Sunday, May 31, 2009

Msgr. Ronald Knox: Pentecost

Our Lord in his mortal life began a work which was not finished when he ascended into heaven. He does not suffer, he does not labor now. And yet, it must be he who continues the work which he began; no human postscript could add to its value or enhance its efficacy. How is it, then, that he continues the work which his Ascension interrupted? For there is none that can continue it, save he.

The answer to that is the mystery of Pentecost. Pentecost commemorates the birth of the Church, and the birth of the Church is the second birth of Christ.

Think of Our Lady, as she was when the Angel Gabriel came to her at the Annunciation. The world all around lay overwhelmed by the deluge of sin; the Holy Spirit, like the dove that could find no rest for her feet when the waters were over the face of the earth, could find no lodgment among the souls of men, save here. Or, if you will, here was Gedeon's fleece, that alone, in a world of drought, was visited by the dew in the morning. Hers was the one heart that could be the accomplice of that momentous inspiration. Her virginity defied the assaults of sin, a fortress, locked safely against all human approach, yielding entrance only to the King. In devout expectation, scarce knowing what she was to expect, she waited until the angelic message came to her. And with that, the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, and in fullness of time she gave birth to the Christ.

Are we not to see, in the cenacle at Jerusalem, where Our Lady herself, with the apostles and those other faithful souls, waited for the day of Pentecost to be fulfilled, an image of that immaculate Mother whom the angel saluted at Nazareth? Those thirty-three years have come and gone, during which incarnate God walked on earth; and what is there to show for it in the end? A hundred and twenty souls waiting for the fulfillment of his promise. Others there may have been, perhaps, in Galilee, a faithful heart here and there which still cherished the memory of the Master who had been taken away from the earth. But this was all the nucleus left for the operation of the Holy Ghost, a hundred and twenty souls! All around, the world still went on its way, incredulous and unredeemed. But here the locked doors that keep the world at bay, and will open only to the touch of a divine hand, symbolize afresh the virginity of the Blessed Mother. In devout expectation, scarce knowing what they are to expect, they wait until the time appointed by the providence of God. And with that, the Holy Ghost overshadows them; and in a moment, Christ is born anew; this time in his mystical body, which is the Catholic Church.

--originally published in The Tablet, May 11, 1940

Friday, May 29, 2009

Woodward: Oak Apple Day

Yes, it's that time of year again. Time to celebrate the 379th birthday of Charles the Second, by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc.; and the 349th anniversary of his restoration to the throne of his fathers. (The name of the day derives from an unfortunate incident in which Charles, leading one last military campaign against the rebel army that had deposed and ultimately killed his father, was forced to hide from enemy troops in an oak tree.)

Unlike his more pious but less politic brother James, Charles recognized the practical difficulties attendant upon being the Catholic monarch of an unfortunately Protestant country. And so he postponed his reception into the Catholic Church until he was on his deathbed -- a risky strategy, admittedly, but...better late than never.

For a surprisingly entertaining fictional account of Charles's relationship with the Catholic Church, one could not do better than Robert Hugh Benson's Oddsfish! It's one of the most underrated of all historical novels, and provides a breathtakingly vivid portrait of the king who finally sent the Puritans packing and became known to history as the Merrie Monarch.

Long Live the King!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Woodward: Not With a Bang...

Lots of people have theories about when the final decline of Western civilization began. My own theory involves an event that occurred on May 24, 1935. It happened, I'm ashamed to say, in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city I love. It was the first major-league night baseball game, an abomination that I'm certain God never had in mind when he invented the sport. On that infamous night exactly 74 years ago, and underneath the garish jury-rigged lights of Crosley Field, the Reds beat the Phillies 2 to 1. (Which is worse -- winning the first night baseball game or losing it?)

I have attended many, many baseball games in my life, both day games and night games. And I can say with absolute certitude that baseball is a game that should be played in daylight. That's the way baseball is played by children (which, after all, is the way baseball should be played no matter what the age of the players). That's the way baseball was played for the first 100 years of its history, until some marketing genius decided that more money could be made playing baseball at a time when most of the children who love it are supposed to be in bed. And that's the way baseball is played (I am quite certain) in heaven, although I am still searching for a citation from the Summa Theologica to support this contention.

Down here in Texas Rangers country, even night games are played mostly in the daylight during July and August, which minimizes the horror of the phenomenon somewhat. But there still comes that inevitable moment, along around the bottom of the sixth inning, when the lights are turned on and the great, sunny, American pastoral fantasia that is baseball becomes suddenly transformed into just one more Klieglight-illuminated showbiz spectacle. Anyone who has ever seen the difference knows the difference. (I was never a Chicago Cubs fan, but I always cherished Wrigley Field as a last outpost of civilization, until it too was swamped by the barbarian wave on August 8, 1988.)

This holiday weekend, the Rangers are involved in inter-league play (we'll leave that unfortunate innovation for a later discussion) with the Houston Astros (we'll leave indoor baseball for a later discussion as well), in a couple of day games. Good for them. I just wish there were a lot more day games to look forward to this season.

(The picture accompanying this post, by the way, is a riveting painting -- "Baseball at Night" -- by the Russian-American painter Morris Kantor. It depicts a night baseball game in West Nyack, New York, in 1934, a year before nocturnal illumination made it to the major leagues, and long before night baseball was anything other than a cultural -- or visual -- oddity. The ballfield in West Nyack where this game took place also featured professional wrestling matches and performances by trained elephants. That pretty much says it all, doesn't it?)

UPDATE: What was I thinking? I don't need St. Thomas Aquinas to help me prove that there's no night baseball in heaven:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day -- and there shall be no night there.

--Revelation 21:23-25

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Woodward: The Ascension

Throughout most of the United States, the Feast of the Ascension will be observed liturgically this coming Sunday. In the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Nebraska -- and in the Woodward household -- 40 days still means 40 days, and the Ascension is celebrated on Ascension Thursday. Today.

The Ascension poses certain challenges to the Christian imagination. It did in the first century -- "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?" -- and it still does in the twenty-first. Here is a helpful comment from a man who was simultaneously one of the subtlest and one of the most straightforward of all Catholic preachers, Mgr. Ronald Knox.

Since the Ascension, it has been easier for us to imagine heaven as a desirable goal. Try as we will, the idea of heaven eludes us. Are we to think of it as a place, from which every element of unhappiness is excluded? But we know how much our love of places is conditioned by moods and sentiments, by the desire for change, by association and by history. Or are we to think of it as a state? But then, how are we to think of a state except in terms of selfish enjoyment? Or should we look forward to being reunited with those we have loved? But how frail they are, these earthly bonds; how time impairs them! No, when we have tried everything, we shall find no better window on eternity than St. Paul's formula, "to depart and be with Christ." If he has left us, and gone to heaven, it is so that we may no longer be disconcerted by the barrier of cloud that stands between us and it. We are not concerned to "go" here or there, or to be in this or that state of existence. We want to find him. So little, and so much it is given us to know about the ascended Christ.

--from a sermon preached at the London Oratory, May 13, 1956

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Woodward: "Eldest Daughter of the Church"

I was not previously familiar with Gerald Warner. But I am instantaneously a big fan.

When one's credentials for speaking out on questions of moral theology are that one is (1) the wife of the President of France and (2) a "former supermodel"; then precisely how much attention are one's opinions entitled to?

Roughly about as much as mine, I would think.

(I apologize in advance to anyone who is offended by the photo of Mme. Bruni-Sarkozy, but honestly, isn't she the best-looking moral theologian you have ever seen?)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Woodward: Religion and PBS

The Public Broadcasting Service is considering revoking the affiliation of local stations that broadcast "sectarian" programs. A few local PBS affiliates do apparently carry religious programming, such as weekly "Mass for shut-ins" broadcasts, and continuing to do so may mean the end of these stations' ability to include PBS programming in their schedules. If you want Big Bird, then you'll have to cancel Jesus.

The move under consideration by PBS would represent stricter enforcement of the corporation's bylaws (adopted in 1985), which allow member stations to broadcast only "noncommercial, nonpartisan, and nonsectarian" programs. (It's not a new rule, in other words, just a more faithful observance of an old one.) Anybody who has listened recently to the fulsome, lengthy, and obviously PR-firm-written descriptions of PBS sponsors that begin and end every PBS broadcast knows just how loosely the "noncommercial" stipulation in these bylaws is enforced. As for the "nonpartisan" stipulation...well, some jokes write themselves.

But the "nonsectarian" rule is one that PBS still feels honor-bound to enforce, and my guess is that they will do so with a vengeance. Good-bye Catholicism, hello Deepak Chopra.

The rank hypocrisy of this proposed move should trouble anyone who can read, and think logically...and pay taxes. But, in a spirit of "bringing us together," I would like to propose a compromise. Catholics should be willing to give up their PBS-broadcast Masses (just go to EWTN instead) in return for PBS's pledge (adopting PBS's favorite word) to drop its own "sectarian" programming, a few examples of which I'll be happy to list:

Bill Moyers: Faith & Reason
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers: NOW -- The Battle over Evolution
Bill Moyers: Genesis -- A Living Conversation
Bill Moyers: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth