What to actually DO with Fiducia Supplicans – a (relatively) brief Q&A

As we start the new year, questions and opinions about the late 2023 declaration Fiducia Supplicans continue to whirl about online and off. There continues to be a great deal of conversation – most of it producing more heat than light – about its value.

In addition to following CCC 2478 as best I can, I’ve been mulling over a friend’s variation of Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity – or human brokenness”. If we’re going to approach human sexuality and Church doctrine – both complicated in their own right! – it will serve us best to assume both the best about the character of others while leaving plenty of room for the limitations and foibles of their humanity.

All that to say that the one thing we ought to be determined NOT to do is lose ourselves in bitterness, despair, or self-righteousness. At the end of the day, Jesus is Lord and He has promised to safeguard & guide His Church. All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well – if not now, then in His good time.

Okay, great – but what are you actually going to DO?

When it comes to blessings, I don’t know that much has changed for me. As I mentioned in my first post about the declaration, it’s not like I’m carelessly throwing around blessings in the first place. There are plenty of examples where a blessing is inappropriate (or just weird, such as when folks ask for a blessing mere moments after Mass ‘just because’ – yes really!). Sussing that out is part of ministry – if anything this declaration offers both more opportunity AND gives me language for when I ought to say ‘no’. I’m SUPER excited about paragraph 31 of Fiducia Supplicans, which allows for the possibility of blessings of same-sex couples & couples in irregular situations but establishes clear expectations about whether and when that might (might!) be permissible.

Isn’t the use of ‘couple’ to describe relationships (presumably) rooted in sin problematic?

If the use of ‘couple’ is assumed to somehow recognize as legitimize or approve of sinful behavior, it would be problematic. But that is clearly not the case: the document goes to pains distinguish blessing the people versus the relationship (see paragraphs 4-6, 11, 26, 30, 31, 38, 39). ‘Couple’ here is simply a way to reference those who present themselves for a blessing, regardless of whether or not that pairing is rooted in God’s plan or human brokenness.

And please note: every reference to couples (eleven in total) is coupled1 with adjectives that set apart the subjects from married couples. Do the word search yourself – there is no instance of ‘couple’ appearing without an accompanying qualifier that clearly distinguishes between married couples and the couples being discussed.

So you’d bless any couple who presents themselves – what about pedophiles, incestuous pairings, or the KKK?!?

Yes, these are all examples that have been thrown my way. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, too, weird Catholic Twitter X.

Of course I wouldn’t offer a blessing for just any two people who presented themselves expecting their favorite sin to be blessed. Again, that’s what paragraph 31 outlines for us. And in my experience, unrepentant sinners don’t present themselves for blessings. If they did, well, what a great opportunity to preach the Gospel! If they’re truly recalcitrant or confrontational, they’ll find that that preaching will get more, rather than less, fiery upon subsequent attempts.

If it’s all so clear, why is Fiducia Supplicans necessary at all?

I suspect that if you have to ask, then its not really necessary – that is, not necessary for you. For the people who DO feel marginalized by or outright unwelcome in the Church – perhaps highest among them being those who are in irregular marriages or who have same-sex attractions – this document sends an unexpected but much-needed message: even as She challenges you to a new way of life, know that you are loved and you can be blessed by the Church. It’s necessary because those who are wounded need ministering to – and that’s what the Church is for!

What about Father James Martin, the Church in German, or [insert latest scandalous example here]?

Let’s be real: those who were going to act in bad faith didn’t need Fiducia Supplicans to energize them to act badly. They have a history of bad acting and will continue to do so regardless of what the Church does or doesn’t say. What this declaration does is give concrete direction about what is and isn’t allowed. Moreover, it makes distinctions that – if actually read within a hermeneutic of continuity – emphasize rather than diminish what we believe! Have I mentioned paragraph 31 of Fiducia Supplicans? Seriously, read paragraph 31 of Fiducia Supplicans! Notice the language of the second and third sentences – that’s not the language of changing doctrine, but of changing hearts…which not only implies but depends on recognizing (as the declaration says) one’s destitution and need of God’s help!

In short, pray for those who are weaponizing Church teaching for their own purposes – but we can’t let their actions embitter our hearts or tempt us towards despair.

Isn’t Pope Francis/the DDF culpable for releasing a document they have to have know would be misused?

Knowing that something good will be abused isn’t necessarily reason to withhold it. The Lord had to have know that the Eucharist would be unworthily received, misused, and abused (at the Last Supper, no less!) – and yet He handed His Body over to untrustworthy and weak men…. and those were just His Apostles!

Should [insert scandalous example here] be rebuked and/or punished? Absolutely! Why that hasn’t/isn’t happening is beyond you or me – but we should 100% be praying both for those in authority and all the more for those who are acting so scandalously. May their hearts be changed and converted – soon!

So what do WE (average Joe/Jane Catholic) do with Fiducia Supplicans?

Unless you’re a priest or bishop, probably nothing directly related to blessings. But you know what would be AMAZING? If every Catholic started reaching out to those around them, especially those who have felt like they are unwelcome in church because they are divorced/remarried/gay/lesbian/whatever, we could have a real revolution on our hands.

Imagine if we actually sought out and invited others – not the indirect & generic message of ‘everyone’s welcome’ but individual invitations. You know who called people by name? Jesus! And He left US with the great commission, to go out and bring people in. At the end of the day, this is what we’re called to do. If this declaration helps you do it – great! If not, let it be. But whatever you do, go out preach the Good News to all.

  1. No, I’m NOT sorry. I’ll take my light-hearted moments of punnery where I can! ↩︎

Not cheap or profane, but a vulgar grace

Of the books in his lesser-known Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra is arguably the best. Taking place almost exclusively on the planet Venus, the character of Ransom explores not just a world untouched by sin but the struggle with sin itself. One of the passages I find most affecting has him reflecting on the proper meaning and end of appetites. I’ve included the passage in its entirety at the end of this post, but its final sentence has always stayed with me: “But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.”1

Profaning something special is what Ransom is rejecting here, and we are invited to do the same. But it doesn’t take a trip to another planet to see how often we make vulgar (ie, ‘common’)2 what ought to be held apart for a special moment or purpose – it is a habit that is so engrained in us that we are often blind to how regularly and unwittingly we do just that. When our eyes are opened to see others or ourselves making vulgar something that ought not to be common, we react with disgust and repulsion.

In contrast is the idea of the Holy making Itself common – a reality we will celebrate in the mystery of the Nativity of Christ. While our initial reaction may still be rejection, the disgust and repulsion comes from within. Despite the generous nature of the gift, we recoil at the collision of holiness with our brokenness: ‘I’m not worthy of such an extraordinary gift!’

Presumption and despair

One of the more eyebrow-raising lines of Jesus is found in Mark 3:28-29 : “Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.” Christians and non-Christians alike ask, quite reasonably!, what this unforgivable sin might be, this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. How can it be that there is any sin that can not be forgiven by the Lord?

The best explanation I have heard rests on the Lord’s great respect for our free will. Though God has the power to impose Himself on us, He will not do so – and that includes forgiveness. If we refuse to ask for his help – whether out of presumption (‘I don’t need His help’, ‘I can claim His gifts without even asking Him’) or despair (‘He’ll never help me, so I won’t bother asking’) – He will honor that refusal. This blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable because we make ourselves unforgiveable by refusing forgiveness.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why the Church insists on individual confession, rather than the oft-abused general absolution (which is only to be used in immediate danger of death). The Lord gives generously and graciously, but never in a way that would cheapen our relationship with Him. An apology made without specifics, ownership, or expression of sorrow is no apology at all! On the other end, a statement of forgiveness is means nothing if it is simply a dismissal as unimportant the offenses it addresses. Confession allows us – as best as we can – to make a sincere apology, while opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s forgiveness.

Humble Divinity

The recent publication of the Dicastary for the Doctrine of the Faith’s declaration Fiducia Supplicans has given members of the Church reason to revisit the meaning and end of blessings. In giving authority to the Apostles – passed on through the generations to clerics today – Christ has given extraordinary power & responsibility: to call and have God answer. When we call, He shows up! What was once unique to the Last Supper has become the weekly or even daily experience of Catholics throughout the world.

That there is fear that this declaration could be used to provide cheap grace or result in the graces of blessings being profaned is not entirely unreasonable. And sadly, we have no shortage of examples – especially recently – of clerics and laity all-to-willing to cheapen or profane God’s blessings, using them as they see fit rather than as the Lord and His Church intends.

This danger has not stopped the Lord from entrusting Himself to us. At the words of the priest at Mass, Jesus comes to us with the fragility of bread and wine – a crumb, a single drop contains Christ entire, whole to all that taste. And at the conclusion of Mass, the priest blesses all present – worthy or not – and the Lord responds.

Despite His greatness – or better said, because of His greatness – God humbles Himself such that we may direct Him. What a terrible and awesome gift! We who carry it ought to hold ourselves and be held accountable for how we use it – and so we will surely will, at the end of all things.

Needy humanity

The point of all of this – the point of the declaration, I dare to assert – is that this gift ought to be used to the point of commonality – because God Himself (and not us) has willed it so! Of course we ought to reject profaning blessings by using them in unholy ways or over unholy things. Of course we ought to recoil from cheapening blessings by using them insincerely, carelessly, or spuriously. But we should – we must – put this gift to good and regular use. To reject or recoil from using this gift, especially on behalf of those who most need it most – us sinners! – would be to frustrate the proper meaning and end of blessings: to sanctify us and make us holy.

In our need – and often, hubris – there will be those who will presume to receive God’s blessing without any intention or desire to enter into a relationship with Him, or allow for Him to effect change in their lives. There will be others who feel so hopeless that they won’t dare to approach Him at all. It is the work and role of Christians everywhere to help others freely approach God and worthily receive Him – this is what is at the heart of the great commission. This, too, is part of the point of this.

With regards to the declaration Fiducia Supplicans, there is a key line that punctuates how these blessings might be made common but not cheaply or profanely:

In such cases [the blessing of irregular/same-sex couples], a blessing may be imparted that not only has an ascending value but also involves the invocation of a blessing that descends from God upon those who—recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help—do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Fiducia Supplicans, 31

Responding worthily

Those who recognize their destitution and need for help, who don’t legitimize themselves but beg for all that is good, true, and valid in their lives & relationships to be enriched, healed and elevated – would that ALL of us would so approach blessings from the Lord and His Church! This is no blessing of sin, but rather a blessing against the sin that binds – and surely an occasion to be celebrated.

When humanity turns what is holy into something profane, it is rightly condemned. But when the Sacred chooses to descend, to mysteriously make Himself small, when He makes Himself a commoner for our sake, our response ought to be one of grateful joy and generous sharing. May we make of this a renewed opportunity to encourage each other to receive fully the blessings of the Lord.

  1. Now he had come to a part of the wood where great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees–clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of the balloon-man and about the same size. He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed. It could not be classified. He could never tell us, when he came back to the world of men, whether it was sharp or sweet, savoury or voluptuous, creamy or piercing. “Not like that” was all he could ever say to such inquiries. As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favour of tasting this miracle again; the child-like innocence of fruit, the labours he had undergone, the uncertainty of the future, all seemed to commend the action. Yet something seemed opposed to this “reason.” It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.
    – C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (the antepenultimate paragraph of chapter 3) ↩︎
  2. from the Latin vulgaris, volgaris (common, ordinary) or vulgus, volgus (of the common people) ↩︎

Let every ‘no’ be joined with a ‘yes’

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received about leadership – even before I was a priest (probably when I was in Boy Scouts!) – was given to me by my father. I don’t remember his exact words, but the essence was that even though I might have to say ‘no’ to something, that I should always try to offer some accompanying ‘yes’.

As a priest, this has proven invaluable in pastoral care. When someone wanted ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ for their loved one’s funeral Mass, the answer was clearly ‘no’ – but we sang it outside the church as we processed to the hearse. When a divorced-and-remarried couple wanted to receive communion, the answer was clearly ‘no’ – but we talked through the possibilities laid out in Familiaris Consortio #84 and how to best pursue marriage in the Church. When my choirs wanted the Mass setting to be chosen according to their (differing!) preferences, the answer was clearly ‘no’, but we talked about how we might incorporate their desires into a larger liturgical plan.

The examples could go on and on, covering any number of situations or groups. More than the actual options at hand, the effort to find a way forward – as well as the honesty of what the options were and weren’t on the table – elicited appreciation and respectful conversation. Things didn’t always end up happily, but the effort to find something to offer rarely goes unnoticed or unappreciated.

Ministering to those wounded by the Church

Over the last several days, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released two documents: a brief letter responding to a dubia (question) from a bishop and a significantly longer declaration (titled Fiducia Supplicans1). The letter was essentially an exhortation to not deny single mothers the sacraments (or tell them they must abstain). The declaration addressed questions around blessings, particularly blessing couples living in objectively disordered lifestyles such as same-sex couples.

The first document elicited no small amount of ‘why do we need this?’ from commentators as they expressed skepticism that anyone in the Church would so mistreat single mothers. The second document has inflamed an already-polarized debate, with folks on both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ side painting it as a change in Church teaching and practice.

Lost in all of this is the real hurt of our brothers & sisters that this is all meant to address. And I must admit, I might have been right in there with the unhappy ‘why do we need these?’ crowd not too long ago. But then I started encountering people – some of them faithful Catholics – who had been told by their priest that they couldn’t receive communion because they were divorced. Not subsequently remarried, mind you, but simply because they were divorced. One woman shared an awful account of how the priest stopped her during communion at a Sunday Mass to scold her and tell her she was not free to receive due to her divorce. She obediently stopped receiving – even as she continued to faithfully attend Mass every Sunday, albeit elsewhere. It was while waiting for her daughter to finish a First Holy Communion class that she spontaneously – and tearfully – shared her sorrow at having been unable to receive in the years (!) since that encounter.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with same-sex attracted individuals – some who were couples – who desperately want to just come to Mass, but were convinced that they weren’t welcome even to cross the threshold of the church. One young man offered how he knew God was calling him back to the faith, but he didn’t know how to even start since the Church clearly disapproved of everything about him and his boyfriend. He knew that he might – probably – would have to make some hard decisions about the nature of their relationship, but he desperately wanted to know if his efforts would be met with welcome or rejection.

Lest anyone think these stories are outliers, be assured that they are not. Whether in spontaneous conversation, the sacrament of Reconciliation, or hesitant request to meet, there are many (many!) more instances where folks – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – have shared how they have been hurt by laity & clerics of the Church in the name of Church, using Church teaching as the cudgel. Even when not done with malice (though it often was), these wounds have proven to be deep and lasting.

These people need healing – and we owe it to them to actively reach out and offer what we can to assist them in that healing.

The Gospel of the Lord

It seems to me that the reactions to these latest efforts of the Church are based on a desire to get what we want – though the desires of a given ‘we’ are often at odds with those of others. Some are anxious and angry that the Church might make Herself vulnerable to being taken advantage of and abused – Her teachings twisted to permit and bless sin. Others are anxious and angry that the Church might make them vulnerable to being changed and live differently – that Her teachings would impose expectations that they don’t want to meet.

This sounds pretty Christ-like to me! He ate with tax collectors, talked with prostitutes, and gathered a group of shmucks around Himself to become His Apostles. He lovingly – usually quite gently – called out those same tax collectors, prostitutes, and shmucks – even while sharing Himself with them.

The strongest critique I’ve heard of these documents is one that is just as easily applied to the words of the Lord Himself: that people will take them and twist them to their own purposes. This has the virtue of being true….. as individuals with free will we can choose to interpret and act as we decide. Touched by sin – often clinging to it! – many will do just that.

And yet, Jesus considered that risk one worth taking. He even gave up His life on the chance that if not all, at least some might choose eternal life.

Hermeneutic of charity

Around this time last year, Deacon Greg Kandra wrote a reflection titled “One key number for the new year“. In it, he spoke about number 2478 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which starts “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way”. Remembering those four numbers has helped me immeasurably over the last year – I am certain this will continue to serve me well in the coming years.

Does that risk us making fools of ourselves? We’d certainly be in good company! Thomas Aquinas, after being mocked by his brothers for rushing to see the flying pigs they claimed were nearby, legendarily said “I would rather believe that pigs can fly than believe that my brethren could lie”.

Charity doesn’t demand that we change Mother Church’s doctrine & dogma – quite the opposite, if we truly believe that She and Her teachings are given to us by the Lord for our fulfillment & happiness! In our approach to our Mother and to those who so deeply need Her ministrations, let us say ‘no’ without compromising charity while finding the ‘yes’ that affirms the truth. Let us approach each other – both those in the Church and those wounded by the Her – with hearts open to both the yeses and no’s that the Lord presents us.

  1. In English, the declaration is titled On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings ↩︎

In Memoriam: Pope Benedict XVI (2022)

Pope Benedict in Saint Peter’s square (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday, sometime around 9 am CET, our pope emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI, was called home to his eternal reward. At 95 and after years of faithful service, he has earned his rest – but we here on earth are poorer for his passing. As many have remarked, he is the last of a generation, bridging the gap between the pre and post conciliar Church with fidelity, wisdom, and grace. Though his contributions will continue to bear fruit in the Body of Christ on earth – and we will undoubtedly benefit from his intercession in union with the saints & angels in heaven – we are nonetheless poorer for his passing. He will be deeply missed.

Veneration of the casket of Pope John Paul II (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I was born under the papacy of Pope Saint John Paul II. He led the Church for so long that it seemed like he had always been and always would be around. When he died in 2005, the world shook – and me with it. Universally beloved, it seemed impossible that such a force for joyful faith could be gone. At Mundelein seminary at the time, as students and faculty alike immediately gathered together to offer Mass, praying as one. Catholics – and non-Catholics! – were united across ecclesial divisions in a common purpose: to thank God for and intercede on behalf of a beloved man who so wonderfully lived his first papal message of ‘be not afraid!’

Leading us all in our grief and our prayer was then-Cardinal Ratzinger. It made perfect sense, not only because of his prominence in the Church (having served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981) but because of his deep personal friendship with Pope Saint John Paul II. In addition to carrying his own grief at the loss of his friend, Cardinal Ratzinger stood before the world and led us through that sad goodbye. His homily was an inspiration, but it was his presence that made all the difference. Though he had been known as a staunch proponent of the faith – often compared to a bulldog by fans & critics alike – that day his fatherly heart was revealed.

So it was no surprise that when the conclave gathered for the prayerful discernment and selection of a new pope, he was tapped by his brother cardinals to succeed his friend after just one day of deliberations. On April 19, 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. I remember the announcement well, with many of my classmates gathered around the television in the rec hall beneath the chapel – a chapel, by the way, where the community Mass was being offered. I’m told that our cheering disrupted the Mass such that the rector simply paused his prayers, remarking that ‘I guess we have a new pope!’ and patiently waiting for the name to be shared with him – which he included in Eucharistic prayer of the Mass we had interrupted.

Pope Benedict XVI will always hold a special place in my heart. His faithful teaching – especially around the liturgy & worship of our Lord – continues to inform my practice of the faith and the work of my priesthood. He was a gift to the Church and we have been blessed by his generous lifetime of ministry. Thankful for all that he did and who he was, we commend him to the Lord, whom he served with such care.

Saints of God come to his aid!
Hasten to meet him, angels of the Lord!

R. Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.
May Christ, who called you, take you to himself;
may angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.
R. Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,
and let perpetual line shine upon him.
R. Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.

(during the Novemdiales – the traditional nine days of mourning at the death of a pope – consider joining in the Office for the Dead, which can be prayed at any time)

Further reading you may find edifying:

A Family for us all

The Holy Family with St. John the Baptist, by Lorenzo Lotto (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. It is a bit of a liturgical oddity – the rubrics tell us that it is to be celebrated on Sunday after Christmas. However, should a liturgical celebration of a higher rank – such as the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God – land on that Sunday, the feast is to be celebrated on December 30th.

The ears of liturgy aficionados will be perking up at this point, because normally when a solemnity lands on the day of a feast, it simply trumps it but not here. In the case of the feast of the Holy Family, the Church goes to great lengths to ensure that it is always celebrated, no matter what – and that should grab the attention of us all.

In celebrating Mass today, we get to the point of this celebration quite directly:

O God, who were pleased to give us
the shining example of the Holy Family,
graciously grant that we may imitate them
in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity,
and so, in the joy of your house,
delight one day in eternal rewards.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever

Collect for the feast of the Holy Family

That the human family – and the family as an institution – has been broken & suffering is news to exactly no one. The first family, even before they had children, involved rebellion, scapegoating, and deception. The birth of their children, inheritors of their original sin, eventually resulted in the first murder – one child against the other. Things got bleaker from there. Every single one of us is affected, with many painful wounds readily visible in our lives and others less visible, though no less impactful. This is true even in the best of families, despite the heroic virtue and genuine effort that so many families put into creating a good home.

We know that we need a savior, personally, but Jesus goes above and beyond individual healing (though that too!). Not satisfied to simply conquer sin & death, He formed an earthly model for new and renewed family life for all mankind – the Holy Family. They offer to us both an example and an invitation, an example to inspire us and an invitation to join them. This is true on the domestic and ecclesial level – individual families and the family of the Church alike are meant to look to the Holy Family for guidance.

The first step to healing is acknowledging we need it – this is sometimes the hardest step to take. With that done, however, we mustn’t simply dwell in our brokenness. All too often, we make the mistake of focusing solely or primarily on what is flawed or lost. The Holy Family offers us another way: a chance to enter into a holy relationship with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, be transformed into the kind of family member we are meant to be, and to help others experience the same. Let us focus on Jesus, and the family He built around Himself – His earthly parents and later, the Church. It starts with spending time with them, meditating on their lives together, and responding to the call to join in their relationship with each other, through the presence & love of the Lord.

If you’re interested in further reflections on the Holy Family, you may find these helpful:

Commemorating Saint Thomas Becket

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” – with these words, Saint Thomas Becket was condemned by King Henry II and martyred.

Murder of Saint Thomas, stained glass at the Cathedral of Canterbury (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to this, Saint Thomas had butted heads with the king by refusing to approve the his Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have removed the rights of clerics to be tried by the Church and appeal to Rome. Apparently, Saint Thomas was open to some kind of compromise as the king was, ostensibly, trying to address a real problem of corruption among clergy (conveniently grabbing power at the same time), but ultimately rejected the constitutions. This sent him into exile, fleeing to France for several years. Some time after he returned to England, he refused to lift censures he had placed on bishops that the king particularly favored – prompting the famous words above.

There is some doubt as to whether or not the king actually intended that his angry utterance to be a call for execution – both King Henry and Saint Thomas Becket were known for their fiery temperament, and willingness to express themselves freely. Despite the clashes between them in their positions of authority, they had had a friendship that had started many years prior – with the two of them even serving in war together. Nonetheless, four knights, upon hearing their king’s words, went to Canterbury and killed Saint Thomas Becket in the cathedral.

Today’s commemoration is the last of the martyrs celebrated during this octave of Christmas. Brother Cassian Derbes, O.P. at Word on Fire has a thoughtful reflection on the school of martyrdom. While we hope to never be enrolled such that we must suffer as the martyrs did, may we yet follow the martyrs example of faithfulness and commitment to Christ.

My friend Thom Ryng, having a particular love for Saint Thomas Becket, has taken a neat dive into the liturgical oddity of today’s commemoration (and has links to his reflections on the saint from prior years). I highly recommend his writing on Saint Thomas – and in general!

A wealth of Christmas feasts

Merry Christmas! I pray that these days of the nativity of the Lord are joyful, refreshing, and relaxing. After the four weeks of Advent preparation, it is wonderful to finally (!) celebrate the birthday of Christ and the beginning of His work of salvation in the world.

Like most – if not all! – of my brother priests, I spend the days immediately after Christmas recuperating from the holiday rush and visiting with family. It is a sad reflection of our current crisis of priestly vocations in the Church that this means many of our parishes simply shut down during this time. While this is understandable (priests are human too!), the vision of each parish having two, three, or even four priests is far from being realized.

Before continuing on, lets take a moment together to pray for priestly vocations and the young men who are being called to hear & answer the Lord’s invitation.

Stoning of St Stephen, altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As a result of the shortage of priests, most parishioners will not have daily Masses this week. And this is a real shame, because the first three days after Christmas are big celebrations! December 26th is the feast of Saint Stephen the Martyr, December 27th is the feast of Saint John the Apostle, and December 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Each in their own way, according to their own call, were close to the heart of Jesus. Saint Stephen is the first Christian martyr, which is to say, the first to have been killed in the name of Christ after His death & resurrection – professing His name and Gospel even as he was stoned alive for doing so. The second reading from the Office of Readings for this day, a sermon by Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe – is an extraordinary reflection on the relationship between Jesus, Saint Stephen, and his persecutors – especially Saint Paul.

Jesus & Saint John, the art Bible (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Saint John the Evangelist – the ‘beloved disciple’ – holds special distinction for his closeness to the heart of Jesus. Alone among the Apostles in not suffering martyrdom, he is set apart in Scripture as being especially close to the Lord. This is most poignantly illustrated in the accounts of the Last Supper, where he reclines against Jesus chest – a closeness to which we are all invited.

The Virgin and Child Surrounded by the Holy Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Though last in the order of celebrations, the Holy Innocents were the first to share in the suffering & sorrow of Christ – without knowing His name, they nonetheless died for Him and are the first martyrs of the Church. Their feast day calls to mind the many souls whose lives have been similarly cut short by the evil of abortion. They, too, suffer without knowing the cause – though they join the Holy Innocents in being received lovingly into the arms of our heavenly Father.

There are sorrows and consolations alike to be found in each of these celebrations. All now share in the Father’s joy, together with all the saints and angels. Each entered into the suffering of Christ, albeit in different ways according to the vocation given to them by God. While they may not have chosen the suffering they endured – indeed, so many were not given that choice! – the Lord ensured that their suffering was not in vain. And through Him, they suffer no more, instead enjoying His presence forever and interceding on our behalf.

As we continue through this Christmas season, may we ask their prayers on our behalf and on behalf of all the world. May we each embrace our vocation, with all its accompanying sorrows and joys, so that we by sharing in His life, death, and resurrection, we might win eternal life for both ourselves and others.

Last Holiday (2006) – the best Christmas movie ever?

In the field of Christmas movies, competition – and the war of opinions – is fierce. From classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to movies that fail to even mention Christ (looking at you A Christmas Story), a person can find any number of offerings to fill the holiday season. But after you’ve watched all the standard Christmas movies – yes, even Die Hard – I would like to recommend one that might have slipped past your radar when it was released some fifteen years ago.

Last Holiday movie poster (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Last Holiday is one of those movies that really shouldn’t worked. The writers basically rehashed a bunch of old tropes, added some ridiculous circumstances, and copy-pasted familiar caricatures of several types. It could easily have been a shoo-in for a Razzie Award, at least on paper.

What makes this a success, nearly single-handedly, is the pure charm and charisma of Queen Latifah in the character of Georgia Byrd, a saleswoman from Louisiana. The movie wastes little time establishing her as a caged bird, living life carefully portioned out while dreaming about possibilities that seem just beyond her reach. But after being diagnosed with a terminal illness guaranteed to take her life within weeks, she decides that there’s no time like the present to experience all that she can before the clock runs out.

I think it is fair to say that no new ground is being broken here. So well worn is this path that I can hardly blame anyone for taking a solid pass on the movie as described – as moviegoers did at the time of its release (it didn’t even recover the costs of making it, much less show a profit or gain critical acclaim). The trailer, by the way, misrepresents the movie so horribly that I found myself getting angry watching it before writing this. If you intend to watch this movie, don’t watch the trailer beforehand – or at all, frankly.

But really – and I’m not alone in my conviction – you should watch the movie

Here’s my pitch: Take a heavy dollop of the joie de vivre – particularly food-related – from Ratatouille‘s Remy1, add a generous helping of the fish-out-of-water situation of Pretty Woman‘s Vivian Ward, season with the down-home flavor of Louisiana culture & piety, and sprinkle with just a touch of the exoticness of a European Downton Abbey and you’ve got the base recipe. Set within it the fullness of the person of Queen Latifah, uncontainable but never overwhelming – embodying a person who you most want to be, or at least, want to be friends with, a person who knows who she is and what she wants even as she is held back by insecurities and limitations, though chasing them with an admirable humility and verve when finally set free from those chains.

For some, the movie may be cloyingly earnest, a touch on-the-nose, its conceit pushing just past the point of believability, and its resolution a little too neat. I would suggest that this movie is deliberately positioned to break through our cynicism. What is so delightful, so wonderful about Last Holiday is that even in addressing the most skeptical among us, it does so with the gentlest of rebukes and an easy smile – scolding not us but the insecurities & limitations that keep us from enjoying it, and life, while inviting us to rediscover the wonder of savoring the experiences and people that are right in front of us.

Last Holiday is rated PG-13. Though kept to a minimum (indeed, our hero has no patience for foul language), there are several swear words – at least one of which is a narrowly averted f-bomb. There is no nudity, though an extra-marital affair between two secondary characters is acknowledged (and satisfyingly, if belatedly, addressed).

For those looking to stream the movie, it is currently (as of December 2022) included with Amazon Prime (no ads) or to Paramount+ subscribers (with ads).

Christmas homily (2022) – ‘Nevermind all that’

Merry Christmas! May the celebration of the nativity of Christ bring you & your loved ones many blessings now and throughout the new year.

The short version of my preaching this Christmas is that I have been inspired by a parishioner’s approach to getting bogged down by the crazy of life, faith, and everything in between. Though particulars matter, very often they don’t matter at that moment, which he cuts to with a simple saying: ‘nevermind all that!’, before focusing on whatever is most important in the moment at hand.

It strikes me that Christmas may be a form of God doing the same for us. The particulars of salvation, the call to holiness, the weight of our sins and that of the glory that awaits us – all of these, though extremely important, are not the point. The point is this: God has come to us, to be in our midst, so that we might receive His friendship and – if we are willing – to offer Him ours.

There are plenty of related elements – some of which will rightly demand our attention in the near or far future – but for today, nevermind all that. The Word has been made flesh, God is with us, and He invites us to focus on Him, and what He is offering to us right now: a friendship that will buoy us up, provide for all our needs, and fulfill us. Start with that, and everything else will fall into place, with His gracious help.

Christmas Eve Mass (2022)