Thursday, March 12, 2015

Raymond Arroyo is Coming to Town: Glimpses and Context

Even though I gave up posting on Facebook for most of Lent so far, I've recently started to weaken, and I have begun checking Notifications occasionally. I'm glad I did check today, because I saw a notice that Fr. Jeffrey Keyes, pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Church in Newark, CA, a half hour drive from where I live in San Jose, has arranged for yet another in a series of widely known Catholics to speak at his parish.

On May 1 at 7:30, Raymond Arroyo, author of five New York Times best sellers, and news director and lead anchor at Eternal World Television Network (EWTN), is coming to St. Edward's to speak on the topic, "Signs of Hope -- Padre Pio, Mother Angelica, John Paul II and other Modern Day Heroes."

In honor of Raymond Arroyo's upcoming appearance in Newark, I'm posting an article about Arroyo here that I wrote in 2006 after a phone interview with him.

During the interview, Arroyo spoke about how he came to work at EWTN, and about his then-recent experience in the previous August of losing his house near New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina ten days after the birth of his daughter and at the start of his book's publicity tour. He also spoke about how his biography of Mother Angelica somehow made it to the New York Times bestseller list in spite of its being eclipsed by breaking news, and how life lessons he learned from Mother Angelica helped him get through the ups and downs of it all.

In 1996, EWTN founder Mother Angelica recruited Raymond Arroyo to come to EWTN to establish its news department. EWTN beams Catholic TV programming in both English and Spanish via satellite all over the world from of out-of-the-way Irondale, Alabama.

I had first-hand experience of the reach of the network when I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2005 and met one of the priests from EWTN, Father Joseph Mary, MVFA, a friar of the order of men that Mother Angelica founded to spiritually support the network, called the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word. During a layover in the Amsterdam airport, Father Joseph Mary was recognized by a Filipino couple who were also passing through, and they asked me to take a photo of them with him. And in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, I was deeply moved by seeing some beleaguered Palestinian Catholics, who were suffering even then back nine years ago, and how much more so now, who eagerly came up to talk with Fr. Joseph Mary because they recognized him from seeing him celebrating Mass on the network. "What did they say to you?" I asked Fr. Joseph later. He said that they told him, "EWTN gives us hope."

Raymond Arroyo published a biography nine years ago about the network’s founder, Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, the abbess of a cloistered community of Poor Clare nuns. This spunky, outspoken, nun from Cleveland, Ohio, who was born Rita Rizzo in 1923, is known to millions of cable TV viewers as Mother Angelica. As the story goes, in 1986, Mother Angelica was a 58 year old cloistered nun in a monastery she founded in Alabama, who walked with crutches because of crippled feet and a twisted spine, and who had no broadcast experience, and only $200 in the bank, when she launched what turned out to be a Catholic media empire from a studio built on a spot that she had originally marked out for a garage.

The biography chronicles with surprising frankness her run ins with the American bishops who were seeking to establish a cable network of their own at the same time and who were displeased with one representative called “her type of theology.” Mother for her part was dismayed by the bishops’ programming that time after time emphasized dissent from traditional Church doctrines. The book describes a long battle with LA’s Cardinal Archbishop Roger Mahony about what Mother Angelica saw as his watering down of the truth of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

One reader of the book, Hilary Rojo, who directed the pilgrimage that I took to Israel, wrote me in an email from Loma Linda, CA, that she was shocked “at the revelation of truth. In the past, these types of exposes were only put in writing after the people involved in the conflict had died.”

What I discovered by reading this book is that EWTN is a shining witness to the ability of the Church’s true doctrine to triumph in the middle of a time when in many cases even the Church’s bishops had been misled and heresy had seemingly taken over. Mother Angelica’s book is a reaffirmation of the truth that if God wants a work to be done, He gives the ones He calls the power they need to accomplish His work.

“God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God” 1 Corinthians 1:27.

Mother Angelica is not the only cloistered nun who was called to do great things for His Church. Raymond Arroyo aptly compares her at one point to the great doctor of the Chuch St. Teresa of Avila. In both cases, these cloistered women (in what Mother Angelica called “the wrong state in life”) were able to found religious orders and lead people to holiness in the middle of times of darkness and moral laxity.

Arroyo’s book is titled aptly enough, Mother Angelica: A Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles.

EWTN 25th Anniversary Family Celebration in San Francisco

I first came in contact with Raymond Arroyo and Mother Angelica's biography on January 28 and 29 of 2006, when EWTN sponsored a 25th Anniversary Family Celebration at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. Many viewers from California and points further away flocked to see their favorite EWTN personalities. Arroyo gave a side-splitting talk about Mother Angelica and his book about her, replacing his usually more-sedate delivery as a newscaster with the rapid patter of a fast talking raconteur. But it also had its serious message mixed in with the jokes and patter.

"Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote the first encyclical about the nature of love. It’s the primordial creative power that moves the universe. Mother Angelica harnessed some of that energy. Mother Angelica said, 'I am convinced God is looking for dodoes. He found one: me! There are a lot of smart people out there who know it can’t be done, so they don’t do it. But a dodo doesn’t know it can’t be done. God uses dodoes.'

"Every major thing that God wanted her to do was preceded by suffering. When she started the network, she was 58 years old. She had diabetes. A twisted spine. You pay the cost to be the boss. She was following inspiration and the dictates of her spouse. The struggle. The cross. That’s her real story. Her life has become a parable. She wanted to reach people. She did what she did for love of souls, It was never about TV. For God’s sake, be a dodo!"

During a question and answer session after he talk about his book, I witnessed a telling interchange between Arroyo and a youthful looking great-grandmother from the audience that illustrated for me the easy, humorous, teasing way Arroyo has with women of all ages, which I'm sure he put to good use while interviewing Mother Angelica for the biography over a period of months.

Arroyo is a slender man with close cut black hair, very white skin, thick expressive black eyebrows, perfect teeth, and a 10,000 Watt personality. Think of a handsomer, more intelligent version of Pee Wee Herman in a very good suit. Others, including the Curt Jester have noticed the resemblance.

His questioner had long brown hair, a purple blouse, and a formidable personality of her own—which she exerted in trying to cajole Arroyo to tell her his age. Arroyo parried by exerting his own considerable charm and humor to try to pry her age out of her. He finally admitted to being 36, and the woman’s voice got softer.

She said, “You are very young, Raymond. But I am very impressed by what you have done at EWTN.” As she strolled away from the mike, he said, “I love you, darling” and applauded her retreating figure. Then he stopped and wagged his finger after her, “You never did tell me how old YOU were.”

One of My Visits to EWTN and the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament

I was serendipitously able to visit Alabama only because of a computer company acquisition. One morning I went into work at Cyclades, a start-up computer storage company in Newark, where I was working as a technical writer and found out that Cyclades had been acquired by a company named Avocent in Huntsville, AL. As the world turned, I was given the opportunity twice to fly to Alabama for training in their documentation processes. I would always delay my return so I could go to visit ETWN for the weekend.

Friday night June 2, 2006, I drove to Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) in Birmingham from 70 miles north in Huntsville, through heavy rain and thunderstorms part of the way.

Huntsville is where NASA builds space shuttles and then flies them to their launch locations piggy backed on a big jet.

Alabama starts getting prettier with rolling hills once you get south of Huntsville, which is comparatively nondescript. I was in Huntsville for training by the company that bought the Fremont CA company I worked for, so I stayed the weekend to visit EWTN and the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament.

The ordinariness of the EWTN grounds -- where the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word live and where the cloistered Poor Clare nuns of Perpetual Adoration that started the station under Mother Angelica used to live -- is an interesting contrast to the immense reach the station has.

It's also amazing that a cloistered nun could launch a world wide television network, as the story goes, with no broadcasting experience and $200 in the bank. Mother Angelica was originally inspired by how little it took to communicate to a huge audience when she went to a TV studio in Texas to tape one of her talks, which used to be aired on the same channel as the 700 Club.

As the EWTN news director, Raymond Arroyo, tells the story in his NY Times best selling bio of Mother Angelica, Mother Angelica said, "Lord, I've got to get me one of those." And so she did.

Located on a little campus in Irondale, north of the city of Birmingham, EWTN sees its mission is to show the beauties of the Catholic Church to the whole world and beams its programming in many languages from satellite dishes behind the station. The station covers all the major events in Rome, so that Catholics everywhere can feel more truly than ever before that they are "Roman Catholics." EWTN also has a mobile unit called Gabriel, after the archangel. Shortwave radio beams to where the TV satellite signals cannot reach.

The studios were locked up tight when I tried to get in after Evening Prayer in the chapel. Before leaving on my trip, I had tried over the Internet to sign up to see The World Over Live, but that show doesn't have a live audience.

I rang the bell, but nobody answered. Then I walked around to the back of the building chatting with one of several couples and individuals I met on the trip who said they moved to the area simply to be close to either EWTN or to the shrine. A blond middle-aged woman got out of her car in the back to go to work on the show. I greeted her and told her I had interviewed Raymond Arroyo and said I had been trying to get a hold of him to find out if I could come in and watch the show. I sent my card in with her, and she gave it to Arroyo, and then to my delight, he sent someone to bring me in.

And so it happened that I was an audience of one sitting in a chair about 6 feet away facing the set. When Arroyo came in, a slightly built man, kind of a handsomer, more intelligent version of Pee Wee Herman in a very good suit, he shook my hand and said, "We finally meet." And "You broke in, eh?"

I attribute my getting in to a few well-timed Hail Marys.

The first part of the show was taped, so Arroyo sat there watching himself do a series of quick reports on the Catholic news happening around the world, including a short about a women "priest" illicitly saying Mass in San Jose. He referred to the woman as "Father, or is it Mother? " so and so.

After that bit was over he told me he was bilocating (since he was sitting there watching himself). I said, "That's evidence of the high state of holiness you have achieved, Raymond." One cameraman laughed, and Arroyo went "Uh huh, Uh huh!" (All tongue in cheek of course.)

The rest of the show consisted of Arroyo interviewing the good bishop of Orlando about immigration, contrasting the National Council of Catholic Bishops' position about illegal aliens with a snippet from an earlier interview with Pat Buchanan who said these people are illegally taking over our country. The bishops are saying "these people" are Christ. If you ask me I'll tell you which side I'm on.

That night I stayed at Casa Maria, a large peaceful retreat center run by an order of sisters that was founded by Mother Angelica but broke away. (The story of the split between the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word and Mother Angelica is in the Arroyo book, but one of the sisters, friendly Puerto Rican Sister Ave Maria told me, "Reporters can write whatever they want, but what Arroyo wrote isn't accurate." Hmmm.)

The sisters are beautiful smiling women in full habits. I ran into them taking their large fluffy German Shepherd mix dog for a walk, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying ladders and bringing in supplies from WalMart. Sister Ave Maria posed for a photo for me wearing plastic goggles, a floppy straw hat, and an apron over her habit, armed with a bug sprayer pointed at a tree. What a cute photo that ought to be.

I met one young red headed sister, Sister Rita Marie from Boston and another young beatifically smiling sister, Sister Marie Francesca, from Mississippi, who told me she joined the order because the Holy Spirit hit her over the head with a 2 x 4.

The rooms at the center are big and modern and only cost $30 a night! What a bargain.

Saturday morning at 6 am I was in the Our Lady of the Angels chapel for Morning Prayer with the friars and then for the televised Mass at 7 a.m. As it turns out, I was in the back row on the side of the room far from the cameras, so the only time I was on TV was when I went to the front for Communion.

Later that day I went north to the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament. One tourist flier for the Cullman area said the shrine is the biggest tourist attraction in Alabama these days.

Part Two

Sunday, the Pentecost Mass at the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville Alabama ended with the cloistered nuns behind the gold leafed reredos (altar piece) singing in a high soprano like angels "Regina Coeli Laetare. Allelulia! Quia quem meruisti portare. Alleluia! Ressurexit sicut dixit. Alleluia!"

I cried. I love that hymn so much. But then I almost always cry in church.

Queen of Heaven rejoice.
He who you merited to bear.
Has risen as He said.

We won't be hearing it again until next Easter season.

Those of you who haven't read Raymond Arroyo's bio of Mother Angelica might not know that she built a 55 million dollar shrine to the Blessed Sacrament about 70 miles north of EWTN in the Alabama countryside. The shrine was paid for by five families, and it is gorgeous. Mother Angelica saw a vision of the child Jesus tell her to build him a temple and was puzzled because she had never heard of a Catholic temple. Then she saw an inscription at St. Peter's in Rome referring to St. Peter's basilica as a temple, so she understood better what was being asked of her. At first she tried to build it with simple materials but the donating families wanted only precious materials to honor the Blessed Sacrament, which EWTN believes is being dishonored in so many Catholic churches around the world.

You reach the shrine by driving along a winding country road lined with miles of white fences in the lush green Alabama countryside. At the end of the road is a large wrought iron gate topped by angels.

On the other side of the gate, you see what looks like a huge basilica with a vast open courtyard in front. The inside is all gold and marble, and on the altar is the second biggest monstrance in the world. (For those who don't know, a monstrance -- from the Latin "monstrare -- to show" -- is a stand made of precious materials and used to display the consecrated bread that is the Body and Blood of Christ.)

The shrine is now Alabama's biggest tourist attraction. Us orthodox Catholics see it as a powerful witness for what Pope John Paul II called the new evangelization, and it's powered by prayer.

Mother Angelica and her nuns are Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration and they take turns to pray constantly in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I got to share in Morning Prayer, Office of Readings, Daytime, Evening, and Night Prayer while I was there and to attend the Mass of Pentecost and say the Divine Mercy chaplet at the shrine.

Being the shy and retiring type, I walked up and introduced myself to Deacon Bill Steltemeyer, chairman of the EWTN board when I saw him in the entryway. I told him I had gotten in to see Raymond Arroyo's show the previous night even though they don't have an audience. And I told him that I had a feeling that the next thing was that I would be able to see Mother Angelica, He said it was impossible.

He told me she only gets out of bed around 11 a.m. and eats a very little, and then has to go back to bed because that uses up her energy. She continues to pray for the network, its viewers, and all the visitors. But, she has no memory, Deacon Bill said.

The owner of the St. Therese guest house where I stayed told me that Mother Angelica was singing at her 83rd birthday party last month, wearing a sombrero over her veil, but she is nearing the end of her life.

Raymond Arroyo told me in our interview a few months ago that Mother Angelica is joyful at this time in her life when she has barely anything to do with the network. His book tells how other sufferings in her life seemed to always precede success for the network, but these sufferings are different, he said. "How are they different?" I asked. "They are for her purification."

I hung around for a while thinking I was maybe going to beat the odds again and get in to see Mother Angelica like I had gotten in to see the World Over Live. I half-expected a summons to come from the cloister, but one never came. Can't trust those feelings all the time, I have to conclude.

It's One Long Purification: What Mother Angelica Taught Raymond Arroyo

In honor of Raymond Arroyo's upcoming appearance at Fr. Keye's St. Edward Parish in Newark, I've resurrected an article about him that I published in May 2006 after I interviewed Arroyo by phone from his home. Also see this post
Raymond Arroyo is Coming to Town: Glimpses and Context.

I originally did the interview for the National Catholic Register, but the editor sat on it for so long that I eventually published it at San Francisco Faith newspaper. I can't provide a link to the published article any more, because the archive is no longer available. So here is the interview as I submitted it before it was edited. The final title was "It's One Long Purification: What Mother Angelica Taught Raymond Arroyo."

Mother Angelica’s Biography, and Some Lasting Lessons It Taught the Man Who Wrote It

Between mid August and early September 2005, Raymond Arroyo, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) news director and author of Mother Angelica: The Amazing Story of A Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles, endured a dizzying variety of life changing events.

First came a blessed event, the birth of the Arroyos’ third child and first daughter, Mariella. And less than two weeks later, articles in several national publications were reporting how Arroyo and his family got swept into a disaster of cosmic proportions when Hurricane Katrina hit their home.

On Friday night August 26, 2005 Arroyo was rendered sleepless and restless by a premonition, and on Saturday August 27, Arroyo and his wife, Rebecca, grabbed everything they could fit into their car, took their ten day old baby girl, sons Alexander, 6, and Lorenzo, 2, and his mother-in-law, and fled their home near New Orleans. When Katrina hit Louisiana, against all predictions, everything they had left behind was swept away.

When reporters talked with him in September, Arroyo’s was thanking Mother Angelica, both for taking them into a guest house at her monastery after they lost their home and for life lessons that helped him make it through it al.

The string of stressers continued. As Arroyo later told the story at the EWTN 25th anniversary family celebration in San Francisco in January, 2006, Doubleday had lined up a string of talk show appearances in New York in conjunction with the book’s release on September 6, but, breaking news bumped Arroyo off the shows. The book seemed doomed.

Then Doubleday called at the end of the week to tell him that the book had, somehow, made it to the New York Times Bestseller list where it stayed for four weeks. “”Four weeks,” Arroyo exclaimed. “A book about a nun!”

The book held for months on the Publishers Weekly Religious Bestseller List and [when this article was written May, 2006] continued high on the Catholic Booksellers bestsellers list.

The book’s continued healthy sales were remarkable, because, as a recent Publisher's Weekly article stated, “getting on the charts is hard, staying on is even harder."

Q: You mentioned in your talk in San Francisco that the week before your book came out that you had to evacuate your home. How did that come about?

A: I was at EWTN on a Friday night doing the show. I rarely have trouble sleeping, but I did that night. And I woke up and was flipping the channels on the television. The weather channel showed a projected path for Katrina. And it was going over Florida and at that time they were expecting it to turn toward Missisippi or Florida. Again it was Friday and it didn’t hit until Monday.

But the way it was coming across Florida it was exactly like Camille [1965] and Betsy [1969]. I didn’t live through those. But they were devastating to New Orleans and that whole Gulf Coast to Biloxi, lots of the areas that were hit this time.

I got on the Internet and I pulled up the paths of Betsy and Camille, and they looked very similar. So I called my wife at 3 a.m.. and I said, "Look I’m coming home tomorrow. I’ll be home at 9 o’clock. Pack the kids up." She said, What are you talking about?" I said, “We’re going to leave. We don’t want to get caught in the traffic once this thing hits."

She said, "But there’s no evacuation here. It looks like it is going to go towards Florida."

I said, "Well, honey Let’s just go. Worse case scenario we’ve spent three days on vacation."

So she packed the kids up with about three or four days worth of clothes. Her mother was there with her because the baby had just been born. And we took the car. I threw my suits and whatever I could pack into a bag. And we grabbed the important papers. [In the house,] I put whatever we could up high up. We put grabbed some videos and pictures. And we got out of dodge. That was it. The flight to Egypt. Or to Birmingham.

So then we had nowhere to go. Then I called the nuns and they let us stay at the guest house.

Q: Where is your family now?

A: In Birmingham, for the moment.

Q: Where are you going to settle down?

A: We don’t know yet. There’s a good chance we’re going to move to Northern Virginia outside of D.C. Rebecca and I were married there. We have a lot of friends there. There’s a wonderful Catholic community.

Q: You’re having to keep up with your role as the news director and anchor on "The World Over Live", also traveling to promote the book, while starting your life over from scratch. How are you juggling it all?

A: I’m living in Mother Angelica’s present moment. She had this idea, don’t cling to yesterday. Don’t concern yourself with tomorrow. Just live in the moment that God is calling you to right now.

It’s a cute idea. [He laughs.] But practicing it is difficult . . .. You do learn to do it though. It’s sound advice. I will tell you. It has really gotten me through this whole period. There is so much coming at me between special events in Rome, the weekly live show, a cycle of illness in our home. Rebecca lost a grandmother . . ..

All of this while the book inexplicably went forward. It is still doing what it’s supposed to do. But we’re all paying the price here.

Q: You emphasize in your book that every victory at the network was preceded by suffering.

A: That is the center of Mother Angelica’s life. I think it’s the center of every human’s life. The trick is learning to understand it, and not letting it frustrate you or throw you off the path. That’s hard. But it can be done. And that’s what she’s taught me.

We had the baby, Katrina hit, and six days later the book came out. I proceeded with the book tour. And it hit the New York Times Bestseller list.

And it’s still a force, still selling. People are buying it and are passing it on. It’s amazing the ripples of the story as it moves out, as people realize what this woman went through, who she is really beyond the television personality.

With this book tour I was able to connect with Mother Angelica’s entire extended family. Few people have her kind of influence.

I met a couple who were on drugs and they were just killing themselves, until they came across Mother Angelica one evening. Connecting their own dysfunctional background with her hurting and her pain and her difficult background was the bridge for them. Through that they were introduced to the whole Catholic enchilada. They found redemption, and they found peace and a way to battle their addictions. I was really quite touched.

It also helps me get through this period to see to see what people are going through. Losing a house isn’t such a big deal.

Q: I read somewhere that you said it’s purifying.

Katrina means purification. Heh! Her work has been very slow in New Orleans, I might add. But certainly in the lives of so many friends and in our lives, it’s one long purification. I’ve been living through Lent since August.

There is something freeing about all this. You’re detached from all the stuff you thought you needed. We have the kids. I got a few books out. My Sinatra collection . . . . Everything we need we have.

Q: You wrote about how when Deacon Bill Steltemeir [EWTN Chairman] first saw Mother Angelica, he started hearing “Until the day you die" every day for a month until he drove down from Tennessee to see her. Was there anything like that with you?

A: Nothing quite like that.

I came to do a profile on Mother in 1995. Early in ‘96, she asked me to start a news operation. “It’ll be good for your soul.”

My wife and I were ready. I was covering politics at the time. Politics is a shifting animal, it’s like sand. Yesterday’s hot story is tomorrow’s has been. It’s ephemeral.

Q: You write and speak a lot about Mother Angelica’s life as a parable that shows that God can do great things through you if you cooperate with Him.

A: If you are open to where He’s taking you to. In Mother’s life also you see these great illnesses and sufferings that presaged any major growth for the network. That’s what happens in all our lives. You go through purging experiences, whether they be illness or loss of a loved one or some traumatic event—like the loss of a house.

It prepares you for the next thing He wants of you. It’s a horrible time. Horrific. If you have the faith to cling to the bark like a little baby, if you keep walking, there is this great thing ahead. You have to go through this because you’re not ready for it.

Q: Would you have had those thoughts before you came to EWTN 10 years ago?

A: No. She was right. I came down and joined the network, and it was good for me spiritually.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Amazing Online Breviary at

Divinum Officium ( is absolutely the best website I have ever seen for the traditional Breviary. Hard-to-use design makes my hackles rise, but this site is so well done, easy to use, and complete that even I can't find fault with it. I think it's a treasure.

The default language option is English, which brings up Latin and English side-by-side. I began to be curious about why the three language options in a pull-down menu at the site used to be Latin, English, and Magyar.  Only recently did I discover that this beautifully organized, option rich, and brilliant work was developed and maintained originally by a Mr. Lazlo Kiss. Kiss was a computer engineer who was born in Budapest, Hungary. That explains the Magyar option. 

During Mr. Kiss' lifetime, there was no information about him or the origins of the site to be found on the site. But, after Mr. Kiss's sudden death in 2011, the site was taken over, maintained, and expanded  under the auspices of "The Divinum Officum Project," by a diocesan priest and three software engineers. Since then, they added information to the bottom of the page that describes the site's origins and makes it clear what a prodigious amount of effort Mr. Kiss single-handedly put into the site. When he retired, according to the brief biography now available, Mr. Kiss dedicated his time to provide "free access to many different versions of the Divine Office (or breviary), the traditional daily prayer book of the Roman Catholic Church."

Left: Italiano and Deutsch have been added to the language list.  
One thing that amazes me is that you don't just have to settle for one version of the Office.  Options range from "pre Trident Monastic," through "Rubrics 1960" [which the Institute of Christ the King uses and so do I], through 1960 Newcalendar. The Credits link brings up a page that details which sources were used. 

Deo gratias for this amazingly useful and useable work of programming and user sensibility that was selflessly done, as the current authors of the page have written, for the goal of  "promoting the worship of the Triune God through the Divine Office."
The start of Matins for today's feast of S. Stephani, Protomartyris (St. Stephen, the first martyr). 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Christmas Eve I Met St. Francis in Assisi

Natale in Assisi
Christmas Eve Day 1999

The Assisi tour had not originally been on our itinerary. Our pilgrimage leader had squeezed it in at the last minute. We arrived in Assisi mid-morning, and due to our guide's too-tight scheduling, we had only a few hours before we would need to leave again. Our hotel, the Michelangelo, back in Rome about two hours drive away, was preparing a traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and we needed to be there in time to eat it and then walk the few blocks to St. Peter’s for the evening’s main event and the focal point for my long-planned trip to Italy -- the opening of the Holy Door and Midnight Mass to inaugurate the Holy Year, the Jubilee 2000.

Even though our stay in Assisi was brief and botched and harried, I still remember it as a high point of my life. Especially because, even after such a short visit, I feel that made the acquaintance of Francis, the patron saint of Assisi from the 13th century. So much so that every once in a while, I still think his name as I would that of a beloved friend: “Francis,” “dear Francis.”

Our first stop was just outside of Assisi, at the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where we got out of our motor coach to visit the basilica of the same name. The area is called the Porziuncola, or little portion. St. Francis and his monks used to worship in a tiny chapel called Saint Mary of the Angels (which is what Santa Maria degli Angeli means in Italian). And they had lived close by in primitive little huts.

We stood together outside in the cold for a few minutes while our leader made arrangements about something or other with someone inside the basilica. A few of us drifted off to get something hot to drink.

Around the little traffic circle where we waited there was much to see. A chubby 60ish Italian woman on a bicycle wearing a kerchief and a trench coat waited for the light to change .

A manager scene was set up in the middle of the traffic island. Since it was the day before Christmas, and since it was St. Francis who first conceived the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus by reproducing the manger, naturally we saw several mangers in Assisi, including a life sized one that took up much of the city park.

In an earthquake in Assisi in 1997, interior walls in both St. Mary of the Angels Basilica where we were waiting to get in and in the Basilica di San Francesco (Basilica of St. Francis) crumbled. By the time of our trip, restoration had been almost completed on both basilicas.

But the reconstruction was not quite done. In the area in front of St. Mary of the Angels, fences of orange netting surrounded piles of pieces that had not yet been restored to the fallen walls. And even though there was no evidence visible to the tourist, thousands of people left homeless by the earthquake were just getting by in temporary housing for many years later.

We couldn’t take photos inside the basilicas, but I can tell you that once we got inside St. Mary of the Angels, we found a surprise. Dwarfed in the middle of the floor of the huge basilica stands the tiny little chapel (now richly decorated) where St. Francis worshipped with his monks. A few yards away is the even smaller Chapel of the Transition, built later around the hut where St. Francis died. When he knew he was about to die, he stripped himself naked and laid on the bare ground covered with a borrowed cloth, wanting to keep faith with his beloved Lady Poverty until the end.

What would he think of all the splendors of marble and art erected in honor of his memory? I wondered. I know I am not at all original in noticing these contrasts, but they stayed on my mind as we got back into the tour bus and rode up the long hill to Assisi.

It is an understatement to say that in the middle ages cities prized their saints. The Catholic Encyclopedia (in the online 1907 edition) records that during Francis’ last days, the city fathers of Assisi dispatched strong guards with him wherever he went, to prevent his body being stolen by Perugia, a rival city, “which would thus enter into possession of his coveted bones.” Francis told his followers that he wanted to be buried in the Colle d’Inferno, a hill outside the city where criminals were executed. Did they listen? The answer came with the sight of the double basilica as it came into view at a turn in the road. Obviously not.

In 1236, ten years after Francis’s death, one basilica was built followed later by another basilica built on top of it, and together they make up the impressive building we saw that day. The basilicas were built to accommodate the huge throngs that came to honor Francis, whose bones are now in a crypt beneath the lower basilica.

We rushed up from the parking lot into the lower basilica. Before we went to the upper basilica, some of us did a detour when we saw a sign leading to the crypt.

St. Francis’s bones are in a simple wooden coffin above an altar on which many long white tapers are burning. I dropped a donation into a slot, and then I stood in line with others to lay candles for each of my relatives and some friends in a basket at the altar. A monk at the desk to the left rises every so often looking bored, and he blows out the current set of candles, replacing them with others from the basket.

It was a relief to pause and kneel there peacefully for a while close to the physical remains of the holy man of Assisi and to pray. That's when I was surprised to feel I was present with him; in some indescribable gentle way, he became my fast friend at that instant. From what happened in my heart there that day and the similar feeling of meeting that occurred when I got close to the bones of St. Peter on another day on the same tour, I came to glimpse why the Catholic Church has so much veneration for relics of dead saints. Twice in my experience, being close to the physical remains of the saint brought me close in spirit to the saint himself.

At the museum at the crypt next door to the chapel is another striking relic, one of the actual patched robes that St. Francis wore. Two donation boxes stand at the door of the museum, one for the restoration of the art works, one for the housing of those left homeless by the quake. I left more money in the second one.

Our group regathered in a nearby cafe for a quick snack and a brief introduction to our local guide. Everyone was surprised that I ordered gelato, but that was my first and it turned out to be my only chance to try the authentic Italian iced treat. Public opinion was right this time, the cold gelato did not sit well with the cold of Christmas Eve.

Once we left the basilica, we saw hardly any other tourists. We trooped behind the local guide through picturesque cobbled narrow streets to the main square, where we peeked into the Temple of Minerva from the time of Augustus, now covered with a church called Santa Maria sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva). We walked past a prespe, a life sized manger scene in the town square.

As we walked around, local passers-by and our guide greeted each other with the Italian Christmas greeting, “Buon Natale. Buone Feste. Tanti Auguri.” which, loosely translated means, “Happy Christmas, Good Feasts, Good Wishes for the New Year.”

Above one doorway was a Madonnina, little Madonna. We saw many many of these images on the streets and corners in Italy, all different and all beautiful in their unique way.

After we parted with our local guide, our pilgrimage leader told us we could go shopping and to meet her back at the bus in an hour.

My son found a little shop that sold address books and sketchbooks made from hand-made paper and called me in because he knew I'd like it too. After a while he went out to look at something else. When he came in again to find me (he told me this later), I must have been in the back of the shop, and he didn’t see me, so he left again, and then we lost track of each other.

After I emerged with some gifts, I strolled with my camera in hand, stopped at a few more shops, where I was always the only customer, always heading back down the hill towards where the bus was parked. At the chamber of commerce I met a nun whose order runs a guesthouse, whose business was only just then picking up again after the quake. We both got a free poster there, my favorite souvenir. The poster shows the basilica and the ancient forts above the city against a blue and starry sky. Natale in Assisi, 1999, it says: Christmas in Assisi, 1999.

My progress was slow, because my feet hurt, because my path was down very steep streets, and because there was always another photo to take.

I wasn’t sure of the time because I didn’t have a watch, but I thought I was doing all right. I also thought I’d run into my son any time soon.

When I did catch up with my son again, I was standing at a fork in the road at the bottom of one steep street. I was wavering about which of two possible even steeper streets would be the right way down to the parking lot.

My son was frantic. It was 10 minutes past the hour. At 5 minutes past, the pilgrimage leader had announced to everyone in the bus that she would give me 5 more minutes and then leave without me.

It goes without saying that the ride back to Rome was tense. The leader was pouting because she had had her heart set on squeezing one more stop in, at a chocolate factory, and my tardiness had foiled her plans. Everyone was mad at me. I guess they wanted to stop at the chocolate factory too. I was sorry that my dawdling had made my son upset, but I was mad too, at the tour leader and at the mad rush she was putting us through that day.

Just for the drama of it, I sometimes try to imagine what it would have been like to have been stranded as a stranger in Assisi on a cold Christmas eve with very little Italian and no way to get back to Rome.

But of course, that didn’t happen.

The sunset over the Umbrian hills was gorgeous.

Back at Rome, we rushed some more. We rushed to dress before dinner, rushed through the dinner, greatly offending the waiters who watched us with disdain while we gulped the specially prepared food for Christmas Eve and rushed out the door. Then we rushed to St. Peter’s Square. And then we waited.
Our leader had assured us we had tickets to be inside the basilica for the Mass, but the day before the organizers had told her that the seating was first come first served. After more than an hour in line with thousands of others, we finally got directed into seats outside, after all. At least there was no more rushing. We stayed right there in the same seats in the chill night air until the mass was over at 2 a.m. on Christmas morning.

We could see the ceremonies that were going on inside on giant TV screens near the Holy Door. We actually saw much more than we could have seen if we had been inside. At one point, the Pope walked past the open door, and then stopped and waved to us all outside. The 40 degree temperatures and discomforts didn’t matter. We all cheered.

I didn't even mind very much that I caught the flu and spent several days during the next week in bed in my hotel room. I could hear the bells of St. Peter's as I drifted in and out of a fevered sleep.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Delaying Gratification for Deeper Joy

I only learned within the past ten years about how the Advent and Christmas seasons have traditionally been observed in the Church's liturgical year. And I'm guessing there are many others who are as in the dark about this topic as I was. To share what I've learned, I've written several times in different blogs about observing Advent and the Christmas season (as in this recent post Top Ten Thoughts about Advent from Fr. Rutler). This post is a collection of snippets from other posts I've published about the season.

Following is an example about how treasuring Advent has led me to a deeper joy when Christmas comes and the traditional time of celebration begins, which is an excerpt from a Christmas letter I posted at my blog in 2009.

Thoughts About Celebrating the "Holiday Season"

It seems to me that the 'holiday season' is celebrated almost in a frenzy. Besides the frantic 'holiday' shopping (which usually includes many personal purchases--retailers count on them!) we engage in the constant creation of, purchase of, and indulgence in 'holiday foods and beverages,' accompanied by the din of 'holiday songs.'

The intoxication comes to a screeching halt on the actual day of Christmas. As soon as the profit motive dries up, the frenzy stops, and a blessed peace descends.

The good news is the less I decorate and the more I avoid holiday celebrations, the more I treasure the four week cycle of Advent. I get thrilled by the Advent readings in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Masses, which remind me of the Love that was behind the First Coming and will be behind the anticipated Second Coming of Christ.

My partially self-chosen poverty of having an undecorated house, eating a minimum of pre-Christmas treats, avoiding holiday parties and cookie exchanges and the like, all lead me to a deeper joy when the penitential season of Advent is over and when finally we reach the proper time to celebrate the birth of Christ, the Baby God. The Church gives us a long time to celebrate, until Candlemas on Feb. 2, during which time we can have our decorations and our feasting, for 40 whole days. In this and many other areas of life, it seems to me, waiting and self control only makes the satisfaction deeper and more meaningful. And that alone, after all, might be a very good reason for keeping Advent."

Here's another bit along the same lines from this blog at Christmas: It's Not Over Til It's Over:

Christmas is a season not a day.

In spite of what most people seem to think, the time before Christmas is not the Christmas season. On Christmas Day, the season is actually just beginning.

In the culture at large, the weeks before Christmas are a time for celebration, with lots of excitement from the Christmas music, lights, decorations, and parties.

In the Church year, the four weeks before Christmas are a time of preparation for the celebration of Christ's birth, a time of sober waiting. These four weeks of waiting start on the first Sunday of December and are called Advent, which means "coming." Advent is so important to the Church that it is the start of the liturgical year. During Advent, we anticipate the celebration of the First Coming of Christ that starts on Christmas Day, and we also are reminded to be ready for Christ's expected Second Coming at the end of the world. The Advent vestments are purple, the color of penance. The Christmas vestments are gold or white, to show our joy.

It seems to me that to observe the real spirit of the season, Christians should only start the singing of Christmas hymns and carols on Christmas Day, and hold off on the decorations and the parties until then. The festivities can then continue throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas up to the Feast of the Epiphany. Or even longer.[caption id="attachment_6527" align="alignright" width="226"]Epiphany by Hieronymous Bosch Epiphany by Hieronymous Bosch[/caption]

The Twelve Days of Christmas end January 5. The Epiphany, which is also called the Feast of the Wise Men, is celebrated on January 6. At my house, the wise men finally arrive at my manger scene on January 6 after they have been wandering around the living room ever since the creche was put up.

But Christmas is not over even at Epiphany.

In the traditional liturgical year, the Christmas season ends forty days after it starts, on February 2, on a feast day that has been called many names because it celebrates many things. The feast has been called Candlemas because candles are blessed at the Masses that day. The Purification of Our Lady in the Temple is a second name. In the Jewish religion, a woman presented herself for purification at the temple forty days after the birth of a male child. The Presentation of the Child Jesus is the current title of the feast. When Christ was carried into the Temple forty days after His birth to be dedicated to God as required by Jewish Law for every firstborn son, He was recognized by an old man named Simeon and by an old woman named Anna, who had been waiting years for His coming. In some traditions, the feast is also called The Meeting because of Christ's meeting with the prophet Simon and the prophetess Anna.

These thoughts just skim the surface of all the rich symbolism and significance of these feasts. And there are several more feasts during this time that I don't have time to go into now.

The point to remember is that the Catholic Church dedicates a long time, the symbolically important number of forty days, to the celebration of Christmas, and, contrary to public opinion, the celebration does not end on December 25.

This St. Ann Choir Poster from 2013 publicizes the Mass of Candlemas

And here is yet another snippet from my post at Dappled Things Deep Down Things blog last year: February 2 A Feast of Manifestation, Purification, and Candles:

Differences of opinion about when Christmas actually ends are nothing new. For example, here is a poem from colonial Williamsburg:

When New Year’s Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.

The gentry in the poem were missing the point: by drinking and eating as if it were Christmas all year, they weren’t celebrating the feast of Christmas any more, just gormandizing. Just like we moderns do . . .. But at least none of the people in the poem would be likely to take the Christmas tree down and throw it out the day after Christmas. They’d hold out at least until January 2, “When New Year’s Day is past and gone.”

And finally, there's this from another Dappled Things blog post from last year On the Thirteenth Day of Christmas 20 + K + M + B + 14:

Parting Thoughts about Christmas, from a Surprising Source

I came across the following apt observations about how Christians should celebrate Christmas, at an atheist website, of all places:

"Conservative evangelical Christians complain about people taking the “Christ” out of Christmas, but they seem to forget that they have already taken the “Mass” out of Christmas (Mass being a service including Holy Communion). When was the last time a prominent figure on the Christian Right has argued that Americans should remember to attend Mass on this Holy Day? … This is just one of many masses that have been excised from the season. . . . So, the next time a Christian insists that we put the Christ back in Christmas, tell them that they should also:

· Put the Mass back in Christmas

· Restore Candlemas

· Restore the Feast of the Epiphany

· Restore the Advent season

· Restore gift-giving to the real Christmas season, which occurs after Christmas day

· Don’t put up a Christmas tree until Christmas Eve — if at all

· Use Christmas as a day of contemplating Christ, not for engaging in commerce"

When I write about this topic, I am trying to correct misunderstandings and to help other people grasp the beautiful significance of feasts that has been obscured in a commercially oriented secular Christmas. I hope to bring to light and show off some riches from the treasury of the Church's traditional observation, to give to others some glimpses of the joys of Christmas that they may have never seen before, joys that can only be experienced fully by humbly observing the sober time of preparation that the Church calls Advent.

To close, I want to give G. K. Chesterton and Fr. George Rutler the last words, from a sermon Fr. Rutler prepared for the Second Sunday of Advent.

December 7, 2014
by Fr. George W. Rutler

It would be hard to think of any writer in the last several generations who celebrated Christmas as heartily as G. K. Chesterton. It was precisely because of this, and not in spite of it, that he said with a severity not characteristic of his benign personality: “There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes.”

Dangerous, that is, because the rush neglects the deepest mysteries of life which are the stuff of Advent meditations: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell; and by that neglect we are abandoned to a life of anxiety, unable to know why we were made or what we are to become. Disgusting, that is, because rushing Christmas spoils the appetite for higher things and tries to replace holy joy with entertainments that quickly become boring.
Just finished designing this poster for the San Jose's Immaculate Heart of Mary Oratory's upcoming Christmas Party, which, I'm happy to say, will be held on the Third Day of Christmas

Saturday, October 25, 2014

When is a Sin not a Sin? A Crime not a Crime?

For a long time a lot of people I know have believed that we cannot really blame criminals because they are predetermined to do certain things because they are products of their environment or because of something in their chemical or genetic makeup. I believe that line of thinking when pursued to its logical conclusion takes away individual responsibility and implies wrongly that we are all helpless to resist our impulses.

That whole line of thought is parodied in one of the songs in West Side Story. In "Gee, Officer Krupke," the Jets gang mockingly sings about how they can't control themselves because, after all, they are helpless products of their environment.

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It's just our bringin' up-ke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!

Gee, Officer Krupke, we're very upset;
We never had the love that ev'ry child oughta get.
We ain't no delinquents,
We're misunderstood.
Deep down inside us there is good!

There is good!

There is good, there is good,
There is untapped good!
Like inside, the worst of us is good!

I suspect that there are a lot excuses being made for people that are just plain no good.

And I believe that a lot of sympathetic people who believe that most people aren't fully responsible for their sins/crimes would change their minds if they thought about people commiting sins that are undeniably heinous.

If you think that a person's guilt is reduced if that person didn't fully consent due to a compulsion or if the person didn't realize the seriousness of the act, would that apply to these cases here? What if good old Father So and So didn't really want to commit the sin of seducing altar boys but he felt driven to it because he was forced by the Church not to be married, or what if he sincerely believed it was really doing them a favor by giving them the experience? Or what if Mrs. So and So didn't really want to keep driving drunk, even though one day she might kill someone but she kept drinking and driving because her judgement was impaired because she had the disease of alcoholism? Or what if Mr. So and So had an irresistible compulsion to kill prostitutes because he believed it wasn't really a criminal act because he was getting rid of evil women that way?

Or for a less extreme example, what if you took in a street woman out of pity and that woman started bringing in boyfirends, and your possessions and your food started disappearing and your place was trashed? Are you going to be reconciled to the disruption to your life by thinking about how that the person has had a hard life and can't help herself?

Before I came back the Church, I resolved what I saw as that inconsistency by deciding to keep away from people who do bad things even if they can't help themselves. Society puts people away in jail or prison if they can't help themselves. I can try to keep them out of my life, I thought.

At the end of "Gee, Officer Krupke," the Jets admit that they don't want to work, they are gang members because they want to be, and that, all excuses aside, they really are no good.
Dear kindly social worker,
They say go earn a buck.
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means like be a schumck.
It's not I'm anti-social,
I'm only anti-work.
Gloryosky! That's why I'm a jerk!

BABY JOHN: (As Female Social Worker)
Officer Krupke, you've done it again.
This boy don't need a job, he needs a year in the pen.
It ain't just a question of misunderstood;
Deep down inside him, he's no good!

I'm no good!

We're no good, we're no good!
We're no earthly good,
Like the best of us is no d*** good!

When I came back to the Church I saw The Church teaches that there are three conditions that must apply for an act to be a mortal sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the conditions:
1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice.

I don't quite understand how not knowing a thing is a sin or not being able to control oneself excuses it or mitigates it (makes it less serious), because according to St. Paul's Second Letter to the Romans, the Law of God is written in our hearts.

Being fully responsible means that you are culpable (blameable) for your crime/sin, and if you have reduced responsiblity that means you have reduced culpability.

Here is a little story that illustrates what I think of some pitfalls of the common understanding of how the Church's teaching on reduced culpability due to lack of consent applies. Ten tears ago or more, I went to Fr. Christopher LaRocca, OCD, to confess a besetting sin that I couldn't seem to stop doing in spite of the fact that I would rather die than do it again. I asked him if I could still go to Communion after committing that sin, which other confessors had told me would be okay because it wasn't really a mortal sin because I was doing it without my full consent. Fr. Christopher wisely said something about how to believe that would mean that I had lost something essential to my full humanity if my sin could be excused that way, and it was dangerous to stop confessing the sin before Communion because I thought I couldn't control myself.

From that time on, I always went to Confession after that sin before I went to Communion. Even if strictly speaking I wasn't fully consenting, the sin was still a sin.

Humbly confessing a seemingly intractable sin is one way to get rid of the root cause of that sin.

I do wish that more priests would focus the penitent more on getting rid of the root causes for a besetting sin. There may be something that a person thinks is innocent that he or she is doing that is actually the root cause of the other sin, and once you know what that is and stop that occasion for sin, you will be strengthened to keep away from the sin. Humble returns to the confessional after each fall, prayer for guidance, and seeking the constant help of Our Lady and our Guardian Angel should be recommended for the penitent to gain insight about the root cause of a besetting sin.

As they say, "It's complicated."

Jesus's words in Luke 12:47-48 are about another required aspect of culpability, besides full consent, the aspect of knowledge:

And that servant, who knew the will of his lord and prepared not himself and did not according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not and did things worthy of stripes shall be beaten with few stripes.

The punishment will be reduced when a person didn't know he was doing wrong, but he will still be punished.

It's interesting to realize that the civil courts still impose penalties on people who commit crimes unless they are provably mentally incompetent whether or not they know the act is against the law. Remember the old saying, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse"? Although there are exceptions, that rule still applies.

Part of the rationale for that rule is similar to St. Paul's statement that the Law of God is written on our hearts. From the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was believed that people know when they are doing wrong.

Cicero wrote the following in De re publica (On the Republic):

"There is a true law, right reason, agreeable to nature, known to all men, constant and eternal, which calls to duty by its precepts, deters from evil by its prohibition. This law cannot be departed from without guilt. Nor is there one law at Rome and another at Athens, one thing now and another afterward; but the same law, unchanging and eternal, binds all races of man and all times."

What's the take away for Catholics? I believe it is important to understand that a person sins by doing a forbidden act even if that person has not learned what the Church teaches. That is what is meant by having the need for an informed conscience. We have an informed conscience when we humbly learn from the Church, who teaches us like our loving Mother, who cares enough to teach us the difference between right and wrong. If you don't learn the commandments of the Church, you won't be able to do what Jesus said you should do if you love Him, "Keep my commandments."

And be careful about making any excuses to yourself of lack of knowledge or full consent or a perceived irrationality in moral teachings. God knows your heart. And you and God both know that deep inside yourself, you do know the difference between right and wrong, and you are responsible for your actions.

Any thoughts?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Supreme Beauty of Spiritual Things

 Photo credits: Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco ( and Roseanne T. Sullivan

On June 20, 1921, noted architect Ralph Adams Cram gave an address titled "The Test of Beauty" to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University. During his address, Cram lavished praise on the Pontifical Mass (Missa Pontificalis in Latin), which is an elaborate form of the traditional Roman Catholic Mass that has seldom been celebrated during most of the past sixty years. A convert from Unitarianism to Episcopalianism, Cram is perhaps best known for his design for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He was also a prominent member of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and he wrote and spoke extensively as an ardent advocate for Gothic architecture. In spite of the fact that he never became a Roman Catholic, he was an equally ardent admirer of Catholic liturgy. Cram was so renowned in his field that he wrote the article on "Gothic Architecture " in the 1909 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia.

In his peroration at the end of his address at Harvard, Cram posed this rhetorical question, "What was the greatest synthesis of beauty, made operative through art, that man has ever achieved?" He went on to summarize the main premise of his talk in his answer, "The answer is very simple: it was a Gothic cathedral of the thirteenth century during a Pontifical High Mass. . . . Every art raised to its highest point was here brought into play in one place and associated in absolute union with the greatest beauty of thought, emotion, and action that have ever been the possession of fallen man. . . . And all were for the exposition and realization of the supreme beauty of spiritual things; the durable love of God for His children through the Sacrifice of Calvary, eternally renewed upon the altar, and the veritable presence of His Spirit through the miracle of the Mass[1]."

On Sunday September 14, 2014, on the Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross according to the 1962 liturgical calendar, more than four hundred worshippers filled the pews of Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco for a historically resonant liturgical event, when San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrated the first Pontifical Mass held in that city for close to sixty years. Star Of the Sea Massgoers
High Altar Star of the Sea
The Pontifical Mass was celebrated on that balmy September evening in that beautiful church at the northwest tip of the San Francisco peninsula very much the same way as Pontifical Masses were celebrated around the world before the Second Vatican Council. Star of the Sea Church is a parish church that was finished in 1917 using the best materials the working-class parish could buy[2], during Cram's lifetime, and while it is not a cathedral and its arches are Romanesque rather than Gothic, it was an appropriately lovely setting for this modern-day Pontifical Mass.

The Pontifical Mass was to celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and the seventh anniversary of the implementation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s motu proprio  Summorum Pontificum, which affirmed that ceremonies and rituals like the Pontifical Mass are still valid and an important part of the Church’s rich heritage. The Mass, which was advertised as "one of the treasures of the faith," was coordinated by the Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco with music by the Golden Gate Catholic Boys Choir.
Golden Gate Boys Choir
The elaborate gestures, the large number of ministers, the multitudinous details of the vesting of the celebrant and of the ministers, and the order of the ceremony, all were followed according to how they are spelled out in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum (Manual of Episcopal Ceremonies[3]) from 1916.

The Pontifical Mass is the Mass of a bishop, and all the highly regulated, complex details of this Mass are fraught with meaning. Taken together, the details are designed to make up a system of visible, material signs that point to the invisible, spiritual realities of a bishop’s office.  As is true about how we come to understand many important things, we don't grasp the importance of something as complex as a Pontifical Mass without having been taught what it means.  The goal of this post is to explain some of the rich meaning of what occurred that night.

Why is it called a Pontifical Mass?

It is not commonly known, but the adjective "pontifical" does not refer exclusively to the pope. A cardinal, archbishop, bishop or abbot is also referred to as high priest, or “pontiff.” The celebrant of a Pontifical Mass is said to be “pontificating.” The related term “pontificals” refers to all the vestments and ornaments the bishop wears and uses when he pontificates at the Pontifical Mass.

A Pontifical Mass at the Throne represents the summit of the Roman liturgy. It is the paradigm for the Roman Rite.  As Canon Olivier Meney of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (who assisted at the Mass) recently explained, “The Low Mass is a reduction of the Solemn High Mass, which in its turn is a reduction of the Pontifical Mass at the Throne.”

In contrast, in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, which is the form almost exclusively celebrated since Vatican II, the Pontifical Mass seems no longer to be seen as a model for all Masses. Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, who was largely responsible for the new Mass that was promulgated in the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI, has been quoted as saying that the low Mass of a priest is now the normative Mass.

Elaborate vestments and liturgical items, such as those worn and used during the Pontifical Mass, are not, as some mistakenly think, a form of vain clerical dressing-up, but on the contrary, they are  rich in symbolism. The truth is that in ceremonies like this, the individual is minimized, while the power of the priesthood is emphasized. If we understand and meditate on the symbols, they can lead us to think more deeply about the role of the priesthood as it was instituted by Jesus Christ.

Before being vested during the Pontifical Mass, the bishop takes off the vestments he usually wears as a prelate of the Church. He then is clothed ceremonially with vestments that stand for the full power of the priesthood, which belongs not to himself, but to his role as a bishop.

What does “at the Throne” mean?

At Star of the Sea, Archbishop Cordileone celebrated a Pontifical Mass at the Throne. The term “at the Throne” is used when a Pontifical Mass is celebrated within the jurisdiction of a bishop or archbishop. During the Mass, the celebrant sits at a throne at the altar.

If a bishop celebrates a Pontifical Mass at a cathedral or church outside of his own jurisdiction, he either celebrates "at the faldstool" (a faldstool being a portable folding chair) or "in choro" (in choir).

The privilege of "Pontificating" on the Throne is only allowed to all Cardinals outside of Rome, to the Pope's Apostolic Nuncios and Legates in the territorial jurisdiction they are assigned, and to Bishops and Archbishops within their Ecclesiastical Jurisdictions.

Because the archbishop was visiting Star of the Sea and did not celebrate at his cathedral, it was necessary to construct a temporary throne on the gospel side of the altar. The archbishop’s shield was mounted behind the chair with a gold-embroidered baldachin (canopy) above it.

Why all that vesting at the Throne?

One unusual and elaborate aspect of the Pontifical Mass was the ceremony called “vesting at the throne.”

Before the start of the Mass, the pontificals were laid out on the altar. Servers ceremoniously removed each of the pontificals in turn from the altar, and waited in line to present them to the archbishop. Sacred ministers helped vest him.


The pontificals included buskins, an amice, an alb, a cincture, a stole, a tunic, a dalmatic, and a chasuble, along with the bishop’s pectoral cross, ring, and crosier, which bishops always use, plus two types of mitre worn by the archbishop at different points during the Pontifical Mass, along with a gremial and gloves[4], [5].

The vesting ceremony is rich in symbolism of the bishop’s humility. It reminds the bishop and everyone present of Christ’s words to St. Peter after His Resurrection to indicate how Peter would die, when He said that one day Peter would not be able dress himself and go where he wished but that someone else would dress him and lead him.

The ceremony is so powerfully evocative of humility that one bishop said that first time he was being vested for Pontifical Mass, “he felt like a lamb being dressed for slaughter.”
Vesting with the amice
Vesting with the amice
Amen, amen I say to thee, when thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. – John 21:18
When the celebrant is divested of the vestments he wore when entering the church[6], he is symbolically stripped of the trappings of the world and loses his personal identity. When he is then subsequently ceremoniously vested in the pontificals, one after another, the bishop is clothed in the new man of which St. Paul speaks in his letter to the Ephesians and is covered from head to foot in the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ.
If so be that you have heard him, and have been taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus: To put off, according to former conversation, the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error.   And be renewed in the spirit of your mind: And put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth." – Ephesians 4:21-24.
Bishops at Pontifical Mass wear the vestments of a subdeacon (the tunic), deacon (the dalmatic), and priest (chasuble) all at once because in the bishop, as medieval liturgist William Durandus wrote,  “the degrees of all the Major Orders are most eminently present.”

Vesting complete
Vesting complete

Each pontifical has its own prescribed prayer[7]. For example, as he was being vested in the buskins (liturgical stockings), the archbishop prayed the following prayer.

How long since the last Pontifical Mass in San Francisco?

Beginning when His Grace was installed as Bishop of Oakland in 2009 and continuing after his appointment as Archbishop of San Francisco in 2012, Archbishop Cordileone has celebrated Pontifical Masses in several other locations around the archdiocese: at the Oakland apostolate of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest in St. Margaret Mary Church in 2009 and 2011, and at St. Monica Church in Moraga to celebrate the official opening of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a new foundation of the Discalced Carmelites in the Diocese of Oakland in 2012. For several years, the archbishop has also celebrated Pontifical Masses on the last day of the Napa Institute's Conference at The Meritage Resort in Napa. His Pontifical Mass on September 14, 2014, was the first such Mass Archbishop Cordileone celebrated in the city of San Francisco.

Fr. Mark Mazza, former Star of the Sea pastor, was asked recently if he knows the date on which the last Pontifical Mass was previously celebrated in San Francisco. Fr. Mazza replied, “The reformed Mass with its new order would not appear until 1970 in the United States,” but, in the United States, changes to the Mass began at the end of November 1964, on the First Sunday of Advent.  For this reason, Fr. Mazza added, “I would presume that the last Solemn Pontifical Mass using the 1962 Missale Romanum and the Pontificale Romanum was in 1964, now over fifty years ago.” Fr. Mazza added that since even before the Second Vatican Council, Pontifical Masses “were not always that common,” the time elapsed since the last Pontifical Mass in the city could easily have been closer to sixty years.


How did this event come about?

The planning for this year’s Pontifical Mass began almost exactly a year earlier. During a dinner on September 13, 2013, which Fr. Mazza and the members of the Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco hosted at Star of the Sea for Archbishop Cordileone, the Traditional Latin Mass Society asked the archbishop if he would celebrate a Pontifical Mass at the parish. Eventually the date was fixed to be the Sunday of the weekend of the archbishop's pastoral visit to the parish this year, which occurred September 13 through 15.


What does it all mean?
Beauty existed, and was infinitely desired, and within certain limits was supremely achieved under paganism, but with Christianity it was given a new content and a new function. The passion for perfection remained, but it was how a new perfection revealed in Christ; the joy in labor and creation remained, but it was now a new joy, for it was irradiated by the motive of worship and of sacrifice. -- Ralph Adams Cram, "The Test of Beauty."

If art is, indeed, as I have said, one of the really great agents of civilization, the Church is preeminently the place where its work may be made most effective. . . .  Each art is fine in itself, but a great and beautiful church, living with pictorial and sculptured decoration, where the sublime, appalling mystery of the Christian Faith is solemnized through the assembling of all the other arts — music, poetry, drama, and ceremonial —- in one vast, organic work of art built up of every one of them raised to its highest level of possibility, and all fused in one consummate opus Dei, this is in simple fact and in plain speech, the greatest artistic achievement, the most perfect proof of man's divine nature thus far recorded in the annals of humanity.[8] -- Ralph Adams Cram,"The Artist and the World."

For Cram then, the meaning of the Pontifical Mass on September 14, 2014 would be found in the synthesis of all of the beauties of the church, the ceremony, the vestments and the music, each of which contributed to the creation of an act of sublime worship expressing our love for God.

In his homily, Archbishop Cordileone reminded the mass goers to keep in mind that the beauty of the Pontifical Mass should not be an end in itself. Alongside of the love of God that is fostered during the celebration of the Eucharist in such a reverent ceremony in such a beautiful setting, our love of our neighbor must also be fostered.
Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets. -- Matthew 22:36-40
Following are some excerpts from Archbishop Cordileone's homily:
Our spirituality and stewardship are the practical way we live our Christian faith in the world.  Our faith is not to be left inside the walls of this beautiful church. We are all awed and inspired by the beauty of the ceremonies here in the celebration this evening. . . .. We all love this liturgy, but if it doesn’t make a difference, it becomes nothing more than a neat hobby. A neat one. But a hobby.  It is meant to transform us into a deeper love of Jesus Christ.
Here we experience the beauty of Jesus Christ in the beauty of the Church’s liturgy so that we might recognize the beauty in those in the world around us, in those who are poor. Sharing those gifts with them, in works of charity, works of justice. We have ample opportunity here in our community. Here in this parish, right across the street, is a very good and powerful ministry to women who find themselves in crisis situations[9]. Mothers with young children or expectant mothers. Sharing our gifts. Understanding their needs. [We need] to see the beauty of Jesus Christ in them and to lift them out of their moment of crisis, out of their own fear, so they might encounter the Jesus who we encounter here and who we share with them.

The poor wait just outside the church doors.
The poor are found right outside the front door of the church

You can view the complete homily here and see many more photos of the Pontifical Mass here, thanks to the work of the Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco.

1. "The Test of Beauty" an address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University on June 20, 1921. By Ralph Adams Cram. Harvard Graduates' Magazine, Volume XXX. 1921-1922.  Copyright 1931. The Riverside Press Cambridge, Mass.
2. You can look up unfamiliar terms in a glossary for all the ornaments and vestments that is in the Manual of Episcopal Ceremonies, along with instructions for the order of the Pontifical Mass and the titles and roles of each of the sacred ministers. By Rev. Aurelius Stehl, O.S.B. Published 1916 by St. Vincent Archabbey Press, Latrobe, PA. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in details of the Pontifical Mass.
3. Here is an example from the history of Star of the Sea parish of the "no-expense spared" mentality that Catholics of modest means used to have when it came to building parish churches. "The statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, each costing $500, were made of pure Carrara marble in Italy and shipped to the United States at great expense." -- "The History Of Star Of The Sea Schools." By Sister Mary Dorothea Quinn, 1958. The statues were purchased at that great price in 1917.
StJosephStatueOurLadyStatue - Version 2
4. Additional information about the official costumes of prelates is available online at Costume of Prelates of the Catholic Church: According to Roman Etiquette” by John Abel Nainfa. Published 1909 by John Murphy Company, Baltimore. This is another fascinating read.
5. Simple pictures of the alb, stole, maniple, cincture, and chasuble are available in coloring book format at ”Learning About Priest Vestments (Free Printable e-book and Activity)” at Catholic Inspirations. Web. Retrieved September 24,2014. Also useful is this site, which presents information about the vestments, from the book, Mass and the Sacraments by Fr. John Laux, M.A.  Benziger Brothers 1934. And last but not least, here is a reprint of a Catholic Extension book called "Father Peter Cutouts" that children (and maybe some adults) could cutout and color to learn (or relearn) the vestments and articles used during the Mass (free subscription required for access).
6. During a Pontifical Mass, a bishop may wear a cappa magna (great cape) when he enters the church. If so, the cappa magna is removed before the Mass begins and put on again after the Mass is over. Archbishop Cordileone did not wear cappa magna on September 14. Some people criticize the cappa magna’s rich fabric and extraordinary length as a wastefully expensive example of the most extreme sort of ostentatious, effeminate, clerical finery.  This blog from the Daily Telegraph of London spoofs those who react with hostility to the cappa magna, but it also has spectacular photos of cappae magnae worn in the past and in the present day by dignitaries such as Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Spellman, Pope St John XXIII (when he was Archbishop Wotyla), and Cardinal Pell.
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Cardinal Raymond Burke wore a Cappa Magna for Institute of Christ the King ordinations in St. Louis in August 2014.
Cardinal Raymond Burke wore a Cappa Magna for Institute of Christ the King Ordinations in St. Louis in August 2014
The cappa magna in the setting of the Pontifical Mass actually signifies the worldly finery that the bishop puts aside before being humbly vested in the pontificals. Following is the prayer a bishop says when removing the cappa:
7. The ministry of art, pp 135, 136. By  Ralph Adams Cram. Copyright 1914. The Riverside Press Cambridge.
8. The prayers for vesting of the pontificals are given in an easy to read format at the New Liturgical Movement in The Pontifical Vesting Prayers  of the Usus Antiquior December 29, 2011 web (retrieved September 24, 2014).
9. Star Community Home for women in crisis situations is a project of Catholic Charities CYO that is located in the former convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet at Star of the Sea. Archbishop Cordileone is the Director of the Star Community Home for Women's Board of Directors.