether offered in a quiet dorm chapel or an anonymous urban parish, offers each adrift human a community into which they can enter. In the midst of a lonely city, the celebration of the Mass offers a chance for young and old to enter into a joyful and self-less union, and offer together their sacrifice of praise.

“Among these people whom I know only by their features, by their gestures, are perhaps great and holy souls with whom I am fortunate to find myself associated, because the surge of their prayers sweeps me along with it to God!

Then we will let the other believers into the inner circle of our lives, present ourselves to God with them, linking our intentions to their. We will consciously, earnestly pray the we of the Liturgy, for from such things congregation is formed.”
(Romano Guardini)

Communion of Saints

Brothers and Sisters in the Family of God

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

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This past weekend, I had the joy of hosting my two youngest siblings on campus for the football game against Stanford. Throughout their visit, I had the opportunity to introduce them to friends and colleagues here in the Institute for Church Life, and without fail, every single person’s reaction to seeing the three of us together was the exactly same: “It’s really nice to meet you… (double take) Wow! You guys look a LOT alike!!”

To be fair, they’re not wrong:

I am third in a family of six, and trust me when I say that we all look a LOT alike. We all have brownish hair and pale-ish skin, but as you can see in the photo above, the facial feature that at once distinguishes us as individuals and gives us away as related is our very large, very blue eyes. I love that my family members and I look so much alike. Our collective resemblance grounds me; it gives me a sense of identity as a member of this particular family, and wherever I go in the world, that identity goes with me, here for all to see and a source of recognition for those who know my other family members. Here in Indiana and elsewhere outside of our home state of Kansas, complete strangers have come up to me asking, “Are you a Pirtle?” and when I hesitantly reply in the affirmative (because it’s weird when strangers know you), they inevitably say something like, “I’m a friend of your dad’s/brother’s/sister’s! You look exactly like him/her!!” As Tim O’Malley pointed out to the three of us this past weekend, “I’ve never seen siblings who have more of a likeness to each other.”

Creation of Adam and Eve-ParaskeviThat word “likeness,” of course, resonates with another meaning for all who profess that “everyone is made in the image and likeness of God” (CCC, 225). To be created in God’s image and likeness means that the human person is “capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead” (CCC, 357). Although we are capable of this free gift of self, the reality is that we have often failed live up to our identity as men and women made in the image and likeness of God. Through sin, God’s likeness within us is disfigured, yet the image still remains (cf. CCC, 705). Despite humanity’s infidelity to the covenant relationship God desires with us, God always remains faithful, and in the economy of salvation, he provided a way for love incarnate to redeem what sin had destroyed. Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), restores the likeness of God in the human family by his sacrifice on the Cross, and he invites us to grow in that restored likeness—to become icons—by following his example of love (cf. CCC, 1701).

Jesus Washing the Disciples' Feet-TannerAs members of the Body of Christ, we form a family of believers, and the way in which others may recognize us as members of that family is precisely in the love we bear toward one another and toward the world. As Jesus himself exhorted his disciples on the night of the Last Supper, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34–35). In this family, we are not known by distinguishing facial features or indeed by any physical resemblance to one another. Rather, it is by our love—love that gives unto the end (cf. Jn 13:1)—that all will know us as children of the Father, brothers and sisters of Christ, united in the Spirit as “members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19).

St Francis fresco

St. Francis and the Environmental Reduction

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization
Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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A constant temptation for Christians is the reduction of saints to models held up for the support of various causes.   The complexity of Augustine’s life is reduced to an “example” of conversion.   Ignatius of Loyola is treated as a model of certain forms of Jesuit discernment.   And most recently, Francis of Assisi has become an icon of the environmental movement. StFrancisandCreatures The reduction of St. Francis to the patron saint of the environmental movement is tempting precisely because it seeks to enact a very real good.   The reality of climate change, of humanity’s destruction of the earth, is an issue of social sin that all Christians must face.   As Rowan Williams writes:

in a world where exploitative and aggressive behavior is commonplace, one of the ‘providential’ tasks of human beings must be to limit damage and to secure space for the natural order to exist unharmed.   In others, the question is rather how to use the natural order for the sake of human nourishment and security without pillaging its resources and so damaging its inner mechanisms for self-healing or self-correction.   In both, the fundamental requirement is to discern enough of what the processes of nature truly are to be able to engage intelligently with them (Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square, 188).  

We have forgotten the gift of creation, perceiving it as something to be dominated by a human desire run amok. The answer to the environmental problem, as Archbishop Rowan Williams and EmeritusPope Benedict XVI have pointed out, is not simply that we find a way to develop technological solutions that enable us to continue living disordered lives—now devoid of the consequences of our ever-increasing desire for consumption. Instead, as Benedict XVI noted:

The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.   This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences.   What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles ‘in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common good are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.’   Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society (Caritas in veritate, no. 51).

Thus, for the Christian, the solution to the environmental problem is related integrally to the capacity for love, for a sense of solidarity with all those who are in the human family.   Without such love, technological solutions will only serve as a temporary salve for an interior violence that will manifest itself in other ways.  Our maltreatment of the environment is intimately related to the injustice we enact against the unborn, the prisoner, the elderly, the immigrant–all those who become objects in our quest for control.   PopeBenedictandRowanWilliams It is here that St. Francis might actually serve as the privileged patron of this renewal of the environment so integral to the Christian vocation of baptismal priesthood.   St. Francis’ love of the created order emerged from his own sense of creation as an expression of that divine gift fully revealed in Jesus Christ.   Take for example, his famous Canticle of the Creatures.  The text is not simply an act of praising the created order for its beauty.   It commences with divine praises, offered to the “Most High, all-powerful, good Lord, Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessing.   To You alone, Most High, do they belong, and no man is worthy to mention Your name” (1-2).   The first act of praise is to the Creator, who has bestowed the world as gift beyond gift.   Such an act of praise is a de-stabilizing one, enabling human beings to assume a posture of humility before the Creator.   And this humility, learned as an imitation of Christ, is the heart of Francis’ spirituality:   “In these last days the grace of God our Savior has appeared in his servant Francis to all who are truly humble and lovers of holy poverty.   In him they can venerate God’s superabundant mercy and be taught by his example to utterly reject ungodliness and worldly passions, to live in conformity with Christ and to thirst after blessed hope with unflagging desire” (Bonaventure, The Life of Saint Francis, Prologue.1). FrancisandChrist Thus, the humility of Francis as a Christological virtue capacitates him to perceive all of creation as gift.   The Sun is no longer a mere object present within the world but “the likeness of You, Most High (1.4).”   The radiant beauty of the stars testifies to the splendor of a God who loves the created order enough to offer the gift of the Son.   Even  death itself can become gift if the Christian perceives it as an opportunity to offer oneself up to the Father in love. Francis can love creation aright, perceive even the most minute facet of the world as gift, precisely because he knows that his whole life is a gift from the God who loved us unto the end.   There is a Eucharistic nature to Francis’ entire life, one in which the entire created order is to join in a hymn of thanksgiving to God.   As Bonaventure writes regarding his death, “Larks are birds that love the light and dread the twilight darkness.   But at the hour of the holy man’s passing, although it was twilight and night was to follow, they came in a great flock over the roof of the house and, whirling around for a long time with unusual joy, gave clear and evident testimony of the glory of the saint, who so often had invited them to praise God” (14.6).  Through Christ, Francis returns our humanity to the Father, healing our disorder in the process.   FrancisBirds Thus, Francis indeed loved the created order.   But he learned this love through the practice of Christological humility, of poverty, of seeking to offer his entire self to the Father as an act of love.  Thus, Francis can be an icon of the environmental movement within Christianity as long as one recognizes the cost that comes with following Francis.   It is a cost that requires an embrace of holy poverty, of recognizing one’s own emptiness before the Creator.   One must become holy. If Christianity, and thus Francis, has something to offer the environmental movement, it is the recognition that we cannot renew the world without renewing our own vision of what creation is in the first place.  Creation is gift, and the sins of greed, of hatred, of self-sufficiency, of individualism, of the apotheosis of consumerism–each of these slowly destroy our vision of the world.  Christian life, when lived according to the genius of Francis, can provide such a formation into the humble, self-emptying love, which is at the root the antidote to such sin.   Francis can be the patron of the environmental movement insofar as he is the patron of a Church seeking to renew humanity through the humble poverty of love unto the end.   Holy Francis, pray for us.


War, Revenge, and the Eucharist

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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A strange, sense of gladness overtook me as I heard on the radio that a coalition of forces had begun air strikes against ISIS. During the weeks preceding the air strikes, I had seen dreadful images of ISIS’ violence directed toward all who crossed their path including young children around the age of my own son. I had heard account after account of the desecration of churches, of homes, of the lives of women and men young and old. My gladness, I believed, was righteous anger directed against those who failed to respect the dignity of human life.  They were receiving what they deserved, what was ultimately right and just. 

In the days following the bombings, I began to reflect a bit on the precise sense of joy that I felt when hearing about the coalition strikes. What ultimately disturbed me was how happy I was about said bombings. I did not see these bombings as a necessary evil, a just response needed to save the lives of countless women and men. Rather, some part of me was rejoicing that those who have caused so much suffering in the region, would now experience a taste of their own medicine. I wanted the terrorists to experience the domination that theISISflag copyy had inflected upon those who they murdered. I wanted revenge.

Indeed, I still see the validity of the air strikes that continue to take place in Iraq and Syria alike. But, the problem for me as a Christian, remains my own twisted delight at the entrance of violence into the world. Rather than acknowledge with lament the continued reign of sin and death with a heavy heart, I found myself celebrating this coronation of death. The gift of peace that Christ bestowed was of little interest to me, as I savored the intoxicating fumes of war.

BaptismalFontTombMy delight in the raising of the banner of war is, of course, a symptom of the problem of sin itself. In baptism, we acknowledge that the fullness of human flourishing is not to be found in the grasping of power, being held captive by the reign of sin and death. Rather, entering into Christ’s own life through the saving waters of the font, we pledge to live once again as creatures, who refuse to claim godliness as something to be grasped (cf. Phil. 2). We become receivers, rather than takers, offerers rather than those who seize at all costs.

Yet, the logic of sin and death is not so easy to give up. We still seek control and domination at all costs–if not through the banners of war than in our personal relationships, in our politics, in our daily labors. As Christians, we are being healed of our tendency to seize and grasp at all costs, of our poisonous addiction to sin. To put it positively, we are learning again to be creatures, women and men who continue to recognize their utter dependency upon God. And who see all other creatures, even our enemies, in light of this fact.

The precise temptation of war is not simply violence, for it is possible to engage in an act that would be considered violent with a sense of justice. Rather, it is the temptation to seek dominance, to impose our will at all costs, to rejoice in the suffering of others (a suffering that lets the “other” know where he/she  stands in the world). It is to again enact that primal sin of humanity in which we define ourselves as ones who seize and grasp, rather than receive and gift.

Indeed, the Eucharist is essential to the healing of this desire to seize and grasp at all costs. Quoting Rowan Williams,

“The eucharist hints at the paradox that material things carry their fullest meaning for human minds and bodies–the meaning of God’s grace and of the common life thus formed–when they are the medium of gift, not instruments of control or objects for accumulation” (Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, 218).

EucharistI return again and again to the Eucharist precisely because a large part of me is utterly uninterested in letting this truth take flesh in the contours of my life. I rejoice in the announcement of war, because I still wants to abide according to the law of death, rather than the freedom of the kingdom of God. Control and power make more sense to me than self-emptying love. Yet, the concrete rite  of the Eucharist heals this desire, as I practice self-donation rather than domination.

Of course, war (even just ones perhaps) will still happen. The reality of politics intervene. Yet, all Christians stand as radical signs in the world that the reign of sin and death has no power for those who seek to live Eucharistic lives of love. In other words, even in the midst of a perhaps necessary act of bombing, Christians cannot help but cry out with sorrow that the reign of death still continues in a wounded world. Our response to this sorrow must be to give ourselves away more, to return again and again to the Eucharistic life of the Church, discovering that self-donation, not self-preservation, is the medicine that the world needs. The medicine that I need. Dona nobis pacem–grant us peace. 


These Are His People

Meredith HollandMeredith Holland ’14

Master of Theological Studies Candidate,

Boston College School of Theology & Ministry


These are not my people.

This mantra has found its way into my thoughts recently, amidst a transition from college to a young adulthood that includes graduate studies in theology and an attempt to engage in parish life.

Alone in a CrowdThese are not my people. This is not the same. This is not how I pray. This is not how I enter into relationship with Christ. This is not the theological vocabulary I learned. This is not the closing song or the Mass setting I would choose. This is not the Church as I know it.

This resistance to the new people around me, in both school and parish life, was not merely a hesitation to engage in dialogue or attempt to reconcile my customs with the practices of those around me; it sat dangerously close to utter rejection of this new other and the result was a deep nostalgia.

I often find that the struggles in my own faith life—particularly when those struggles center on me closing in on myself—are addressed quite intentionally in whatever happens to be the focus of my theological studies in that moment. This was no different. As I encountered the sacramental theology of Louis-Marie Chauvet, I was forced to acknowledge the wall that I had begun to build around myself.

It can seem so much easier to feel close to Christ and to ‘give ourselves entirely to God’ in the comfortable silence of our own homes than in a church where we must often close our eyes and, heads between our hands, cover our ears to free ourselves from being disturbed in our conversations with God (Symbol & Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence).

It had so quickly become easier to make myself unaware of those around me and simply place a box around my own prayer. My prayers still included those around me, but as a result of past practice, not authentic and particular love.

In my box, I had forgotten that the Christian life does not merely suppose a toleration of the existence of those around us, but rather requires an active love that capacitates us to witness Christ in and through those around us. Relationship with Christ demands this active love even before individual conversation with God.

 As praiseworthy and even necessary as this recollection might otherwise be, theologically it should be subordinated to a reverse attitude of ‘de-centration’: that is, of a deliberate taking cognizance of others in their diversity, and in recognizing them as brothers and sisters (Symbol & Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence).

In longing for those I had deemed my people, I repeatedly failed to recognize the beauty in those who surround me, even in prayer. I was blind to the love shared between the elderly couple as they held hands throughout the Mass. I did not perceive the simple joy of the young child as she brought forth the offertory gifts. I lacked the ability to respond with prayer to the pain revealed in the face of a man praying silently as he stared intently at the Cross.

The most frustrating part of this blindness was that these people were the very ones I had missed during the past few years, when the congregation was comprised mostly of college-aged young adults; children, families, and the elderly were noticeably absent from daily Mass in a residence hall or the choir loft from which I participated in the Sunday liturgy each week. My own vision of the world inhibited my ability to receive the grace that God continued to offer.

Parishioners prayingThe Christian faith is inherently communal. The necessary gathering of the people of God in thanksgiving to the celebration of the liturgy rejects any notion of coming to know God solely on one’s own or by turning inward to the self. In communion with others, the Christian receives the Eucharist that draws him toward God and sends him forth into the world to share as gift the love he has first been offered. The narrative of the Christian is fundamentally directed toward the other, as the grace and love of God are both received and offered in and through others.

These are not my people.

Even those whom I have come to identify as my people in this distorted vision of the world are not mine, regardless of how many moments of grace and prayer we have shared. Those around me, whether familiar or unfamiliar, are His people, members of the Body of Christ. The narrative of each person is no more or less part of the reality of the Church, such that the sacramental presence of Christ is always perfectly authentic.

These are His people, the Body of Christ.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life

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