26 June 2013

The Excesses of God

Christ is the infinite self-expenditure of God… he points back to the structural law of creation, in which life squanders a million seeds in order to save one living one; in which a whole universe is squandered in order to prepare at one point a place for spirit, for man. Excess is God's trademark in his creation; as the Fathers put it, "God does not reckon his gifts by the measure."  At the same time excess is also the real foundation and form of salvation history, which in the last analysis is nothing other than the truly breathtaking fact that God, in an incredible outpouring of himself, expends not only a universe but his own self in order to lead man, a speck of dust, to salvation. So excess or superfluity––let us repeat––is the real definition or mark of the history of salvation. The purely calculating mind will always find it absurd that for man God himself should be expended. Only the lover can understand the folly of a love to which prodigality is a law and excess alone is sufficient. Yet if it is true that the creation lives from excess or superfluity, that man is a being for whom excess is necessity, how can we wonder that revelation is the superfluous and for that very reason the necessary, the divine, the love in which the meaning of the universe is fulfilled?

Josef Ratzinger
Introduction to Christianity

Your Argument––Should You Choose to Make One––Is Invalid

You may be aware of the recent public tiff between Congresswoman Pelosi and the founder of Priests for Life, Father Frank Pavone.

If not, fill yourself in (here is the letter Father Pavone wrote).

This situation of public figures professing to be Catholic in complete and utter contradiction to the very meaning of the word is becoming, unfortunately, more and more common. There are lots of reasons for this, reasons I won't get into here, but suffice to say, they are not reasons that are taking us in a good direction.

May I simply point out that Pelosi's response basically amounts to a smirking diversion? She characterizes Father Pavone's letter as "unworthy of the dignity of a response," due to its "hysterical" tone: and with a sweep of her hand the rational capabilities of her interlocutors are demolished, reduced to babbling nonsense before the shock & awe of Nancy.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is power.  

I shudder to imagine if the young men and women learning to argue, for instance, in a debate class, try to emulate Ms. Pelosi.  Perhaps their coaches will bow their heads in deferential silence to the magnitude of character required to sustain such forms of non-argument.

The fact is, she hasn't a leg to stand on, either religiously or intellectually. She is occupying the no-man's-land of the warmongering Quaker, the hedonistic Buddhist, the electric Amish.  To claim, as Ms. Pelosi does, that her faith has nothing to do with the clear and unaltered moral teaching of the Church is a canard, a cloak for her complete disregard for any coherence in her chosen path.  The only way to sustain such a path is through bluster, through spin, through deflection and doublespeak.  She (or her handler) has proven to be more than adept at this.  She is being called out, and her response is true to form.

Pray for her, and all who live and think as she does.

25 June 2013

So, What Exactly is Father Nick Up To?

Sometimes it can seem kind of mysterious where it is your clergy seem to be going all the time––seminarians come and go, priests move about and disappear for months at a time. Most parishioners seem to take it all in stride; but perhaps there are some of you who are curious about how these things work. This post is for you.

As for how I myself have ended up back at the seminary after being ordained a priest for two years:

My undergraduate work took place at Thomas Aquinas College in CA, where I received a heavy background in philosophy in theology. When I applied to the seminary in 2006, the Vatican had just released a new set of guidelines requiring an extra year of philosophical education, bumping the normal seminary education track from 5 years to 6. My philosophy credits from college more than satisfied the requirements and so I was allowed to modify my course of studies to start on theological work right away.

This meant that I had worked my way through the theological curriculum in about 4 years, leaving me with extra time on my hands.
Fortunately, the seminary at which I was studying had, in addition to the theological faculty, what is known as a "pontifical" faculty––which doesn't refer to a separate group of instructors, but simply that the university has an accreditation to grant not just American degrees but Roman ones as well.

The American system grants seminarians a "Master of Divinity" degree (abbreviated M.Div); the PhD equivalent in this system is a Doctor of Divinity (D.D.). The American seminary system, for obvious reasons, is largely Protestant.  The Pontifical faculty, based in the Roman university system, grants a different set of degrees: the Baccalaureate, License, or Doctor in Sacred Theology (STB, STL, and STD). After completing the requirements for my M.Div., I began chipping away at a degree in the Roman system--taking a few extra exams, writing a few extra papers, and eventually receiving my S.T.B. and completing almost all my classwork for the S.T.L.  So, I graduated and was ordained with an M.Div and an STB degree––one American and one Roman degree.

The S.T.L., or Licenciate is somewhere between a Master's degree and a PhD in the American university system.  In addition to 2 years of classwork, one must demonstrate competency in Latin and at least one modern theological language (such as German, Italian, or French), serve as a teaching assistant, write a 60-80 page thesis, and take a comprehensive exam that demonstrates familiarity with the overall history of theology in general and a few select theologians in greater depth, in the areas of the doctrine of God, Christian anthropology, theological method, and sacraments. If you're really interested in the requirements, you can read about them  here

I really thought I had a shot to finish my STL while still in seminary, but I was wearing myself out getting the work done, preparing for ordination, etc.  Finally, I let go of the idea not long before getting ordained. I figured if the Lord wanted me to get the degree, he'd open a door, and let it at that.

Last summer, Father Brian and I were chatting and I mentioned that I had always had an interest in study. He asked why I had never finished the STL, and I informed him that I had very little left in order to complete the degree.  He was quite surprised at this, and immediately suggested I look into a summer study program to complete it.  (I took this as a divine sign and an answer to my previous prayer for God to open a door. The thought of Father Brian suggesting I leave the parish for 6 weeks two summers in a row to read some pretentious books would have been unthinkable by any stretch of the imagination.)  He spoke with the Archbishop, I checked with the registrar in the seminary, and two weeks later I had my academic schedule.  

Of course, this was all before there was any talk of Father Brian being transferred to a new parish.  My guess is that right now he is sincerely regretting his generous suggestion, being the only priest on hand to minister to the needs of the parish while trying to pack up and move!  Let's just say his life isn't neatly packaged into rubbermaid filing boxes; from what I can tell, for the most part it's crammed in large piles into the trunk of his car.

The plan for me, then, is to finish two classes this summer, and then return next summer for a final class and thesis preparation.  Hopefully I'll get a lot of the reading done for that during the year, as well; then, of course, at some point I'll need to take my comprehensive exams, which is a one hour oral interview with three professors.  That may sound intimidating, but it's nothing compared to being cornered by a parishioner after Mass who didn't like my homily!  If I can get through that, there's nothing to worry about ....

23 June 2013

Back to the Mines

I had the great pleasure this weekend to make some new friends on a remote farm in southwest Wisconsin. Three families, at least two dozen children, houses built by hand from wood harvested and milled from the property. My friend DMac summarized it thus: "It's like going to camp: coffee, alcohol, meat, pancakes." A thoroughly Catholic mix.

So after a hearty dose of poetry, bare feet, sheep, two-stroke exhaust, pouring rain, steaming piles of cow manure, Iowa skinnies, a long porch that's cool in the sun and warm at night, barn swallows, did I mention more children than I could count?, a Wisconsin earth goddess and a Celtic poet...

... Kant, Schleiermacher, and Möhler are here waiting for me, right where I left them.


15 June 2013

At the Movies

Last night I got to accompany Father Robert Barron to the movies along with some friends here in the seminary community. Given the hubbub surrounding Christopher Nolan's latest film Man of Steel, our choice was obvious.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much to enjoy.

The trouble with superheroes is that there's nothing at stake; only so many face-grinding, body-pummeling variations on the theme of indestructible beings at war are possible. The battles stretched interminably, while we yawned. The dialogue was wooden and strained; performances from Crowe and Lane were surprisingly one-dimensional. 

In my estimation, the best part of this movie was the trailer; the brief placement of the images of power (launching from the ground, breaking the sound barrier) alongside the simplicity of farm life and boyhood were really the only matters of interest for me, the only thing that savored of real delight. The rest was so much sound and spectacle. Nolan had better get back in the driver's seat...

Save your $12 and just watch the trailer.

12 June 2013

So I'm Not the Only One!

Here's a link to a short blog entry written by one of our seminarians, Matt Nagle, on his time in Rome this summer.  I'm not the only one on assignment! (And there's no fancy pasta and red wine for me.)

It's been hard getting back into the academic swing. It's a lot... a LOT of reading. Tonight, I'll be wading through Martin Luther's commentary on the letter to the Galatians. He's a feisty fellow, and it makes for fun reading. He prefaced his treatise on Christian Liberty with a letter to the pope, Leo X, with the following greeting:

That I may not approach you empty-handed, blessed father, I am sending you this little treatise dedicated to you as a token of peace and good hope. From this book you may judge with what studies I should prefer to be more profitably occupied, as I could be, provided your godless flatterers would permit me and had permitted me in the past. It is a small book if you regard its size. Unless I am mistaken, however, it contains the whole of Christian life in a brief form, provided you grasp its meaning. I am a poor man and have no other gift to offer, and you do not need to be enriched by any but a spiritual gift. (!)

That, ladies and gentlemen, is cheek.

Today I got out on the lake and did some canoeing in this beautiful weather. I figure St. Anthony would have wanted it that way.

Prayers and blessings for you all,

Father Nick

11 June 2013

Here Goes.

OK, well I've got two days down, and I'd better post to this blog before I forget.

The most striking change: I'm not around people any more. Every day as a priest is spent in the company of, at a minimum, a hundred or so people. Here, I see the same 5 morning and evening (though there are others here studying or on retreat, we don't interact much at all). I kind of like it––for now. I'm sure by the time I'm done I'll be hankering to be shuffling around in the madding crowd once again.

My academic duties are quite heavy. The two classes I'm taking meet every day. The first covers the history of Christian thought from 1500-1900. Yes, that includes the leading figures of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Romantic movement, and Catholic theological responses to it. Oh yeah, and the Council of Trent, Vatican I, and the development of neo-scholastic and ressourcement theology (what you might call "strains" of contemporary theology). It's being taught by a German priest of Turkish and Hungarian descent, who routinely pronounces Latin, German, Hungarian, and English phrases with such a heavy accent that it takes a minute or two to understand the syllables coming out of his mouth, or even to realize "ah, he's speaking in another language". But he's a genius, and tremendously humble. He entertains any and all questions. You could literally interrupt him in the middle of the most profound thought he's ever had and he would immediately break off to let you speak your piece. He would take your dumb question and demonstrate to the whole class why a truly wise theologian would ask such a thing. 

Deep down, I think this is the reasonable response to what we bring to the table:

Yet we are indulged. Truly, a teacher.

The other class covers the classics of contemporary theology. I'm reading Josef Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity and Hans Urs von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale, which is a theological exploration of the tenet of the creed that says of Christ "he descended into hell". The class is taught by a Jesuit who regularly inserts Shakespearean bon mots in his everyday conversations and is currently reading to us (literally, reading to us) from the first two chapters of his latest book (which is still in manuscript form). We are mostly expected to listen and catch typos. I enjoy him very much.

I've had a number of very surprising reunions, including a college classmate ordained for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, a seminary classmate ordained two weeks after me, and of course all the people I lived with for the 5 years I spent in formation here. The place has gotten even more beautiful, with all sorts of luscious greenery and careful landscaping. What a sanctuary. 

I hope to continue updates every few days, including delicious snippets from my theological reading. I'll leave you with something from Ratzinger's book, published in 1968:

Anyone who tries today to talk about the question of Christian faith in the presence of people who are not thoroughly at home with ecclesiastical language and thought by calling or convention soon comes to sense the alien––and alienating––nature of such an enterprise. He will probably soon have the feeling that his position is only too well summed up in Kierkegaard's famous story of the clown and the burning village... According to this story, a traveling circus in Denmark had caught fire. The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made-up for the performance, into the neighboring village to fetch help, especially as there was a danger that the fire would spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself. The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out. But the villagers took the clown's shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed until they cried. The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried in vain to get people to be serious, to make it clear to them that it was no trick but bitter earnest, that there really was a fire. His supplications only increased the laughter; people thought he was playing his part splendidly––until finally the fire did engulf the village, it was too late for help and both circus and village were burned to the ground.

... the theologian is the clown who cannot make people really listen to his message. In his medieval, or at any rate old-fashioned clown's costume he is simply not taken seriously. Whatever he says, he is ticketed and classified, so to speak, by his role. Whatever he does in his attempts to demonstrate the seriousness of the position, people always know in advance that he is in fact just––a clown. They are already familiar with what he is talking about and know that he is just giving a performance which has little or nothing to do with reality. So they can listen to him quite happily without having to worry too seriously about what he is saying. This picture indubitably contains an element of truth in it; it reflects the oppressive reality in which theology and theological discussion are imprisoned today and their frustrating inability to break through accepted patterns of thought and speech and make people recognize the subject-matter of theology as a serious aspect of human life.

But perhaps our examination of conscience should go still deeper. Perhaps we should admit that this disturbing analogy, for all the thought-provoking truth contained in it, is still a simplification. For after all it makes it seem as if the clown, or in other words the theologian, is a man possessed of full knowledge who arrives with a perfectly clear message. The villagers to whom he hastens, in other words those outside the faith, are conversely the completely ignorant, who only have to be told something of which they are completely unaware; the clown then needs only to take off his costume and his make-up, and everything will be all right. But is it really such a simple matter as that? Need we only call on the aggiornamento [updating], take off our make-up and don the mufti of a secular vocabulary or a demythologized Christianity in order to make everything all right? Is a change of intellectual costume sufficient to make people run cheerfully up and help to put out the fire which according to theology exists and is a danger to all of us? I may say that in fact the plain and unadorned theology in modern dress appearing in many places today makes this hope look rather naïve. It is certainly true that anyone who tries to preach the faith amid people involved in modern life and thought can really feel like a clown, or rather perhaps like someone who, rising from an ancient sarcophagus, walks into the midst of the world of today dressed and thinking in the ancient fashion and can neither understand nor be understood by this world of ours. Nevertheless, if he who seeks to preach the faith is sufficiently self-critical, he will soon notice that it is not only a question of form, of the kind of dress in which theology enters upon the scene. In the strangeness of theology's aims to the men of our time, he who takes his calling seriously will clearly recognize not only the difficulty of the task of interpretation but also the insecurity of his own faith, the oppressive power of unbelief in the midst of his own will to believe. Thus anyone today who makes an honest effort to give an account of the Christian faith to himself and to others must learn to see that he is not just someone in fancy dress who needs only to change his clothes in order to be able to impart his teaching successfully. Rather will he have to understand that his own situation is by no means so different from that of others as he may have thought at the start. He will become aware that on both sides the same forces are at work, if in different ways.

Gosh.... makes me wonder if Ratzinger was ever a high school chaplain.

Comments welcome.


10 June 2013

So Good to be...

I'll be posting updates on my time for continued studies here at Mundelein. Academic pursuits don't exactly make for good copy, but I might have a chance to float some thoughts out there, stay in touch, and while away the time until my return!

Father Nick