Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Setting Priorities

A few things have coincided in my life lately that I want to share with you.

First, the weekend before last I was in attendance at the 5th annual Diocese of Charlotte Eucharistic Congress. While there I heard Imaculee Ilibagiza, survivor of the Rwandan genocide, speak on Our Lady of Kibeho (the only approved apparition on the African continent).

Her talk was very inspirational, peppered with many personal anecdotes. Imaculee has been many times in her life to Kibeho to be in the presence of such grace and to hear the visionaries. Once, when she was a student, she traveled to Kibeho when she should have been studying for a test the next morning. Imagine her surprise when one of the visionaries related a message to the gathered crowd from Mary, to the effect of, "I know many of you left work or school today without permission. But because you came to me, your Mother, I will take care of you."

Imaculee returned home late that night, intent on studying for her test. Exhausted, though, she went to sleep instead. The next morning, she only had one hour to study before class. Knowing there was no way she could read the 350 page text in that time, she instead opened to a random part of the book and read a 10 page section.

To her amazement, every question on her test came from those 10 pages she had read. And while she did not ace it, she passed the test. In fact, she related, she was one of only two students in the class to receive a passing grade. Our Lady had taken care of her.

I heard Imaculee talk about Our Lady of Kibeho on Saturday. So her account was still fresh in my mind the next Sunday morning at Mass, listening to a homily about the realities of Hell. The Gospel for the day was from the ninth chapter of Mark, where Jesus instructs us, quite bluntly, "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. it is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna... If your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna..."

Jesus is telling us that Hell is real, and it is a possibility that we may go there, if we do not repent, amend our ways, and follow the path He has set towards eternal life.

Father's homily pointed out the fact that God does not send anyone to hell -- we choose to go there, by rejecting Him. God has made His choice for us, revealed in Jesus Christ. God chooses life for us -- eternal life, in perfect and absolute happiness with Him. God's choice is made. We must also choose. Do we choose the life God is offering us? Or do we reject it? Jesus, in the Gospel reading, is warning us of the consequences of that rejection.

Father pointed out that the primary task of this life is to move towards God, to accept God, to live in love with Him, to be sanctified through Him, so that when we die we may live eternally with Him. I repeat, this is our primary purpose. All those other things that we seek after and hope to achieve might be good, as well. We need to work at our jobs, we need to study in school, we need to build friendships and have hobbies and all those things. These things are good and important. But none of those pursuits are our primary aims in life. Growing closer to God is.

This brings me to the third and final event that I want to tie into all of this. Last spring, I held a retreat for some students, the theme of which was "True Repentance." Repentance, I stressed to them, means reorientation. It means turning towards Christ, and away from whatever it is that is leading you away from Him. It it not necessary that repentance be a complete 180 degree about-face (though if you are living a life diametrically opposed to Christ, an about face is surely called for). But repentance can mean a smaller shift. If you are living your life aimed at Christ, and get off by even just a few degrees, pursuing that path will take you father and father off course the longer you maintain it. You need to reorient yourself back to Christ. You need to repent.

So I began the day by asking the students to give me examples of elements of their college life that serve as distractions from Christ; things they need to repent of. I was expecting the usual; sex, drugs and rock and roll. What nearly every student said, without exception, greatly surprised me. It was academic pressure. They get so much pressure from professors, advisors, and directors to do well that it is overwhelming. The assignments, the tests, the papers and exams all add up to a big pile of stress. Students are taking multiple classes, in effect serving multiple masters, each demanding 100% of their time.

And where is there time for Jesus?

All this adds up to a real need for us all -- and college students especially -- to examine our priorities. Are we really living as if heaven is our primary goal? I have no doubt that, if asked, most all Christians would agree that it is. The question is whether this is reflected in our lives.

I can tell you, without looking at a calendar, when mid-terms and exams are coming, because Mass attendance on campus goes down. People are not skipping Mass to go party or hang out with friends. They are staying home to study, or going to the library. More and more I hear this. "I can't come to Mass because I have a paper due." Or, "I'd like to come to the program, but I need to go do homework."

Now, studying is a good thing. And I suppose skipping Mass to study is preferable to skipping Mass to take drugs in a dark alley. But while studying is a good, and doing homework is a good, attending Mass is also a good. In fact, it's an obligation for us Catholics. And there is a reason for it.

We need to hear the Word of God proclaimed. We need to be in His presence. We need to offer him our praise and worship. And we need to receive Him in the Eucharist, the "source and summit of our faith," according to the Second Vatican Council, and "the bread of life" according to Jesus Christ Himself! Jesus said, "If you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood you do not have life within you."

One hour a week. That's all the Church is asking. Why? Because it is important. Because our main goal in this life is to be worthy of heaven so that when we die we may live forever with our Creator, enjoying the perfect bliss for which He has made us. That's why. Heaven is our main project.

Studying and academic achievement should be priorities for all college students -- important priorities. You are at university to learn, after all. But why? The purpose of education is simple and straightforward -- to come to understand the truth. But the thing we often forget is that god, the author of all truth, wants you to know Him personally, as well. We have an obligation to make God a priority in our lives.

Make academic excellence a priority. But make God a higher priority. You may find, like Imacluee, that making time for God and putting your faith first puts all those other concerns in perspective. The graces you will gain from putting your faith first will make all those other challenges easier to overcome.

When asked to attend a study group on Sunday, you should say, "No, I'm a Catholic. I need to go to Mass. It is not an option." You can find another time to study, to write your paper, or what have you. For that one hour each week (at minimum!) you belong in the chapel, giving adoration to God. It's every week. You know it's coming. Plan around it. Make it a priority in your college life to put your faith first.

That is, after all, our primary responsibility, our primary endeavor, and, indeed, the reason God made us. Eternal and perfect happiness. We all want it. Putting God first is how we will achieve it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why Gossip Is a Sin

People like to talk about other people. For some, it seems like their favorite hobby. Others act like it is their vocation! But we all do it to a certain extent. It is part of living in a society with others, in community with others. Human beings are relational creatures, so we need to live with others. But we need to realize that our words have the potential to harm those relationships, and we need to be especially wary of the sin of Gossip.

Gossip is when we relate personal or sensitive facts about another to a person who really has no business knowing them. And even if what we say is quite true, if we gossip we sin against the eighth commandment, not to bear false witness against our neighbor. And we also contribute to sin if we listen to gossip and take it to heart.

Consider the following excerpts from the Catechism.

"Truthfulness keeps to the just mean between what ought to be expressed and what ought to be kept secret: it entails honesty and discretion..." (2469)

"Repect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury..." (2477)

"To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way..." (2478)

"Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one's neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity." (2479)

"Boasting or bragging is an offense against truth. So is irony aimed at disparaging someone by maliciously caricaturing some aspect of his behavior." (2481)

And of course lying is the most fundamental offense against the truth. "It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity." (2485)

Sadly, many good people violate one or more of the above precepts on a daily basis, and brush aside the injustice as "mere gossip." But a "mere" sin is a sin nonetheless, and a violation of justice and charity.

Please think on these words from the Catechism the next time you are tempted to share that "juicy gossip," and ask yourself whether you are using your words to build up or break down your neighbor.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Some thoughts on liturgical music

If there is one thing that has a great potential for causing division among Catholics, it is the music of the local parish. Everyone has their own taste and backgrounds. Do you come from a parish with a full choir, decked out in robes, accompanied by an organ masterfully played? Or perhaps a a folk choir with guitar? Maybe you attend a "Life Teen" Mass with electric guitar, bass, and a drum kit. Maybe there is little music at all, beyond what two or three non-musically trained volunteers can put together each week. I'm willing to bet, however, that your home parish doesn't frequently feature Gregorian chant in their Sunday liturgies. Why is this?

Many think the answer is obvious. Didn't all that go out with Vatican II and the New Mass? Isn't it just now starting to make a come-back with the new allowance of the Old Mass (now called the Extraordinary Form) under Benedict XVI?

Well.... not exactly.

The truth is that Vatican II did have something to say about sacred music in the liturgy (more in fact, than any other council before it). But it's not what the average Catholic might think. Here's what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council said in Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 116.

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman
liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place
in liturgical services.

The Vatican II Fathers go on to say that other sacred music is allowed, so long as it is of a sufficiently dignified nature; the document only mentions one other type of music specifically by name, and that is polyphony. Polyphony is a Renaissance style of music combining many voices singing different texts into one unified musical whole (unlike Gregorian chant, where all singers sing with one voice).

So Vatican II did not mandate Gregorian chant (nor did any council previous), but it does give it "pride of place" in the liturgy. "All things being equal," it says, this is what you should be hearing when you attend Mass.

Now is a good time to introduce you to a book called the Liber Usualis. This volume was the book of Gregorian chant used prior to the New Mass (Novus Ordo). It contained many settings of the ordinary chants of the Mass (those for which the text is the same for each Mass, i.e. the Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, etc.), as well as the proper chants for the specific Masses of the year. This concept of "propers" is something that has been largely lost. Most modern Catholics are unaware of their significance, let alone their existence. But these are prayers that are particular to each Mass, and there are chants that are associated with them that have developed along with the liturgy for the past 1500 years. So, for example, there will be a proper introit (entrance antiphon) for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, and a proper communion antiphon, etc., particular to that Mass, which relates to the readings and general theme for the Mass. The Liber Usualis had all of that for the entire Church year. It was (is) a massive collection of the musical heritage of the Church. This is what the Vatican II Fathers had in mind when they said "Gregorian chant" should have "pride of place."

So if Vatican II speaks so highly of Gregorian chant, why don't we hear it at Mass? Well, as you may know, the Novus Ordo Mass did not come directly from Vatican II. The council called for a renewal and revision of the liturgy, but it did not give us the new Mass. That came later. Did Gregorian chant somehow get left out when the Novus Ordo was issued?

Let's take a look. The text that the priest follows when he offers the Mass is called the Roman Missal. And the liturgical norms for this liturgy are laid out in the document called the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, often shortened to "GIRM." In 2001 a new (third) edition of the Roman Missal, as well as it's Instruction, were promulgated by John Paul II (in Latin). The English translation of the Roman Missal itself is still in the works, but an English translation of the GIRM has long been available. Let's see what this latest Instruction has to say about music in the liturgy.

Well, paragraph 41 states:

All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is
proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular
polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided they correspond to the spirit of the
liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful

Sound familiar? It should. The footnote for this section cites Sacrosanctum Concilium, which we just quoted from. I should add, too, that by "participation of all the faithful" it does not mean that all the faithful should be able to sing along. No, the participation of the faithful at Mass is primarily one of prayer. Music that contributes towards a prayerful spirit among the faithful is aiding their participation. It really matters not whether the congregation can sing along.

There are some parts of the Mass, though, that the congregation is expected to say or sing aloud. In fact, the GIRM makes a point to say (still in paragraph 41):

Since the faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently,
it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the
Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, set
to simpler melodies.

So, when was the last time your parish all chanted the Creed in Latin? Enough said. Now, let's take a look at some of what the GIRM has to say about music for some other particular parts of Mass.

Starting at the beginning, regarding the Entrance, the GIRM states (para. 48):

In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the
Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Roman Missalor the Psalm from
the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting;
(2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song
from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of
Bishops or the diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or
metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the
Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop.

What does all that mean? Basically, the Church is presenting us with four options for music during this part of Mass. Either the proper antiphon for that Mass according to the official texts of the Church (the Roman Gradual and the Simple Gradual are essentially like the Liber Usualis for the New Mass), or the proper antiphon from another collection with Ecclesial approval (these would be texts such as the Gregorian Missal or the Anglican Use Gradual, the latter of which has all the antiphons in English translation). Barring all this, the fourth and final option is another "suitable liturgical song."

Now, I don't know percentages, but I'm willing to bet that in the majority of parishes across the United States, what you will hear on any given Sunday is the fourth option -- some hymn as selected by the choir or music director.

And this is, I think, one of the major reasons why we do not hear Gregorian chant, or know anything about "proper antiphons" in our culture today. Given the option not to sing or chant these texts, people have opted not to. And we have sadly lost a major part of our Catholic culture and tradition.

Paragraph 74 of the GIRM says that the Offertory chant follows the same norms as the Entrance chant (i.e. we have the same four options -- the last of which is "another suitable song.").

Paragraph 87 deals with music at Communion, for which (surprise!) we have the same four options. Paragraph 88, however, does allow for "a psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn" that could be sung by the entire congregation after the communion antiphon. But the first choice, once more, is for the proper antiphon for that particular Mass to be chanted.

In addition to these proper antiphons, there is also the Alleluia antiphon, which is mentioned in paragraph 62. Interestingly enough, no options are given here.

The Alleluia is sung in every season other than Lent. The verses are
taken from the Lectionary or the Gradual.

Period. No other source for Alleluia verses is given. But, probably because we have gotten so used to exercising our options in the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion music, we have made our own options where they do not exist, such as with the Alleluia verse.

I have, in my own experience, encountered even worse abuses. I have seen many integral prayers of the Mass replaced by "another suitable song" including the Responsorial Psalm, the Gloria, and the Agnus Dei.

The end result, unfortunately, of taking all of these "options" (even those we don't really have) is chaos. You don't know what you might encounter when you enter a parish church for the first time as a visitor. Will you be asked to sing from a hymnal filled with old classic Protestant hymns accompanied by an organ? Will you be asked to sing along with a "contemporary choir" using throw-away misselletes or "song sheets"? Or will you maybe, just maybe, get a chance to hear the traditional music of the Church, which is proper to the Roman Rite?

If you were a person whose only experience with Catholic worship was what you have read in the liturgical documents governing the worship of the Church and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, you'd expect to hear a lot of Latin, a lot of Gregorian chant, and to hear the proper antiphons for the Mass most of the time. You might think that you'd hear the occasional other hymn, perhaps after the proper Communion antiphon has been sung, or as a recessional hymn. (Which, by the way, you won't read about in the GIRM, because it really is not part of the Mass -- it occurs after the priest says Ita Missa Est. The Mass is ended!)

You would be very surprised, having read these documents, to discover parish after parish, and even cathedrals, where the music director's weekly job is to select four or five "other suitable songs" for the Sunday Mass. The proper antiphons are not even considered, if indeed they are even known about!

And I think this is the real key. Most music directors and choir members are well meaning people (in many cases volunteers) who simply do not know what the liturgical documents say, or that the Church has an ideal in mind when it comes to our sacred music, or that things such as "proper antiphons" exist at all. And this is a sad commentary. These documents are all readily available, many of them free on line (I've supplied links above in many cases). With today's information technology, there is really no excuse for those involved in music ministry not to be aware of what the Church expects of us in this regard.

And no, we may not be able to meet this "ideal" in many cases, at least not immediately. But it does present us with something we can strive for, a rule against which we can measure our own efforts.

As for me, personally, the more I learn about sacred music and study the liturgical documents, the less satisfied I become with the current model of "let's select four hymns for this week." I long to hear the tones of the proper antiphons, setting the tone (literally) for the Mass itself.

One day, perhaps, the ideal will not be so uncommon.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

March For Life

Today marks the 36th anniversary of the annual March for Life at our nation's capital, Washington, D.C., marking the date of the infamous Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, overturning abortion laws in all 50 states.

We have two students on our Catholic Campus Ministry peer council who will be marching in defense of the unborn in Washington today, and our prayers are with them.

Those students who are able, please join with these marchers, whose numbers are anticipated to exceed 200,000 strong, by participating in a prayer vigil at St. Mary's Catholic Church today in Sylva. The vigil will start at noon (as the March begins) with the Angelus, followed by Mass, and a pro-life rosary. The vigil will end at 2pm. Please come and stay for as much as that time as you are able.

I wanted to post today a link to a letter of invitation that the organizers of the March for Life sent to then-President-elect Barak Obama on January 15. It gives powerful reasons why the defense of unborn life is so important, and why we need strong leadership. We'll see what happens....
Click here to read the letter.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Upcoming series at the Student Center

Welcome to the Spring 2009 semester!  I sincerely hope that our returning students had a good Christmas break, and that new students to campus will come by the student center to introduce themselves.

This semester I am happy to announce that we will have an ongoing series about morality on alternate Wednesday nights, after our meal together.

Morality?  Sounds boring, I know.  Most people hear the word "morality" and they either think of "Thou Shalt Nots" being proclaimed from on high, or they think of some touchy-feely, fuzzy, whatever makes you feel good and doesn't hurt anyone else way of justifying our actions.  

The truth is that human beings are moral creatures, meaning our choices and our actions carry moral weight -- that is, when we excercise our God-given free will, those choices reverberate through eternity.  Serious implications, no?

Exploring the Catholic traditions on morality reveals that it is a science, one with a long and noble tradition, and it is a science really worth thinking about; and best of all, moral thought is accessible to everyone.  You don't need a special ethics desgree to make sense of it.

So I truly hope you'll decide to join us, as we learn about our moral traditions and explore the reasons behing all those "thou shalt nots."

Our schedule this semester will be:
Jan. 21: Ways of Looking at Morality
Feb. 4: The Natural Law
Feb. 18: The Moral Act
March 11: Conscience
March 25: Moral Absolutes
April 15: Sin & Grace
April 29: Applying to our Lives

This series will be part of our regular Wednesday meals together, and discussion is encouraged.  Hope to see you there!