Saturday, September 23, 2017

Overloading Advent

Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful that Advent is even acknowledged at all in the commercial world. In the United States where we seem to have a preponderance of low-church Christians, the liturgical year is never as well emphasized as it could be.

The difficulty is that Advent is a time of penance and expected waiting, not celebration. Our kids have an Advent calendar courtesy of generous grandparents, but it's all simple things like crackers and candies, and they also got Bible verses to go along with every day, lest we forget what it is we're waiting for.

Companies haven't generally been quite that restrained. Advent has become big business. Pottery Barn has gotten into the fray, and now even Aldi has a wine calendar that is making the rounds.

Nunc est bibendum! Traditionally, the feast of St. John on December 27 was the big day for wine, but once again there seems to be an increasingly sloppy blurring of the two seasons.

Commercial outfits are motivated by and interested in one thing: moving product. There's nothing wrong with that.... our publishing company has a wonderful Advent book for this time of year:

Lynne's book is, though, more oriented toward making simple little crafts with prayers and devotions rather than moving stuff off of shelves. It's not wrong to encourage good solid Advent products like these, just to make gifts and treats the sole focus of Advent instead of tangible helps on the way to discovering what Advent really is.

Advent has a real danger of becoming overloaded with gifts, especially if we add in treats for St. Nicholas's feast, the ever-more popular "let's just exchange Christmas gifts now because we won't be seeing each other during the holidays", and even Hanukkah presents from our Jewish family and friends. Some of this can't be helped. But it seems like if we're not getting gifts, we're thinking about gifts, running around purchasing gifts, worrying about gifts, wrapping gifts.

No one described this pre=Christmas tension with better wit than the great C. S. Lewis, in "Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus."

Let's make sure we Niatirbians-in-spirit maintain a bit of restraint in this penitential season so we can show up with bright shining faces to Mass on December 25th.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Devotions for the Feast of St. Augustine

Since we will be celebrating the Feast of St. Augustine in a few days on August 28th, I'll be featuring a few lesser-known devotions to this great saint. This inaugural prayer is taken from a prayer-book published by an Irish Augustinian in 1885 and is recommended there for after Confession.


BEFORE thine eyes, O Lord, we bring our offences, and confess that the evil we have committed far outweighs what we suffer. We feel the punishment of sin, and yet we turn not from our wilfulness in sinning. If Thou waitest for our amendment, we are not corrected. If Thou chastiseth us, we are not patient. We confess our fault during our affliction, and forget our tears when the visitation is past. If Thou stretchest out thine arm, we proffer obedience; and if Thou suspendest the stroke, we forget our promise. If Thou punishest, we cry for mercy; and if Thou sparest, we provoke Thee again to strike. Behold, O Lord, we confess our guilt. Thy hand is not shortened that it cannot save. Neither is thine ear dull that it cannot hear. Thou hast shown us the manner we may come before Thee, requiring us to act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly before Thee, and trust, finally, in the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again for our justification.

Remember not, O Lord, our offences, nor those of our parents, and take not vengeance on our sins.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Candace: A Christian Name from Nubia

Nubia was an extremely old civilization, with close cultural ties to Egypt that go all the way back to the dawn of Egyptian history. It even developed its own distinct adaptation of Egyptian hieroglyphics called Meroitic.

One of Nubia’s most visible contributions to Western Christianity is the name Candace. We get it from the New Testament Greek form Κανδακη and the Candacis of the Latin Vulgate, as it appears in the story of St. Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts of the Apostles:

"And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of queen Candace of Ethiopia, who was in charge of all her treasures, had come to Jerusalem to worship" -Acts 8:27
Candace ultimately comes from ktke, the word for "queen" or perhaps "queen mother" in the language of ancient Nubia. In the Meroitic script, it is rendered as follows:
The alphabetic hieroglyphs above are read from right to left. They are enclosed in an oval cartouche, indicating that they are part of a royal name; the three dots to the right are a word separator, and then the four symbols, reading towards the left, spell out k-t-k-e. The Greek transliteration is shown below.

This research will be featured in my forthcoming book "The Church for Our People: Studies in Afro-American Inculturation".

The Kisses that Killed Prejudice

On a cold January morning, in the year of Our Lord 1892, the Reverend Dr. Henry L. Phillips entered a Catholic Church and stayed to observe High Mass. He was not himself Catholic. In fact, he was rector of the Crucifixion Protestant Episcopal Church of Philadelphia. But he was a black minister serving a black congregation, and he was there for a special event: the Third Colored Catholic Congress, whose purpose was to gather black Catholic leaders across the United States. Its opening Mass was celebrated by the first recognized black priest in the nation: Father Augustus Tolton. And assisting Father Tolton that day were two white priests: Father John Burke as deacon, and Father John Griffin as subdeacon.

Two days later, Reverend Phillips had occasion to address the delegates to the congress. He said that during the Mass on Tuesday, he had been watching with the closest interest these two white priests at Father Tolton’s side. And what he saw there made a great impression on him. In no other denomination, he said, could such a thing be seen, or would it be permitted.

Because extensive changes to the Mass have taken place since that time, it is easy, perhaps, to miss the full significance of what Reverend Phillips saw that Tuesday morning in Philadelphia. We might simply assume that his remarks merely involve a black priest serving at the altar with white ones. Of course, this would indeed have been a remarkable image in an environment of widespread racial prejudice. But yet that alone doesn’t seem to entirely justify Phillips’ rather striking remarks. Would black and white ministers together really be unseen or unpermitted in any other denomination? Why would a few white priests sitting in on Father Tolton’s Mass be such cause for amazement?

Well, it’s not recorded what exactly Phillips saw that struck him at that Mass. But we can make an educated guess simply by placing the ceremony in its proper liturgical context.

Now if you have been to any traditional Latin High Mass, you’ve probably seen that it includes a number of kisses. These are known as the solita oscula. When the deacon and subdeacon hand an object to the priest or receive one from him, they kiss both the object and the hand of the celebrant. Also, the subdeacon kneels before the celebrant and kisses his hand after reading the Epistle. Then the deacon does the same thing before reading the Gospel. To anyone carefully watching the activity at the altar, these kisses are quite prominent, as are the many other places where the deacon and subdeacon act as humble servants to the celebrating priest.

But imagine these rubrics carried out at Tolton’s Mass on that winter morning in 1892. Two white priests publicly serving, kneeling before, and especially, and repeatedly, kissing the hands of a black priest.

That sight alone could well have been positively shocking in a country that was going through what some historians regard as the low point of American race relations. In that same year of 1892, the number of lynchings would reach a horrible peak of 230, never to be exceeded since. The supposedly “gay” nineties would see new state constitutions disenfranchising voters throughout the South, as well as the northern-dominated Supreme Court enshrining “separate but equal” in Plessy vs. Ferguson.

In his address to the Third Colored Catholic Congress, Dr. Phillips would go on to say that it was true, he knew, that at the altars of the Catholic Church there was no distinction as to color, and that Church has a lever possessed by none other to secure for the colored people the same rights in the workshops as it freely grants them in its sanctuaries. If it exerts its powerful influence to this end, he said, it will be scared by the rush of colored people to its fold and, as for himself, he would bid his three boys Godspeed if they desired to enter the ranks of that or any other Church which would secure for them their just rights.

As American Catholics we have not, sadly, always made use of that lever as well as we should, and our failings in that regard have undoubtedly been the reason that the rush of black Americans into the Catholic Church never quite materialized the way that Daniel Rudd and the other delegates had hoped. Liturgically, also, we seem to have lost all patience for these little gestures of service that undoubtedly so moved Reverend Phillips.

But it is worth remembering that in one of our country’s most shameful hours, an observant clergyman saw how justice and equality could flow out in torrents, if we could only learn to lower ourselves before the altar of God, to see Christ in every human being, and to kill every last prejudice with a kiss.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The North African Liturgical Calendar: a Church Reborn

The African Church once boasted 400 bishops, but after the Islamic invasion it was slowly starved of support until its distinct traditions were for the most part lost to Christendom.

But in 1632, Catholic missions were founded in Algeria, and two hundred years later, France's invasion of the country and eventual conquest allowed the Church greater liberty to operate. Algiers was named a diocese in 1838.

The idea of reviving the ancient African patrimony can already be seen in the work of the first two bishops of Algiers: Antoine-Adolphe Dupuch and his successor Louis-Antoine-Augustine Pavy. They produced for the new diocese a liturgical calendar that drew heavily from the African saints mentioned in the Roman Martyrology, though until then seldom actually commemorated at Mass:

October features a number of these distinctly African saints, including Felix and Cyprian; Agileus; Martinian, Saturnian and Maxima; Rogatian and Felicissimus; Quodvultdeus; Gaudiosus; and Deogratias.

The great Charles-Martial-Allemand Lavigerie became the third bishop of Algiers in 1867, and in 1884 he realized a lifelong dream of restoring the ancient See of Carthage. Continuing the work of his predecessors, he directed the development of a new Office that gave greater place to African saints, which was approved by Rome in 1883.

To this day, the liturgical calendar of North Africa bears the legacy of this restoration, though many of the dates have now been brought into line with the only ancient African liturgical document that survives: the Calendar of the Church of Carthage.

We sometimes come across the idea that these kinds of restoration projects outside of living memory are improper. That once a longstanding liturgical rite is dead, it ought to stay dead.

To be sure, at this point we've had our fill of archaeologism and the spectacularly bad manner in which supposed "ancient rituals" were yanked still warm from scholarly discussion and forcefully imposed on the entirety of Christendom with shockingly little humility. Never mind whether, like the canon of Hippolytus that went into Eucharistic Prayer #2, there were serious questions about accuracy and application, and let's not even get into the ways in which such restorations were merely a pretext for advancing the cause of modernism.

But however badly such revivals were carried out in the creation of the Novus Ordo Missae, I keep coming back to Benedict's language in the letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum:

“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”
I can't help but thinking that if the Babylonian Captivity of the ancient Roman Mass had endured much longer, and if, as almost happened, it was truly and completely extinguished from the face of the earth for a time, it would nonetheless be our solemn duty to revive it as best we can. The case of North Africa's liturgical calendar shows that even after centuries of obsolescence, restoration can be done, and done well.

What was sacred, is sacred. No generation has any right to rob another of its liturgical patrimony, and we would be fools to simply accede to an illegitimate suppression of external or internal forces.

And it would be well to remember Whom exactly we serve: a God of an empty tomb.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Cross That Can't Be Lost

Françoise Gonannhatenha was forced to mount the wooden scaffold upon which the Onondaga Iroquois tortured their enemies.

But quite an unusual enemy she made. She was an Onondaga by birth, and the ones who now stood poised to take her life were friends and relatives, including a sister who had handed her over to the elders for execution.

What did this woman do to merit such mistreatment from her own people?

Françoise had been baptized years before by Father Jacques Fremin on his visit to Onondaga. She had lived as an Iroquois Christian among her people, but persecution made her leave her homeland and join other Christian Iroquois at Sault St. Louis, where she was known for her modesty, piety, and above all charity to the poor.

The devout settlement at the Sault, though mainly Iroquois by blood and language, remained close allies of the French, and so their former countrymen declared them enemies of state.

In 1692, an Iroquois army apprehended Françoise, her husband and two friends in a canoe. They mercilessly killed her husband, and dragged the three women back to Iroquoia, pulling their fingernails out and burning the tips of their bloody fingers in pipe-bowls. The other two women were sent to two other Iroquois villages, and Françoise was remanded back to Onondaga, where she was condemned to death.

Yet she remained undaunted. Mounting the torture platform, she loudly declared to the crowd that she was a Christian, and was happy to die in her own village at the hands of her own nation. In this, she added, she was only following the example of the Lord Himself.

Her piety annoyed her relatives, and one of them tore away the crucifix that had been hanging around her neck. He then took a knife and carved a cross into her breast.

“There you see,” he mocked, “the cross which you esteemed so much and which prevented you from leaving the Sault, when I went to seek you there.”

“I thank you, my brother,” she replied. “I can lose that cross which you have taken away from me, but you have given me one which I will never lose, not even in death.”

Marked with the sign of salvation, Françoise boldly preached from the scaffold:

“As frightful are the torments which you condemned me to, do not believe that my fate is to be pitied. It is yours which requires pity and groans. This fire, which you have lit for my torture, will only burn me for a few hours, but another fire which is never extinguished is prepared for you in Hell. It is however still in your power to avoid it: follow my example, become Christians, live according to the Laws of the Religion as saints, and you will escape from the eternal flames. Moreover, I declare to you that I wish those no ill, who I see are ready to snatch my life. Not only do I pardon them for my death, but I pray the sovereign Master of Life to open their eyes to truth, to touch their hearts, to give them the grace of conversion and to die in the sentiments that now inspire me.”

These exhortations only increased the fury of her torturers. She was taken down, and for three days was dragged around the village, subjected to all manner of cruelties and insults. Then, on the fourth day they returned her to the scaffold to begin the hideous final act of her martyrdom. Tying Françoise to the stake, they burned her entire body with red hot firebrands and gun barrels for many hours. Under all this agony she did not cry out.

At last they scalped her, threw hot cinders upon her bleeding head, and untied her—expecting she would run about in agony the way so many other victims had done.

Instead the pious widow knelt down next to the stake, lifted her eyes, and offered her last breaths as a final sacrifice to God. They rained down upon her a shower of stones, and overwhelmed, this holy Christian Iroquois finally gave up her soul to God.

Salvation on a Stick

In the Year of Our Lord 1838, Fathers François Blanchet and Modeste Demers traveled to Fort Vancouver at the behest of the bishop of Quebec. The mission entrusted to these two priests was simple on its face, but it was also impossibly vast in its scope. They were to spread the message of the Gospel throughout the Pacific Northwest, in a region that stretched from California to Alaska.

The Fathers, clearly, would need help. They managed to get a few literate white men to serve as catechists for settlers, but this approach would not serve with the native tribes of the area. Each tribe had its own language, and though some were closely related, others were so different that they would have to be learned from scratch. There was the Chinook Jargon, which served as a sort of general inter-tribal language of the Northwest Coast, but it was only a simplified pidgin language useful primarily for trading scenarios, not for teaching theology.

Relying on interpreters, then, the missionaries began to observe how their interpreters very naturally used the native love for rhetoric and oratory to give “a new force and new weight” to Catholic doctrine—in languages that white men could only stammer in.

Blanchet and Demers thus determined that those best suited to catechize the Indians were Indians themselves. But how to transform a mere interpreter into a trained catechist, capable not only of understanding but also teaching the vagaries of doctrine? And how best to communicate theological truths to such catechists, when knowledge of their languages was still crude?

The answer came from an old tradition ingrained in native Northwestern culture itself. Catholicism would be achieved the way Indians had from time immemorial recorded the history of their families and tribes: on a totem.

“In looking for a plan,” Blanchet writes, “[I] imagined that by representing on a square stick, the forty centuries before Christ by 40 marks; the 33 years of our Lord by 33 points, followed by a cross: and the 18 centuries and 39 years since by 18 marks and 39 points, would pretty well answer [my] purpose, in giving [me] a chance to show the beginning of the world, the creation, the fall of the angels, of Adam; the promise of a Savior, the time of His birth, and His death upon the cross, as well as the mission of the apostles.”

This miniature Catholic totem pole was called the “Sahale” stick from the name for God in Chinook.

Abandoning theological abstraction for a straightforward historical narrative proved a masterful stroke of evangelization. Like a tribal or familial totem, the Sahale stick was a symbolic retelling of salvation history in visual terms the natives of the Northwest could readily understand.

All that remained was to put it to the test.

Blanchet had one carved for Tslalakum, a visiting chief of the Straits Salish. After a mere eight days of instruction Tsalakum had mastered the concepts engraved on the stick, and brought it back to his native land. As word spread to other tribes, Blanchet made and gave away eight more at Nisqually in 1839.

Hand-carving the four-foot sticks however, quickly proved too laborious for the burgeoning demand, so Blanchet and Demers switched to drawing the Sahale symbols on paper and calling these pictures “Catholic ladders.”

Almost a year after giving the first stick to Tslalakum, Blanchet was finally able to visit his tribal home on Whidbey Island, hoping to follow up on the chief’s visit with some basic catechesis.

Amazingly, he found a tribe already well familiar with the tenets of Christianity. Chief Tslalakum’s eight days of instruction had produced an entire tribe that not only knew the main points of the faith, but had also managed to learn some hymns as well. Tslalakum had given his first Sahale stick to another chief and made a copy for himself. And chiefs like Witskalatche, Netlam and Sehalapan had similar resounding successes in lands where no priest had ever stepped foot.

The Sahale stick, by successfully “baptizing” an ancient native practice of the Northwest Coast, had proved both a wonderfully ingenious way to teach the faith to the Indians, and also to enrich the cultural patrimony of the whole universal Church.