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November 2013, it turns out, has been the busiest month, in terms of visitors and views, in this blog’s almost-two-year history. That’s exciting to me, and much appreciated. So thank you for coming by, and come back often, if you like what you’ve found here.

Something else to consider, if you like what you’ve found here, is grabbing a book of mine. I think you’ll find that they provide engaging and accessible presentations of some pretty important and exciting aspects of Catholic faith and life. They’d make a great gift for yourself or for a loved one who’s itching to get to know these topics better. I’ve heard from Catholic reading groups who have enjoyed discussing them with one another. And teachers find them to be good classroom resources because they offer very reliable content presented in an accessible way.

There’s The Eucharistic Prayer: A User’s Guide, which Fr. John Thomas Lane, editor of Emmanuel magazine, called “scholarly, easy to read, pastoral, witty, very historical, practical, and helpful to a wide audience … on a very important topic.” This book explains why the eucharistic prayers we pray at Mass (yes, that’s “we pray” — not just the priest; we are not spectators for these prayers) are so central to Catholic living, what’s in them, and what they mean. Pope Benedict, on several occasions, emphasized how important it is for Catholics to understand better the eucharistic prayers. This is just the book to help you do that.

And there’s the still new Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching, which was, to my delight, chosen as this month’s U.S. Catholic Book Club selection. The president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the United States has called it “a great book,” and a gracious Amazon reviewer wrote, “I have never found a book about the great tradition and wealth of Catholic social teaching that is as practical and as easy to read as this.” At a time when our remarkable Pope is emphasizing Catholic social teaching in some exciting ways and when it is becoming a crucially important aspect of living one’s faith in society (as if it ever wasn’t!), this book is a timely resource.

Finally, I’ve recently translated a more scholarly work — Andrea Grillo’s Beyond Pius V: Conflicting Interpretations of the Liturgical Reform — from Italian into English for publication. Grillo is a theologian at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome. (I was a student of his there almost 20 years ago.) His book offers a look back at the origins of the reform of the liturgy that came out of Vatican II, notes its successes, and suggests important explanations for some of its failures. He also explores what the broadened access to the “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman rite provided by Pope Benedict means to the Church today. I enjoyed working on the book because Grillo’s approach is at the same time thoughtful, respectful, and critical.

You’ll find plenty more about each of these books here. I recommend purchasing them either directly from the publishers’ websites or from an independent bookstore. (In either case the purchase supports a small business; in the case of the publishers, or Catholic bookstores, you’re also supporting some wonderful Catholic ministries.) Such a purchase would also help support the family Hudock — nine of us strong and making our way by conviction as a one-income household — so thank you for considering a purchase.

(There’s more to come, by the way. I’m busy wrapping up another translation project these days, and then my next priority will be to finish researching and writing a biographical work I’ve had in the works for a while on the absolutely fascinating Fr. John Courtney Murray. I hope to finish the Murray book by mid-2014 in order to see it published in time to mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s historic Declaration on Religious Freedom, upon which he had enormous influence; that anniversary is coming in late 2015.)

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The Joy of the Gospel — thoughts on chapter one

Even as someone who has deeply appreciated and been excited by the ministry of Pope Francis, I must admit I reacted a bit cynically when I read Fr. Jim Martin’s take on the new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, posted at CNN’s Belief Blog: “In all my years as a Catholic, I cannot remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprising and invigorating. Frankly, reading it thrilled me.”

“Okay, Father,” I thought. “I get it. It’s a good document. But seriously, that’s a bit overstated.” (Like him, I have read a lot of church documents, and some are quite remarkable.)

Having now begun to read Francis’s new letter to the Church, with highlighter in hand, it is already (only one chapter in) entirely clear to me why Fr. Jim would write such words. It truly is quite stunning, if it’s to be taken seriously.

My free time left outside of work and family time is of course limited (I ended up putting the document aside last night, in favor of a family movie night, since the kids have no school tomorrow), and I don’t want to rush through it, so I’ve only read up to the end of the first chapter so far. Here are some initial reactions on the introduction and chapter one. Further comments to come, no doubt.

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To this lifelong Catholic, many portions of this document sound to me like one of those great sermons you hear from the local black Baptist preacher when you end up getting a chance to be at one of their services — plain-spoken, enthusiastic, personal, and relevant to real life — and you end up thinking, “Why can’t my priest preach like this?” Right from the start, with the Pope’s compelling call for “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus,” the document had me ready to listen and wanting to grow.

That’s not to say that other papal documents are not good or even great, but in almost every case homilists, teachers, and others in pastoral ministry are left to figure out how to “translate” the documents into clear and accessible language for the regular folks in the pew, because if we just read a paragraph to them from the document, eyes would immediately glaze over and little would be understood. That is not the case here! Someone forgot to translate this into “encyclicalese.”

***

It is absolutely true that this document is a decisive rejection of “business as usual” within the Church. Given it’s clear words and Francis’s own style, it’s hard not to come away with a sense that it’s time to question a lot that we have taken for granted in our ecclesial structure, culture, and style.

If you read or hear some of our most prominent Catholic “conservatives” make light of this document, if they make as though there’s nothing here that makes them nervous — you know, the “move along, nothing to see here” — either they have not read it or they are being dishonest. There is much here to cause anxiety for those who have made a career of defending every little doctrine, tradition, and practice of the church. In the first chapter alone, sections 11, 16, 22, 26, 27, 32, 40, and 43 stand out for this. (My oh my, does #43 stand out for this!)

***

The vision that Pope Francis lays out here is practically the diametical opposite of the “smaller, purer church” thinking that is often attributed to Pope Benedict (though I’m pretty sure that particular phrase comes from people interpreting or explaining Benedict, and is not his own) — that is, the thinking that in today’s secularized world, where so many people question or reject so many of the Church’s doctrines, we should accept the fact that we won’t have so many people, but at least those we do have will be the true believers, not infecting Catholic life and teaching with the poison of doubt and disloyalty. Pope Francis’s words could not be farther from that:

The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. (n. 47)

***

I recognize in Evangelii Gaudium a new expression of what I thought at the time that Pope John Paul II was really getting at when he originally called for “a new evangelization” (before it became a catchword in capital letters). I think this is what he had in mind. Not a resurgence of apologetics that demonstrate each and every doctrine, practice, and policy in a pat syllogism and that expose the errors of anything or anyone that does not fully support it all. Indeed, I suspect the latter approach is what Francis has in mind when he writes, “There are times when the faithful, in listening to completely orthodox language, take away something alien to the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, because that language is alien to their own way of speaking to and understanding one another.”

Rather, John Paul was trying to get teachers and preachers to “constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness” (n. 41) and who “[i]nstead of seeming to impose new obligations … should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet.” I’m afraid that’s not, in many cases, what we got.

Congar’s call: “a prophetic awareness of what it means to be human”

The Pray Tell blog has recently been featuring select passages from My Journal of the Council, the remarkable personal journal kept by theologian (and later cardinal) Yves Congar throughout the Second Vatican Council. Congar played a key role in the council’s proceedings; in fact, it might be true to say that he had more influence on what went on there and the documents the council produced than any other single person.

In the passage posted yesterday, Congar mused on a comment made to him by another participant at the council, that “one of the results of the Council, he believes, will be the emergence of a new kind of bishop.” This led Congar to observe that such a possibility would depend upon a new kind of “presence of the Church to the world.” That presence, Congar wrote, would need to come “not in the form of clerical authority but in the form of a prophetic awareness of what it means to be human.” (You can read the whole passage here.)

I love Congar’s phrase there, so pregnant with meaning: a church that possesses “a prophetic awareness of what it means to be human.” It’s a lofty calling.

It occurred to me that the phrase would have had great appeal to Pope John Paul II. He would surely have nodded vigorously and he would have commented that the church receives such an awareness only from Jesus Christ who — in a conciliar phrase that JP2 never tired of quoting — “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22). It is this awareness that Papa Wojtyla spent decades proclaiming to humanity with great urgency, reminding us of the moral courage and goodness, even the sanctity, to which it calls us.

And then I thought, Pope Francis would love the very same phrase, that call to “a prophetic awareness of what it means to be human.” And yet it would move his soul in a slightly different direction. Hearing it, Francis’s mind would turn immediately to what the Council called “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” (Gaudium et Spes 1). Papa Bergoglio has indeed made these realities his own, especially as they regard those on society’s or the church’s peripheries, those who have borne with difficulty the burdens of life and perhaps known more failure than success in their struggle for sanctity — determined to extend Christ’s compassion, welcome, and solidarity as far as it might go.

Different personalities, different instincts, different pastoral priorities — both desperately needed by all of us.

Christ the center

I have been a Catholic all my life and a “professional” Catholic, in one way or another, for much of my adult life. I have studied our history carefully and our theology deeply. I have lived and studied in Rome in close proximity to a pope known for dramatic gestures and historic decisions. I once held the microphone for Blessed (soon to be Saint) John Paul II as he presided at Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica, and I own a chalice he once used, in my presence, at a different Mass. In short, having been around and thought about these sorts of things for a long time (and realizing that much of it is just baubles and beads), I suppose, if I’m honest, it takes a lot to really and truly move me with “things Catholic.” But this morning, this (see photo at right) surely did it.

In terms of Catholic faith and life, it’s hard to get more momentous than this: Pope Francis cradling a metal box containing the bones of Saint Peter during the recitation of the Creed in Saint Peter’s Square, just yards from Peter’s place of martyrdom and his tomb, and just a few minutes before preaching to the believers and unbelievers, the saints and the strugglers gathered there that

[Christ] is the centre of all things, he is the beginning. God has given him the fullness, the totality, so that in him all things might be reconciled…. Christ, the descendant of King David, is the “brother” around whom God’s people come together. It is he who cares for his people, for all of us, even at the price of his life. In him we are all one; united with him, we share a single journey, a single destiny. Finally, Christ is the centre of the history of the human race and of every man and woman. To him we can bring the joys and the hopes, the sorrows and troubles which are part of our lives. When Jesus is the centre, light shines even amid the darkest times of our lives; he gives us hope, as he does to the good thief in today’s Gospel.

That’s a lot to take in and to ponder. But as I head off to Mass with my family on this Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, I surely, with awe and gratitude, shall try.

Rocco has the video and the full text of the homily here.

Francis’s Camaldolese visit: the U.S. connection

There’s beautiful video available now from Pope Francis’s visit earlier today to the Camaldolese Monastery of Sant’Antonio Abate in Rome. Beautiful prayer in a beautiful chapel, and beautiful words from the Pope about faith, hope, and the mother of Jesus (an initial report here). The event is part of the conclusion of the Church’s observance of a Year of Faith, inaugurated on October 11, 2012, by Pope Benedict XVI.

As Vatican Radio reports, there’s an interesting American connection to today’s event. The report refers to “the cell of a fellow sister [of the monastery the Pope will visit today] who died in 1990”:

She’s American born Julia Crotta who lived in seclusion for forty five years in this tiny space, sleeping on a wooden bed with a cross carved into it, participating in the monastery liturgies by peeking through a tiny window above the chapel, receiving communion through a cloth flap placed on the door and like the other sisters taking part in their production of little crosses made out of palm leaves for the Vatican. A charismatic figure, who took the name of Sister Nazarena, with reference to the reserved life of Jesus of Nazareth. And one whose reputation reached the ears of many, among them Thomas Merton. On Thursday Pope Francis will enter this cell.

The story of Julia Crotta is an interesting one. There’s more here at the Citydesert blog. A snippet from that post:

Not even her family quite understands why Julia Crotta undertook so arduous a vocation. She was born and raised in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Julia, her family remembers, was a cheerful, fun-loving girl with an aptitude for music. She studied violin and theory at the Yale School of Music, but left to take a four-year liberal arts course at New Haven’s Albertus Magnus College for women. “She loved life, dancing, good movies and good clothes,” says a brother-in-law.

After college, Julia taught violin and piano, worked in Manhattan. She was briefly engaged to marry, but broke it off and joined a convent of Carmelite nuns in Newport, R.I. The Carmelites were not strict enough for her; she left the convent and went to Rome, where a priest advised her to try the Camaldolese. In 1945 her abbess gave Sister Nazarena permission to attempt reclusion.