Monthly Archives: June 2012

San Juan Bautista

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The celebration yesterday of the Birthday of John the Baptist took me back in memory 21 years.  On June 24, 1991, in the quebrada (hidden valley) of Huavinha I celebrated my first village fiesta in the highlands of Northern Chile.

It was a memorable event for me in many ways.  The journey itself was unforgettable.  I was travelling in a pick-up truck with a 3-person parish team, and we were blessed to have an experienced driver.

We were travelling from our base at sea-level to a height of 9,000 feet along tortuous, cliff-hanging unpaved roads that simply had been scraped out of the side of the barren desert mountains.  The ascent was gradual, but sometimes it involved sudden descents as the road had to negotiate a particularly difficult piece of terrain.

After a 4 hours nail-biting journey in low gears, we turned a corner and suddenly there was Huavinha.  It looked beautiful and inviting, guarded by the stern barren mountains that surrounded it.

Huavinha exists because there is an underground river near enough to the surface at that point to water the land and make it fruitful.  It is a wonderful testimony to the saying that the desert is fertile.

The valley is just over a mile long, and about half a mile across, with about 30 families living in little mud homes with thatched roofs.  The families cultivate their chacras (plots of land) growing corn, potatoes, onions and varied vegetables which find a ready market in the city four hours away down by the sea.  They also have their livestock of llamas, sheep, hens, chickens and rabbits.

Our group arrived just in time for the visperas (vespers), the ritual preparations for the main celebration on the following day, the 24th.  The visperas consist of the blessing of the flowers, the candles and Saint John’s new clothes.  The sponsors who finance all of this will dress the saint’s image with the new clothes in preparation for the Mass and procession on the Feastday itself.

During these hours more and more people are arriving, as former residents and relatives of current residents join the villagers to honor their patron saint.  The fiesta consists of the visperas, the feastday itself, and the morning of the third day.  During this time the population of the village will increase to five times its normal size.

After the celebration of the visperas the newly-dressed saint is enthroned in the big old 16th century stone church awaiting his big day tomorrow.  Then the feasting begins with hundreds seated at improvised tables for a huge open-air banquet of arroz con carne (rice and meat) with potatoes and a variety of vegetables, delicious postre (desserts) and fine Chilean wines in abundance.  The meal is followed by group folk dances which continue far into the night, with the silent mountains sending the music echoing through the dark valley.

Our group retired early while the dancing was just warming up.  But sleep did not come easy to me, not just because of the non-stop music, but because our driver, who was my room-mate, revealed a hidden talent.  He fell asleep immediately, and overrode the music with a monumental snore that resembled two powerful Harley Davidsons in a revving competition.  I just had to get away, and ended up sleeping fitfully in a sleeping bag on the hard kitchen table.

I had no problem rising early on the feastday, and checked out the church in preparation for the Mass and the procession.  As the sun climbed in the sky, the valley came to life, and after a sleepy breakfast the crowds began to assemble for the midday Mass.

The packed congregation played their part devoutly at the Mass, and then paraded in the procession through the valley honoring Saint John in prayer and song.  The two brass bands were a great support, especially when people’s voices grew tired and needed a rest.

When Saint John was returned to his place of honor in the church in the late afternoon, the crowd dispersed to prepare for the main banquet.  The main banquet again took place in the open air, and I calculate that about 500 people took part.  I took the opportunity to retire soon after the end of the banquet, while the music and festive dancing continued long into the night.

The fiesta ended on the morning of the third day with a communal visit to the village cemetery.  I was led from grave to grave to bless and honor those who had gone before us, and were now enjoying their eternal rest.  It was a fitting conclusion to a community celebration which integrated the past and the present with a future we all know is in store for each one of us.

John the Baptist was sent not just to point out the Messiah, but to bring people together in the awareness of their common origin and shared destiny.  It is so much easier to face the past, the present or the future when you know that you are not alone. There may be differences in language or race, but you know that you are not alone when you are with people who share your faith, your values and your eternal destiny.

Penny Catechism

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The earliest text-book that I remember from my first years in school is The Penny Catechism.  My recollection is that it was a small book, both in size and in the number of pages.  But it compensated for the smallness in size by the quality of the information it offered.

I remember that it dealt with all religious matters from God and Creation to the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell) with a clarity and confidence that left no room for doubt.  Its layout was a simple Question and Answer style.  Even after many decades, some of the Answers come back to me, and I am left wondering, “What was the Question?”

“About four thousand years” is one Answer that kept coming back to me, but I could not succeed in recalling the Question it answered.  I suspected it had something to do with the creation of the world, but I just could not be sure.

Recently I made a lucky strike.  Browsing the Internet I was able to locate an old copy of The Most Reverend Dr. James Butler’s Catechism (1821) the forerunner of the Penny Catechism of my early schooldays.  The copy must have been badly deteriorated, and large portions were so garbled that it was impossible to decipher them.

In spite of the difficulties, I learned that the Catechism had 69 pages, and that the first Question was, “Who made the world?”  But then, wonder of wonders, at the top of page 22, I found what I was looking for:                                                                                                                                         Q. How many years after the fall of our first parents did Christ become man?                                                                                                                                       A. About four thousand years.

I remember always having been impressed by that answer.  It was so serenely confident, unchallenged even though it gave no explanation of where that number came from.

The Church allowed that Question and Answer to stand and be taught for more than 100 years before replacing it with n.75 in the revised Catechism of 1951:                                                                                                              Did God the Son become man soon after the fall of our first parents?                                                                                                                            God the Son did not become man for thousands of years after the fall of our first parents.                                                                                                              In this way a vague but defensible answer replaced a concise but inaccurate one.

Some people may be troubled at this apparent change in Catholic teaching.  But the Church is skilled at maintaining the appearance of unchanging teaching while revising her position in response to new scientific knowledge or changed circumstances and conditions.

I remember an important change in the ordination to priesthood introduced by Pope Pius XII in 1947.  In his document Sacramentum Ordinis (Sacrament of Orders), Pope Pius decreed that the ordination of the priest is conferred by the bishop’s imposition of hands on the candidate and speaking the words of the Ordination Preface.  This overruled what had been declared by the Council of Florence in 1439 that priesthood is conferred by the bishop giving the chalice with wine and the paten with bread to the person being ordained and saying: “Receive power to offer sacrifice in the Church for the living and dead”.

I was a seminarian at the time of the change, and I remember that it gave a new focus to the ordination ceremony.  It relieved the ordaining bishop’s assistants of the duty of ensuring that the candidate’s hands actually made contact with the chalice and paten.

To the majority of people in the Church this momentous change passed unnoticed.  But it is a reminder that unchanging teaching is not always what it seems. Pope John Paul II wrote in  1994 that the Church has no authority to ordain women.  He closed all debate on the subject by declaring it a definitive teaching (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis May 22, 1994).

In 1870 Council Vatican I defined Papal Infallibility as a divinely revealed doctrine.  A substantial majority of the bishops had declared in favor of Papal Infallibility.  Some, like Cardinal Newman, believed that the declaration was premature, that the doctrine needed further refinement.

When the Council ended, Newman is reported to have counseled worried Catholics, “Let us be patient, let us have faith.  There will be another Pope and another Council”.  Newman loyally accepted the Council’s decision, but he did not accept that it had said the last word.  We know that the Council of Florence erred in thinking it had said the last word.  It is wiser not to claim the last word, but to leave that to God.

Corpus Christi

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The feast day of Corpus Christi was celebrated this year Thursday June 7 or Sunday June 10.  Corpus Christi means the “Body of Christ”.  Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is present in this Sacrament under the appearances of bread and wine.

Corpus Christi was declared a universal feast of the Catholic Church in 1264, following a vision received by a Belgian nun Sister Juliana.  Sister Juliana pleaded with her local priest Monsignor Pantaleon to designate a special feast day for the Body of Christ.  The priest later became Pope, and as Pope Urban IV he fulfilled her wishes.

The presence of the body of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine takes place during the celebration of Mass.  The Mass is the response of the Church to Our Lord who changed bread and wine into his body and blood at the Last Supper, and then added: “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22, 19).  Since that command more than 2000 years ago, Mass or the “breaking of bread” (Acts of the Apostles 1, 46), has been celebrated in Catholic communities at least every Sunday, and often more frequently.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta had an interesting observation.  She said that the Mass is connected with the sufferings and death of Jesus, and that without the tradition of celebrating Mass we would have forgotten the crucifixion.  It would have faded into the past, and we would soon have forgotten that God loves us.

Each Mass is meant to send you out with a new awareness that you are loved by God.  Unfortunately the simple “breaking of bread” has developed over time into a very wordy and elaborate ritual that has made the Mass a complicated and sometimes boring experience for many people.

The essence of the Mass is that bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ so that you can be sacramentally nourished by the God who loves you.  In response to that love you pledge yourself to be more caring towards your brothers and sisters at home and abroad.  That is the meaning of Holy Communion, communion with your fellow human beings through your communion with God.

It is important that the words and rituals in the Mass give emphasis to this central meaning, and not obscure it or distract from it.  The Mass has a long tradition, and the many changes added over the centuries can actually obscure the meaning of the original simple ceremony.  Mother Teresa’s comment is profound, and it also has the virtue of simplicity.

Pope John XXIII once remarked: “Some people make simple things complicated.  I like to make complicated things simple”.  I like to think that God wants it that way too.  Thank you, Pope John XXIII.  Thank you, Mother Teresa.

SantaCruzan

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Pentecost Sunday 2012 happened to fall on the last Sunday of May.  For that reason I found myself officiating on that day at a Filipino Santacruzan at Saint Barnabas parish in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

I help out regularly with the weekday Mass schedule at Saint Barnabas, and last February I received a call from the parish office.  The call was a request to officiate a Sunday afternoon Mass for a Filipino celebration on the last Sunday in May.  I willingly accepted, and was put in touch with a Filipino couple who were organizing the event.

The couple visited me to brief me on their plans, and explained that the celebration they were organizing was called the SantaCruzan.  They were pleasantly surprised when I told them that not only was I familiar with the celebration, but that I had spent several years as a young missionary in the Philippines many years ago.

The SantaCruzan really celebrates two different practices carried out in the Philippines during the month of May.  The first is the Flores de Mayo (the Flowers of May) which consists of devotions every evening in May to honor the Virgin Mary by offering flowers and prayers before her image.  The second devotion being celebrated is in honor of the cross on which Christ was crucified, believed to have been located by Queen Helena, mother of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who halted the persecution of Christians at the beginning of the 4th century.

The SantaCruzan is really a complicated event, and it is to the credit of the Filipinos how they masterfully weave the two together in one celebration.  The three main elements in the celebration are a procession, the Mass, and a banquet.

The procession was due to leave from the community hall under the parish church starting at 2 p.m.   I arrived just before 2 o’clock to find the parish hall filled with people in, what looked to the inexperienced eye, a state of chaos.  Filipinos from all over New England and further afield were smiling and enjoying one another as they stood or sat around tables chatting animatedly. Loudspeakers were playing instrumental and vocal Filipino music.  The lady who had briefed me about the event was there with her microphone, trying to organize the procession against the competition from the loudspeakers and the animated conversations.

It looked like a hopeless task, but with that infinite patience in which Filipino women excel, slowly but surely she coaxed order out of chaos.  In a surprisingly short time, the procession was ready to move.

The procession was led by a cross-bearer, followed by two flag bearers, carrying the American flag and the flag of the Philippines.  After them came the Knights of Columbus, Couples for Christ, and the Legion of Mary.  They were followed by about 30 angels, all in white, average age about 4.

Then came the queens with their escorts.  First was a young woman dressed in a long dress, carrying a triangular flag.  She is the Banner Queen, representing the arrival of Christianity to the Philippines.  After her came another young woman in a long dress, the Moor Queen representing the Filipinos who embraced the religion of Islam, which arrived in the Southern Philippines two centuries before Christianity, through traders from the Persian Gulf .

The last queen in the procession was a young woman chosen for her beauty to represent the Empress Helena.  She carried a small wooden cross to indicate that she found the True Cross in the Holy Land, and brought it to Constantinople.  Before her walked her escort, a young boy wearing a crown and representing her son the Roman Emperor Constantine.

At the end of the procession, in the position of honor, came the flower-decked image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, carried shoulder-high by four men wearing black pants and the long-sleeved barong tagalog, the traditional dress of Filipino men.

After the image came the priest and all the members of the faithful.  The procession wound its way slowly through the Church grounds in the warm sunshine, while the crowd prayed the Rosary, led by the Hermanas, the women who had sponsored the daily devotions to Our Lady during the month of May.

After the procession entered the Church the image of the Virgin was placed before the altar, where it was blessed by the priest, and crowned by the Empress Helena.  This was followed by Mass celebrated in English, with hymns and prayers in Spanish and Tagalog.

After Mass the Virgin was carried in procession to the community hall, where she presided at a happy and lively banquet of mouth-watering Filipino and American food.

I commended the organizers for their working together to show their young people how the Faith was handed on in the Filipino tradition. The Santacruzan is a prayerful history lesson.  The young Filipinos, by following the religious tradition of their elders, are keeping in touch with their cultural roots, while at the same time enriching the life of the Church in the country of their adoption.