Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Woodward: St. John Bosco

Here's a hagiographical trivia question for you. What special skill did St. John Bosco and St. Philip Neri have in common? (Answer in a couple of days.)

I was looking for a portrait of Don Bosco to post in observance of his feast day (January 31), and was surprised at the number of different pictures of him that can be found on the internet. He has to be the most photographed Catholic of the nineteenth century! According to Henri Gheon in Secrets of the Saints, Don Bosco loved sitting for photographers and their new-fangled contraptions, and was more than willing to distribute photographs of himself to the multitudes who clamored for them -- all in the service of God:

"The devil makes a splash? We shall make one too! The devil is up to date? So are we!"

Nothing wrong with a little PR.

Oh God, you made your confessor St. John a father and teacher for the young and willed that he should found in your Church flourishing new communities under the protection of the Virgin Mary. Enkindle in us the same fire of love to seek after souls and serve you alone.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Woodward: The Angelic Doctor

January 28 is the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. He's a favorite of this blog, as perhaps you can tell from the frequency with which Vehige and I both quote him in an attempt to give our own opinions some intellectual heft.

He can be dense, and is in fact famous for it. But then sometimes he can be stunningly and invigoratingly simple:

Three things are necessary to man for salvation: namely, a knowledge of what must be believed, a knowledge of what must be desired, and a knowledge of what must be done. [Tria sunt homini necessaria ad salutem: scilicet scientia credendorum, scientia desiderandorum, et scientia operandorum.] --Two Precepts of Charity

Lately I have been reading, re-reading, reading about, and thinking about St. Thomas's treatment of the philosophical problems inherent in a synthetic understanding of God's providence and man's free will. (That's questions 19-25 of the First Part of the Summa, for anybody who would like to post a good explanation of the subject for me in the comments box.) Even when you don't entirely agree with (or don't even completely understand) St. Thomas's answers, there's never any doubt that he's asking the right questions, and asking them in the right way. That's a great comfort when reading philosophy.

In celebration of his feast day, consider the advice of another of St. Thomas's devoted fans, Pope Leo XIII:

Let us follow the example of the Angelic Doctor, who never gave himself to reading or writing without first begging the blessing of God, who modestly confessed that whatever he knew he had acquired not so much by his own study and labor as by the divine gift; and therefore let us all, in humble and united prayer, beseech God to send forth the spirit of knowledge and of understanding to the children of the Church and open their senses for the understanding of wisdom. --Aeterni Patris, 1879

Hey, Vehige, do your kids get the day off from school?

Woodward: Safety and Sanctuary

The story of Planned Parenthood's unseemly "blessing ceremony" at one of its abortion clinics has by now evoked many justifiable expressions of outrage. But among the prayers that were offered up for the surreal occasion was one that struck me as singularly appropriate and pro-life in tone (even though that's probably not what someone named Abby Norton-Levering had in mind when she spoke it). I think it would make a great intercessionary prayer for those who demonstrate, pray, and offer sidewalk counseling at these grisly places of business, and in fact for all of us who would like to see the killing stop. And we can thank Planned Parenthood for writing it for us. Here it is.

"We pray that you will make this a place of safety and give a sense of sanctuary."

For everyone inside. Amen.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Woodward: St. Anthony of the Desert

Sometimes I'm grateful that I only have to confess the sins I commit, not the sins I'm tempted to commit. Temptation is in some ways the most delicate of all topics, since I think it's fair to say that most people have at one time or another been tempted to commit sins they have never actually committed and would rather not mention to anyone, even their confessor.

In the whole history of temptation, it's possible that no one has ever been tempted as continuously and as cruelly as today's saint, Anthony of the Desert. His temptations have become the stuff of legend, of literature, and of the graphic arts. St. Athanasius chronicled them, Flaubert immortalized them in an almost uncategorizable work of literature, and several great painters have depicted them visually. My favorite is Salvador Dali's (above). It presents temptations as I have come to know them myself -- attractive, alluring, unreal in their apparent beauty, but cut off from reality, unsupported and unsupportable in the world we have been given to live in -- things that, if you get too close to them, are almost certain to come crashing down on your head.

"Let the blessed abbot Anthony intercede for us, O Lord. May his prayers win us your help, since our own actions cannot merit it."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Woodward: "Science" versus the Pope

The embarrassing behavior of 67 faculty members at Rome's La Sapienza university (the name of which, for you fans of irony, means "wisdom" in Italian) reminds me of a passage from Chesterton. (But then, almost everything does.)

The educators in question have identified Pope Benedict XVI as an enemy of science. His planned visit to the university, it turns out, was -- in the words of one rather excitable physics professor -- "an incredible violation of the university's autonomy," an attempt to use "the Enlightenment's God of Reason as a Trojan horse to enter the citadel of scientific knowledge."

Well, turns out the citadel is secure. Benedict cancelled his visit, and the professors' threat of a "No Popery" riot has saved science from the predations of the Whore of Babylon. Score one for academic freedom.

Which brings me to Chesterton. His wonderful little book on St. Thomas Aquinas contains this observation about the interplay between scientific and religious truth:

The meaning of Scripture is very far from self-evident; and we must often interpret it in the light of other truths. If a literal interpretation is really and flatly contradicted by an obvious fact, why then we can only say that the literal interpretation must be a false interpretation. But the fact must really be an obvious fact. And unfortunately, nineteenth-century scientists were just as ready to jump to the conclusion that any guess about nature was an obvious fact, as were seventeenth-century sectarians to jump to the conclusion that any guess about Scripture was the obvious explanation. Thus, private theories about what the Bible ought to mean, and premature theories about what the world ought to mean, have met in loud and widely advertised controversy, especially in the Victorian time; and this clumsy collision of two very impatient forms of ignorance was known as the quarrel of Science and Religion.

Maybe not "especially in the Victorian time." The quarrel seems to be renewing itself today with a vengeance. And would it be uncharitable of me to suggest that this time around, most of the impatient ignorance seems to be on the side of "science"?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Woodward: Cardinal Newman

Word came yesterday that John Henry Cardinal Newman -- the celebrated Catholic preacher, historian, theologian, essayist, poet, and convert -- will soon be beatified. That's great news for the Church, and particularly good news for those of us who admire Cardinal Newman and whose lives as Catholics have been inspired and strengthened by his example.

Here's a well-known passage, part of his famous definition of a gentleman found in The Idea of a University:

If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive.

American politics in a nutshell, huh?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Vehige: The most important thing about conversion

In the “Introduction” to Good New, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith, Fr. McCloskey and Shaw this observation:

The most important thing about conversion is, of course, that it’s God’s work and God’s alone. Others, including the converts themselves, only respond to divine initiatives, only cooperate with grace.
If we’re ever lucky to talk about the Catholic Faith with anyone who’s not a Catholic -- or with any lukewarm/fallen away Catholic -- these are important words to remember. It’s too easy to think another person’s conversion is up to us.

This reminds me of a story about St. John Vianney, the great parish priest of Ars, France, who is now the patron saint of parish priests. A fellow priest came to him lamenting he’d done all he could to convert his congregation, but they had remained unchanged. To this, St. John responded, “Have you prayed for them? Have you fasted for them?” The priest had not. “Well,” St. John said, “you have not done everything.”

Prayer and fasting -- what novel ideas, the only way we can penetrate a person's heart. Yet, why are they so much harder than theological jousting and bombarding a person with books and tapes?

Could it be we’re more interested in the argument than in bringing another person into the fullness of Christ’s life?

Yes, I think so.

Woodward: Happiness

When I saw this headline (free subscription required), I wondered how far into the story I would get before bumping up against the modern world's problem with happiness. As it turns out, I had to read almost halfway down before I got to this:

There is a minimum amount of pleasure, in other words, that must be achieved before people derive any satisfaction at all. Different people have different thresholds, but subdividing your pleasures below that threshold will result in less happiness, not more.

There you have it. Pleasure and happiness being used interchangeably or, if not quite interchangeably, then as a matched cause-and-effect pair. Happiness consists in the maximization of pleasure. Glance through the Washington Post story and see how the sources of happiness are identified -- a good job, sexual fulfillment, gifts, food. And when you have finally gotten as much of all of these as you've ever dreamed of having -- and still aren't happy -- what has gone wrong? It's a great mystery. Call in the psychologists.

Well, here's one answer, from a distinguished 13th-century "psychologist." I think he may have been onto something.

It is impossible for any created good to constitute man's happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired. Now the object of the will, i.e. of man's appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true. Hence it is evident that naught can lull man's will, save the universal good. This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. Wherefore God alone can satisfy the will of man, according to the words of Ps. 102:5: "Who satisfieth thy desire with good things." Therefore God alone constitutes man's happiness.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Woodward: St. John Neumann

You may know the story of how Bishop John Neumann of Philadelphia became a saint. He was a dedicated pastor and a tireless worker for Catholic education, and he lived a life of heroic virtue.

But you may not know how he came to be an American saint. Born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in 1811, John Nepomucene Neumann completed his studies for the priesthood at the University of Prague in 1835. But he was not ordained because...

...there were already too many priests in his diocese. The bishop had suspended priestly ordinations because of the surplus. So John Neumann came to America as a missionary.

Perhaps one day America too will be able to send its surplus priests off to dark corners of the Catholic world -- like Europe.

St. John Neumann, pray for us.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Vehige: Why We Liked 300

Fittingly, the only movie we saw in 2007 that we blogged about ended up being our favorite movie of 2007. I probably should have added these links in yesterday's post, but just plain forgot to, so here they are:

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

What We Watched in 2007

Before we go on to the particulars, we both think that 300 was the best movie we saw this year. Fittingly, 300 was the only movie we saw in 2007 that we blogged about. Here are the links to those posts:

Now, on to our grades of the other movies. Here's our rating system (which we stole from Netflix):

A = Loved it!
B = Really liked it.
C = Liked it.
D = Didn't like it.
F = Hated it.

Mutual Picks:

Touch of Evil (Vehige = D) (Woodward = D)
300 (Vehige = A) (Woodward = A)
Saw (Vehige = a double F, if I can) (Woodward = what comes after F?)
Children of Men (Vehige = C) (Woodward = C)
3:10 to Yuma (Vehige = C) (Woodward = D)
Eastern Promises (Vehige = C) (Woodward = B)

Vehige's Picks:

Firefly Episodes (Woodward = A)
Serenity (Woodward = A)
Night of the Demon (Woodward = C)

Woodward's Picks:

Fear Strikes Out (Vehige = C)
Red River (Vehige = C)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Vehige = B)
Hud (Vehige = B)
The Night of the Iguana (Vehige = C)
The Bishop's Wife (Vehige = B)

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Woodward: Evangelization and Catechesis

In preparation for reading Good News, Bad News -- the book that Vehige and I will be blogging on next -- I took a look at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's recent doctrinal note on evangelization. I'm going to try to comment on the McCloskey-Shaw book in the light of that CDF document, even though the book seems to focus on evangelization by individual lay Catholics while the CDF statement is concerned largely with evangelization as an activity of the Church as institution.

In that connection, I was struck by this passage early on in Good News, Bad News, in which Fr. McCloskey (who perhaps has facilitated more high-profile conversions to Catholicism than anyone since Bishop Sheen) explains one element of his evangelistic method:

Many people are turned off by the bureaucratic approach that says, "Hey, if you want to be a Catholic, you have to come here every Tuesday night for a year," or even worse, "Sorry, our convert program started in late August. So you'll have to wait for next year." I tailor-make my approach to the individual, considering his circumstances, and try to find out what's best for him.

This comment of Fr. McCloskey's needn't necessarily be taken as a criticism of RCIA. The problem that Fr. McCloskey legitimately identifies here arises out of the misconception that RCIA can function effectively as the Church's primary means of evangelization -- rather than catechesis. RCIA (at least the instances of it with which I have been involved) is in every sense a program (as in "get with..."). Those seeking to enter the Catholic Church join RCIA, commit themselves to it, and complete it. Assurances are repeatedly given (at least in the RCIA programs with which I have been involved) that no one should feel under any compulsion to receive the sacraments on any sort of timetable -- or even to receive them at all unless they feel conscience-bound to do so. But there is an atmosphere of commitment at the beginning, and sometimes an atmosphere of compulsion at the end. You fill out forms, you are assigned a sponsor, you start at the beginning and finish at the end, and if you don't attend regularly then you are understood to have missed something essential.

Those are all characteristics -- and defensible characteristics -- of a formal course of study, which is what RCIA properly is. People for whom any of these characteristics feels like an imposition, I would argue, need something other than RCIA -- something other than catechesis. They may have a vague curiosity about Catholicism. They may be in a situation (with their family or friends, for example) that would make it uncomfortable for them openly to enter into a process that is designed to end in formal union with the Catholic Church. They may just want to learn enough about Catholicism to reject or attack it more knowledgeably.

All such people deserve to be paid attention to -- and ministered to -- by the Catholic Church, but none of them will ever fill out the forms that make them an RCIA candidate or catechumen. They are not ready to be catechized. They need to be evangelized.

What such people need from any Catholic acquaintances they may have is sympathetic encouragement and a light touch. (I'll talk about that in my next post.) What they need from the Catholic Church itself is something that the Catholic Church used to provide freely and conveniently -- something the Catholic Church was once, in fact, famous for -- inquirer classes. Consider what an appropriate -- and reassuring -- term that is. Inquirer. "I'm not here to be initiated," many people would like to say to the Catholic Church. "I just want to find out a few things. You say you have good news. I'd like to know what it is -- without giving you my name and address -- or making a date to be baptized Easter after next."

I'm not sure that RCIA was ever intended to take the place of inquirer classes. But it's my perception that that is precisely what RCIA has done in most parishes, for a variety of understandable reasons -- time, staffing, and facility shortages heading the list. To the extent that those excuses can be overcome, though, wouldn't it be a good idea for Catholic parishes to make themselves more open to honest but reticent inquiry -- some sort of evangelistic outreach that doesn't threaten to initiate you, only answer your questions?