Bl. John Paul II was nothing if not enthusiastic. As one of my confrères recently observed to me, John Paul characteristically spoke in the imperative mood: Be not afraid! Be holy, as He is holy! Be fruitful, and multiply!
Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.
Thus writes John Ames, the main character in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. The novel takes the form of a lengthy letter written by Ames, an elderly Iowa pastor who married late in life and, struck with a terminal illness, faces the prospect of leaving behind his wife and young son. In the letter – intended to be read by the son long after his father’s demise – Ames writes the many things he would have liked to impart to his son had illness not intervened.
“Excuse me, sir. You’re not going to be able to pay for that.” His words flew like a dart. I was startled. My thoughts raced: “Is he talking to me?” I stood paralyzed. “It must be me.” My heart sunk.
“Sir, I don’t think you make enough money to purchase that.” The second time was harsher. Embarrassed blood flushed my face. I lowered my gaze and mumbled something apologetic as my feet carried me away to anywhere else.
We climbed out of the bus, and immediately someone said, And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem (Ps 122:2); a few steps later, through the Damascus Gate, it was true. I had been the ninth student to respond to my theology professor’s email which had said something like, “My wife and I are going to the Holy Land during fall break and the first ten students to write back expressing serious interest can come with us.” So it was that I went up to Jerusalem that morning, praying the Song of Ascents—Psalms 120–134—just as Jews of old did, generation after generation, as they traveled to the Temple for the three pilgrim feasts (although they didn’t pray them on a crowded Palestinian bus).
On Good Friday 1940, the Nazi SS Guards of Dachau Concentration Camp found pretext to punish sixty-some priest-prisoners with an hour on “the tree.” One former Dachau prisoner describes the torture saying, “They tie a man’s hands together behind his back, palms facing out and fingers pointing backward. Then they turn his hands inwards, tie a chain around his wrists and hoist him up by it. His own weight twists his joints and pulls them apart.” The barbaric aptitude of the guards of Dachau incarnated the demonic for the some 2500 priests condemned to incarceration in the camp during the years 1933–1945. Priests were crowned with crowns of barbed wire while groups of Jewish prisoners were forced to hail them as kings. Guards mocked, spat upon, and forced priests to carry railroad ties, all in imitation of the crucified Lord.
It was a Saturday afternoon in early July 2008. My uncle was walking around the house when a call came through on his cell. He answered to hear his friend’s voice speaking with a frightening tone, “Mark, I’m calling to say goodbye. You’ve always been a good friend to me…”
Today is Spy Wednesday, the day when Judas contracts with the chief priests to hand over his Master for thirty pieces of silver. It’s also the day when the Church holds the service of Tenebrae—Latin for “darkness”—in which she contemplates the various darknesses that will envelop her Lord in the coming three days.
One of the greatest musical settings of the service—Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories—begins with a prolonged meditation on “the mystery of the betrayal.” The liturgy portrays the treachery from three different angles, each time slightly recasting words that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper in the presence of his betrayer:
Baseball in the spring is full of hope. As the weather has, at long last, turned warmer, and a new season has begun, millions of fans of every team look forward with excitement and anticipation. While the players have not yet reached their mid-season form, the early games show a glimpse of the joy to come. Will the Red Sox repeat as champions, or will teams who finished in last place last year battle for the World Series title? The spring, and the prospect of a new chance for every team to taste the glory of victory, lead many to proclaim, at the start of each new baseball season, that “hope springs eternal.”
The phrase originates in a poem from eighteenth-century British satirist Alexander Pope:
In various ways, the Scriptures foreshadow the forty days of Lent. After the Exodus, the Israelites wandered forty years in the desert. For forty days they waited in the desert, while spies reconnoitered the Promised Land. And Jesus himself fasted in the desert “forty days and forty nights” before his temptation by the Devil. For us, the season of Lent is like a sojourn in the desert. In our penances, we take Jesus as our model and as more than our model. He is also our companion is the desert, and the reason for our self-denial. In the desert, he discloses himself and helps us to deny ourselves out of love for him.
This Lent the Brothers at the House of Studies presented a series of four conferences on the topic of being “in the desert with Jesus.” The first conference is a meditation on the temptation of Christ. The final three conferences consider how we can imitate Christ’s love of the Father, by making reparation for our sins and reordering ourselves to God. Specifically, these conferences treat what the Catechism notes are three eminent forms of penance: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (CCC 1434).
Listen to all the Dominican Lenten Conferences here.
Image: Vasily Polenov, Has Been in Desert
The Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria was one of the first Catholic Churches built in Russia. It is an old and large church located on Nevsky Prospect in the heart of St. Petersburg. Founded in 1710, the current building was completed in 1783.
The parish is dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of the then-reigning Russian Empress, Catherine II “the Great.” The patronage of St. Catherine of Alexandria would become very important. Just as this virgin was tortured and broken on the wheel by the Romans rather than give up the faith, so, too, would many Catholics in the early Soviet Union suffer for the faith. A book cataloguing the Catholic martyrs under the Soviet Union runs over 750 pages, listing all those priests, religious, and lay faithful, known to have been killed, suffered imprisonment, and/or sent into exile on account of the faith. The actual number of lay faithful that suffered under the Soviet regime is most likely higher, because religion may not have been the primary reason they were arrested.