Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Is the Pope a Medieval Heretic?


No, not a material heretic. A medieval heretic.

Behind Amoris laetitia and the general Communion-for-public-adulterers movement lies the seemingly modern belief that all of Man's actions revolve around the need for sex and, therefor, the Church's discipline should accommodate this mild short coming. After the sexual revolution and the pill and its other cheaper siblings Mankind will do what it will and the Church must charitably find a way to live with the fact that a complete discipline according to the Gospel is impossible. It's all quite bad and quite morose, but you may not know this idea is quite old, too.

Popular devotion and piety in the middle ages focused on pilgrimages, liturgy, votive Offices, Requiem Masses, reliquaries, and miracles. Formal theology and Church administration, however, took a decidedly different and less sanguine route. A popular opinion eventually arose among some theologians that Man, in his fallen and sinful state, could not truly live the Gospel completely, even if assisted with the help of sanctifying grace after washing in the laver of Baptism. Before Calvin stated Man was so wretched and sinful that he could not be saved unless God especially willed it, Pope Innocent III effectively said the same thing in a tract he wrote as Lothar di Segni. A frustrated Church combating the demands of a virile and warrior-ruled age threw her hands up in despair and some bishops even licensed brothels (!) in hopes the resident women would eventually become Magdalens. The same Pope Innocent who thanked God for allowing him to live in an age when the Church was triumphant seemed perpetually pessimistic toward the same Divine Institution's ability to convert hearts.

Then came Saint Francis, whose jarring poverty and detachment from the world culled anything other than the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. His disinterest in property, his pure focus on salvation, and his naive desire to live the precepts of Christ's Church to their fullest shocked paupers and prelated alike. Innocent permitted Francis to turn his friendships into a temporary brotherhood and by the time Francis died they had become a property-owning, fully-fledged religious order, unlike the small community the deacon from Assisi desired. A true Minorite did not smell like the sheep; he smelled far worse.

Which brings us to our age, when the Churchmen have revived this downtrodden medieval disposition and attempted to smell like the stench of modern sexuality. Is not Francis the cure to Francis?

Monday, January 29, 2018

Pius XI Reconsidered


Pius XI, Papa Ratti, was the last pope following traditional models of the papacy much like how his name predecessor, Pius X, was the first pope in the modern mold of the papacy. Some will blithely point their fingers to Pius IX and Vatican I saying "When the Council made the pope infallible we have the modern, constantly inerrant vision of the pope." That Council forms a simple demarcation if we do not think about what the modern papacy really is and why Pius XI did not fit into it.

What better defines modern government, religious or secular, than what Nisbet called that great vacuum of buffer between the governing and the governed? Whereas traditions, institutions, places, and customs once gave the individual identity and gave authority a measure of guidance, modern government gives the individual all his rights, privileges, prerogatives, and policies that govern his life. In light of this, the modern papacy really begins with Pius X and the tradition papacy ends with Pius XI. Papa Sarto began his reign following a controversial conclave, when the metropolitan cardinal of Poland vetoed the election of Mariano Rampolla for any number of speculated reasons. Initially interested in seemingly harmless subjects like ensuring only men sang Gregorian plainsong or giving chant a place of prominence again, but soon interests, either Papa Sarto's own or those of the Vatican bureaucracy around him, began to stick their tentacles into common Christian life. His re-introduction of Communion for the young confused the order of sacramental initiation in most of, but not all of, the Western Church, a mistake some bishops have slowly remedied without a universal correction. His re-jiggering of the Office kalendar and psalter effectively tossed out the Divine Office as Saint Benedict, Saint Bernard, Saint Pius V, and the pope himself knew it, paving the way for the "restoration" of the other unchangeable part of the Latin liturgy, the anaphora. Most notably, he enabled Umberto Benigni to hunt anyone whose opinions differed from his own, be they true heretics or simply those in need of correction. While modest by today's standards, Saint Pius began a practice of the papacy that dictates how one enters the Sacramental life, how Mass is said, what prayers a priest prays daily, and that the priest is someone whose ideas must actively correlate with those of the Roman Bishop's. By contrast, Pius XI had little to do with these things.

In his Phoenix from the Ashes HJA Sire observes that many traditionalists "regard popes Pius IX, Pius X, and Pius XII as models of what a pope ought to be, but (with due respect for their sacred office) really look upon Leo XIII and Pius XI as rather letting down the standards of papal authority. They show little sympathy with social and political pragmatism in the framing of religious policy" (Sire 139). In Pius XI was a resolute orthodoxy tempered by a cautious, healthy distance from the impractical excess condign to arbitrary use of power.

Papa Ratti's foreign policy is the most memorable and mixed aspect of his pontificate. He had the good sense to end the "Roman question", which had been answered since the Italian unification ended the Papal States in the prior century. With traditional monarchies and temporal rule gone, the pope could now, ironically, speak on matters of foreign policy with an authoritative detachment and lack of personal interest that gave moral strength to his statements. History perceives Pius as friendly, or at least amenable, to Fascistic movements in Spain and elsewhere in Europe because he was. While horrifying to post-modern liberals, the only options most had in revolutionary countries were atheistic, class warfare Communism or Fascism—understood as a glorification of the state and its cultural history along with public-private cooperation with major corporations (Nazism was not Fascism, it was something more unique). Because Fascism takes the state as its alpha and omega, Fascism is not Catholicism, but it can tolerate Catholicism and even give a place of respect to Catholic culture; Communism cannot, and as ruthless as the Fascists were in the Spanish Civil War, the Communists matches or exceeded them in brutality, something anti-Fascist adventurer and author Ernest Hemingway begrudgingly depicts in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The pope's vociferous denunciation of Hitler and his deranged racialistic theories of state and expansion redeem the pope to historians; Mit brennender Sorge had to be smuggled into Germany to be read from the pulpit during Passiontide in 1937, and since his Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli, succeeded him as pope, one might reasonably assume the swift reaction of the Nazis against the Church was a lesson learned by Pacelli in his more cautious War-time administration. Post-War Europe's coziness with socialism has cooled Pius's legacy, but we must admit given his choices he could have done far worse.

Pope Ratti's most enduring success and failure could both be summed up in three word: Christ the King. In an age when nation or class or race ruled men's hearts, Papa Ratti reminded Christians eager to embrace political movements that Christ must be king both of the individual and all of society. Yet when the Freemasonic president of Mexico, Plutarco Calles, enforced the existing anti-clerical laws in that country and the Catholics in the populace effected an outright rebellion without episcopal support, they won near-total victory in the Cristiada only to be told by Rome to sue for peace and return a near-unconditional surrender. The enforcement of the anti-clerical laws lessened after Calles, doubtless inspired by Henry VIII's reaction to the Pilgrimage of Grace, reprised the favor with some indiscriminate slaughter. A shining moment for the Secretariat of State under Gasparri and Pacelli. Viva Cristo Rey.

Despite my education being partially in Economics, I have not read the pope's encyclicals on the subject in depth with supplementary resources. And yet I feel familiar enough to say he wrote in continuity with the social teachings of Leo XIII, reflecting Pius XI's pervading theme of upholding doctrine fully with some awareness of his times. The times asked different questions under Leo XIII than under Pius XI, not just in social questions, but the state of the Western economies and of economic literature. Leo wrote during the Industrial Revolution, the abuse of child-workers, new money capitalists, economists writing about rational self-interest as an inherently moral act, displacement from traditional settings of living into atomistic city life, and the like. By contrast, these phenomena were three decades old when Ratti took the tiara. The new concerns were political cults, collectivism's many forms, atheism, interventionist economics, and secular utopianism. In this regard, the pope was quite adroit in keeping up with the signs of the times; would that our modern popes be interested in any issue more current than 1978.

Pius XI was a good pope. He was, in no sense, a great pope. He made any significant contributions to the Church while not entirely succeeding in making lasting changes that he successors felt obliged to keep. Perhaps he never saw himself as a reformer, merely a traditionalist, that is, one handing on the Church as he knew in the best way he could. He was not a modern pope, reforming the Church according to his own ideas. HJA Sire notes that if not for his boundless optimism, John XXIII could have returned the Church to the paternal, familiar style of government Pius XI and Leo XIII personified, gentle, firm, practical, and respectful of tradition. Vatican II was supposed to rubber stamp some very unimaginative documents and move on in eight weeks; what ensued was something quite different, a parliamentary hijacking by bureaucrats whose power derived from a more modern practice of the papacy. John XXIII died and "blessed" Paul VI took his place, succeeding Pius XII more than John XXIII or Pius XI.

Pope Ratti was a good pope, perhaps the most recent thoroughly traditional pope we have seen.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Eastern Church Five Years On, Part IV: Devotions & Liturgy


Devotion has a near limitless applicability to the Christian life. One might even say that it is the general spirit of living the Christian life, doing what is beyond the written requirement of law. In Christian terms one can be devoted to figures of inspirational sanctity or dedicated intercessors for one's causes. One may find reason for devotion to a past event or minor revelation that succors one's sufferings or spiritual ailments in modern times. Devotion to feasts and their anticipation is one of the most ancient Christian devotions, most visible in novenas and the great vigils of the ancient rite. In the last millennium pilgrimage was the highest level of devotion, it being a metaphor for the greater pilgrimage from detachment on earth to meeting God in heaven. Today various types of private prayer dominate devotion, especially rosaries and chaplets. Devotion is everywhere, and after five years, going on six as of this writing, I now think that the place of devotion is one of the most noble problems in the Roman liturgy.

Devotion—an expression of love of God and His saints in the Christian life outside the essential functions of the Eucharist and the Office—is an essential part of Catholicism, if only because it is done out of desire rather than command, which reflects a spiritual maturity and an intimacy with the Divine. More often than not, contemporary devotion means kneeling near a statue in a church and saying the Divine Mercy chaplet or thumbing through the Sorrowful Mysteries on one's rosary at home. It reflects a systemic approach to private prayer and meditation. Alone, this is a reduction of past people's broader, fervent idea of devotion. In context, however, the emphasis on devotion in an atomistic, modern, post-Reformation society has elicited deleterious effects on the Roman liturgy and was one of the principal movers in its gradual disassembly.

The basic concept of devotion and its practice persists East and West. A person enters a church, goes to a corner with a holy image, lights a a candle, shoves a dollar into the box, and acts for God to intervene for the good in someone's life. Popularly, novenas once occupied an evening slot at most Latin parishes and continue as a means of private prayer; the Ascension is often called the beginning of a novena running into Pentecost, mimicking the oriental process of anticipating great feasts. More dramatically, pilgrimage to holy places in Jerusalem, Rome, Egypt, and the sights of Marian miracles, for the fulfillment of promises and the remission of sins, remains a congruity between the the Greek and Latin traditions. What differs practically, however, is that much of Latin devotional piety is based on the chiliastic premonitions associated with private apparition and their accompanying semi-salvific promises; the Miracle of the Sun may have been seen by 70,000 people, but the bestowing to Saint Simon Stock of the Brown Scapular, a common "get out of purgatory free" card, has far less reliable origins. Such complete promises of salvation shift the focus of devotion from God to the promise itself, from the mysteries of God to the bare minimum to fulfill vicariously living out a full religious life. Consequently, Marian feasts inspired by new devotional titles proliferated (Holy Family, Apparition of the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Queenship feast, Immaculate Heart, the Holy Name, the September feast of the Seven Sorrows, the Maternity of Mary—which is not Christmas, and more local feasts). As local feasts these would be harmless. On the General Roman Kalendar they break up the seasonal rhythm of the liturgy and alter the attention of the seasons from the reliving of Christ's life to scattered pieties observed by the few.

Hail O Virgin and
Bride Ever Pure!
By contrast, this writer found the Greek liturgy to be a revelation not in that it ignored devotionalistic piety, but that it found a seamless manner of integrating it into the Eucharistic and hourly rites without diluting them. Byzantine etiquette for entering a church prescribes reverencing the icon on the icon stand in front of the iconostasis. Few things say "Byzantine" like an icon, but they did not always occupy a place of prominence in the official Greek worship. The faithful took to using and, often, abusing the sanctity of icons, leading to their banishment from churches by a superstitious emperor only to return as a tell-tale sign of one's orthodoxy. Years after the Sunday of Orthodoxy the Byzantine Church had hung icons about the screen around the altar and gestured to the Virgin and Our Lord at their mentions and the conclusion of litanies; icons were placed in the center of churches during Liturgies in honor the depicted saint; and icons were the ticket for a place aboard the processions commemorating that first Sunday of Orthodoxy. Prayer before icons and their place in the corner of one's home did not prevent them also from becoming an innate part of Constantinopolitan worship.

The greatest devotional treasure in the public worship of the Greek liturgy, however, is the Akathist to the Theotokos sung during Great Lent. This year the Annunciation will fall on Palm Sunday; last year it was on Good Friday. While the Latin Church often transfers the feasts until after Low Sunday, the Eastern tradition holds the feast to be of such great importance that it is immobile. Saint Gabriel's words to the Mother of God were initially welcomed—so theorize liturgical historians—as sung sermons or plays during the Fast, both meant to instruct and to inspire devotion.


Over time this devotion became "liturgized" and even integrated into the Liturgy itself. Although not fundamentally part of the Liturgy in the sense that the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Office are, Greek rite monasteries customarily sing the Akathist to the Mother of God during Great Compline on the Lenten Fridays prior to the feast. In practice, when parishes sing the Akathist as a stand alone service they add the traditional beginning of the Hours, with the priest's blessing, the Trisagion, and the singing of a psalm (50). Then follow the Odes, the Chants, and finally the reverence of the icon of the Virgin. Although not an Hour, it possesses all the structure of an hour and a layman attending for the first time could simply treat it like assisting at Vespers and the kissing of an image, two things he already knows how to do. In an entirely familiar way he can hear the echoes of the angel's words to the Virgin and contemplate her fiat until he hears those words spoken during the Gospel of the feast itself.

Like Patristics, the act of liturgizing devotion is not something foreign to Latin Catholicism or outside its tradition, but it is something that has fallen by the wayside and which the so-called "Traditionalists" seemingly have no interest in reviving. How did the Roman rite mirroring this seemingly Hellenic adaptation of devotions into public worship? Have you ever seen a side altar?

Mass at the altar of St Gregory the Great in St Peter's, Rome
source: CatholicHeritage.blogspot.com
Side altars have a fascinating history that is probably worth its own original research (beyond my scholarly pay scale), but at the height of their use they represented the strongest assimilation of lay piety into the common parish's liturgy. Originally venues for monks to celebrate Requiem Masses for deceased benefactors or for votive Masses by monks unassigned to the conventual Mass, side altars quickly permeated parishes in the Middle Ages, being built and financially maintained by lay associations. Guilds under a certain patronage or town magistrates interested in their own local saints would pay for the construction of altars and shrines within their own parish churches and hire priests, approved by the local ordinary, to maintain services at these altars. A "Massing priest", who did not have the faculties to hear Confessions or administer Baptism that the pastor possessed, would provide the requisite Office and Mass proper to the shrine on a daily basis. At the "Jesus altar" he would sing the Office and high Mass of the Five Wounds of Christ every day but Sunday using the Missal and vestments provided by his benefactors; the guild or lay association owned those, not the priest or the parish. Saturdays of Our Lady originated in this fashion. On more solemn occasions, like funerals, guilds would join the priest in singing the full Office of the Dead the night before a Requiem, calling it the Dirige after the opening words of the Mattins psalm (and the origin of the word "dirge").

More anciently, the Roman gallery of great martyrs inspired the people of the Eternal City to keep vigil the night prior to feasts at the church which housed the relics of the day's saint or at least which was under his or her patronage. Over time this praxis became recognized as the "stational churches" for Papal Masses, noted in Missals printed prior to the 1960s. Over time the acts of devotion during these stational Masses augmented into great events in their own right, like the carrying of an image of Christ from the Lateran into Santa Maria Maggiore during Lauds for the Assumption. To this day Masses are said for stational feasts and for the days of Lent at their old locations, although only sparingly by the Pope himself.

One wonders what might have happened if not for the Reformation and erection of the SCR in 1588, which stunted the natural process of adapting the traditional liturgy for the needs of those who heard it and whose beneficence enabled it. Might the Corpus Christi or Candlemas mystery plays of York have somehow become liturgical acts along of the same lines as the akathist to the Theotokos? Or might the hymnody from those plays have found place in the liturgy as they did in popular culture? Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in the form of Benediction did become a quasi-part of the liturgy. Whatever might have happened did not come to pass, which leaves it to us today, in the process of recuperating liturgical tradition, to recover the proper place of devotion as part of the Roman rite's "stuff." Far be it from importing an Eastern perspective into the Latin Church, the Greek tradition cleaned the lens for looking at our Roman inheritance.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Commentary of Fortunatianus

Some of our readers may already be aware of the recent publication in the “creative commons” of Fortunatianus’s (c. 300 – c. 360) long-lost Gospel commentary translated in English. This same commentator was the bishop of Aquileia during the Arian crisis, and influenced St. Jerome’s own scripture commentaries. He is also accused by Jerome of having pressured P. Liberius to concede to the heretics, although Jerome appears to be the only source of this accusation. (Fortunatianus himself calls Arianism a heresy when he writes on the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel [2925].)

In any case, the commentary remains an important historic text. The bishop’s exegesis is densely allegorical, as were many patristic commentaries. He identifies the four Evangelists with the four heavenly creatures of the Apocalypse, but in keeping with other early writers he identifies Mark as the Eagle and John as Lion:
Mark, observing the rule of prophecy, starts as follows: As is it written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I send my angel before your face. The Gospel according to Mark is therefore the face of an eagle, which is the likeness of the Holy Spirit. The prophets, when filled with this, prophesied continually. [10]
Fortunatianus’s references to the Gospel texts in Latin are quite different from Jerome’s later Vulgate, and even inconsistently rendered. He writes of an early and apparently very unpopular tradition that the Virgin Mary was martyred:
We believe that, in accordance with the prophecy of Simeon, she was put to death by the sword, because he said to her: And a sword will pass through your own soul. [355]
He is also a witness to the patristic tradition of St. Joseph’s first marriage:
For the reason that James and Jude are called the brothers of the Lord is undoubtedly not because they were born of Mary, but they were sons of Joseph from another wife. They were called the brothers of the Lord by normal custom because of Joseph, since he was from the same tribe, or Mary, since she was called the wife of Joseph. [360]
The talent and training for allegorical preaching is mostly lost in our time, and it is sometimes shocking to see the connections early commentators make within the Holy Writ. For instance, the mention of foxes and their dens in the eighth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel brings to mind Christ’s description of Herod as a fox and also the story of Samson burning the fields of his enemies with foxes:
Jesus said to him: Foxes have their holes. He calls heretical people foxes, just as he said of Herod, who was a Sadducee: Go, tell that fox: Leave it alone, I cast out demons. Foxes, he says, have their holes: for foxes, in order to feed, hide themselves in the deep earth, buried away in their holes. False people, heretics, who have earthly works and make dark and shady little gatherings for themselves, are similar to foxes. For Samson, too, having captured some foxes, tied firebrands, meaning torches, to their tails and set fire to their entire harvests and vineyards[...] showed because the tail is the outermost part of the body. Having taken a torch, it sets fire to the crops and vineyards, plainly through wicked preaching. [1140]
Gregory the Great’s magisterial commentary on the book of Job would run along similar lines of allegory and animal symbolism. One is hard-pressed to find anything similar in the last few centuries, arguably because of St. Thomas’s insistence on the primacy of the literal meaning.

For the modern reader, the Commentary of Fortunatianus will be more edifying when used as an occasional reference than as a systematic work of exegesis. His writing is dense and often alien to our sensibilities. It is what one friend of mine calls “holographically interesting,” in that each small part of it seems to contain an entire world. Our forebears had faith that could see the mountain in the grain of sand. In every action and word, the God-Man enfolded many teachings, prophecies, and explanations of things past. Preachers take note!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Short Intermission

I am working on the next installment of the on-going Easter Church, Five Years On series, which should be ready this weekend. In the interim, please see and comment on the dynamic of Traditionalist parishes as described by Charles Coulombe and his co-conspirator below. I find the characterizations very applicable to the local FSSP parish, probably a bit less so now than three years ago, but still applicable none the less. Generational turnover might be changing things, but the constant influx of new people from diocesan disasters (especially in Dallas) also aids the reactionary mentality.


Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Insanity of Sproul


Last month saw the final days of American Presbyterian theologian R.C. Sproul, longtime champion of Reformed theology and vocal critic of atheism and Catholicism alike. It is doubtful that many of our readers know anything about Dr. Sproul, but his radio program through Pennsylvania-based Ligonier Ministries was a staple of my formative years. This program served as my introduction to systematic theology and scriptural commentary, and it was far more substantial than most of the material generated in Evangelical Protestant circles.

Dr. Sproul was unafraid to remind his listeners about the theology of Sir Luther—Calvinist though he was—and what still separated them from the Catholic Church. He was a brutal opponent of the Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical document Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994) about which he once said, “Somebody is preaching a different gospel and when Rome condemned the Protestant declaration of justification by faith alone, I believe that Rome when placing the anathema on sola fide placed the anathema of God upon themselves.” He was no respecter of persons nor of niceness, though his behavior could hardly be called base or rude. He simply knew where he stood and was unafraid to preach the conclusions of that stance.

The Young Reformed (aka New Calvinist) movement that peaked in the early 2000s bore some of Sproul’s influence, though perhaps more from John “Desiring God” Piper and Mark Driscoll. The early American Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards enjoyed a brief resurgence, and the movement’s proto-hipster population also attempted to appropriate G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor to supplement Calvinism’s noticeable lack of non-homiletic literary culture.

When Sproul was not singing the praises of early Reformation luminaries, he was pretending that St. Augustine’s theology was harmonious with Calvin’s. He also spoke highly of St. Thomas Aquinas, although he was slightly more honest about the latter’s peculiarly Catholic theology.

The primary concern of Sproul’s theological exegesis was the sovereign holiness of God, and the infinite terror engendered by the realization of the utter otherness of Divinity. His popular series The Holiness of God included lectures on “The Trauma of Holiness” and “The Insanity of Luther.” This separatist view of the divine nature was at the root of Sproul’s so-called “doctrines of grace” (i.e., Calvinism), and worked its way through doctrines of predestination, of the limitation of God’s love to the elect, of the “divine rape” of grace, all the way to the admission that on the Cross the divine nature of the God the Son “turned his back” on the human nature. (Protestant theology has always been uncomfortable with the intimacy of God with humanity that the Incarnation necessarily implies, and Sproul was more open than most about how much of Luther’s thought leads to Christological heresy.)

I lost track of Sproul after my reception into the Church, but by all accounts he continued to preach and publish until his health failed him in late 2017. He was well read in literature, philosophy, history, and science in addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of Protestant theology. He was a great practitioner of the art of rhetoric. He possessed an undying and irrational devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of his like one cannot find among his peers, and I have no doubt he could preach circles around the vast majority of American Catholic priests. He was not given to sentimentalities nor to shielding his flock from harsh truths.

In one of his many near-poetic expositions on the inevitability of death, he once wrote,
In his final moments my father tried to leave me with a legacy to live by. He sought to overcome his own agony by encouraging me. He was heroic; I shrank from his words in cowardice. I could not face what he had to face. I pled ignorance as I only understood enough of his words to recoil from them. He said, “Son, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”… My father was speaking from a posture of victory. He knew who he was and where he was going. But all I could hear in those words was that he was going to die.
On Thursday, December 14, 2017, the feast of the poet-saint Venantius Fortunatus, Robert Charles Sproul died surrounded by family and by his fellow pastors and elders. Once he wrote, “As fearsome as death it is, it is nothing compared with meeting a holy God.” How fearsome it must have been for him to come face to face with the God about whom he had taught so many heresies, after he had actively prevented so many baptized persons from entering into the Church Catholic. “You go round about the sea and the land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, you make him the child of hell twofold more than yourselves. Woe to you, blind guides.”

There is a harsh truth, indeed.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Miracle at Cana: Pious Impiety?


Today is the feast of Theophany, or Epiphany. Before the celebration of Christmas began in the fourth century, the various manifestations of the Godhead-made-Man were recalled by the Church on this day, namely the birth of Christ, the visit of the gentile astrologers, the Baptism of Our Lord by St. John in the Jordan, and the transformation of water into wine during a wedding at Cana. The Lord's Baptism in the Jordan is now on the octave day of Epiphany, completing the week wit the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the visit of the Magi occupies most of the feast proper. It is the last act of Theophany, however, that seasonally gives this writer the heeby-jeebies, and not because of the miracle itself.

As a child I read the story of the Miracle at Cana not as Christ doing something against His will because His Mother told Him to do so, but Christ drawing out His Mother's pity so He could in turn show His own compassion for the bridegroom and bride. It may not be a "Traddie" idea, merely a devotionalist idea, but whenever the Miracle of Cana is recounted in the second Sunday after Epiphany, the Roman Catholic blogosphere seems to saturate with articles on why devotion to Mary is essential for Christian life—and it is—on grounds that seem faulty. It usually goes something like "Jesus is both justice and mercy. Mary is all mercy." Call me an effrontery to piety, but is this not quite impious? Ought we call Our Lord and God's justice something else from His mercy, as though the two are separate? Or as though they oppose each other? Or as if one crowds out the other within the infinity of His Godhead? Or that His justice is supplanted by His Mother's kindness?

The Greek Theotokon texts for the Church Offices often employ phraseology like "No one knows a Son like a Mother" and commends all our confidence in prayer to the Blessed Mother for this very purpose. Along a similar vein, one of the most beautiful Roman collects in the Sundays after Pascha (one of the great Latin treasure troves) is this:
"O God, Who makest the faithful to be of one mind and will, grant to Thy people the grace to love what Thou dost command and to desire what Thou dost promise, that amid the change of the world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are found."
Is this not true of Mary more than it is of any other saint? That she, above all, understands what Her Son desires and can point the faithful to His will? The multiplication of Marian apparitions in the last few centuries, particularly that from Fatima, carry messages from heaven about Christ's dissatisfaction and desires for the world, not the Virgin's free-standing mercy.

Interestingly, the most common depiction in all Western art, after the Crucifixion, is probably the Annunciation. Even the Crucifixion rarely excluded Mary until the years after the Reformation, with the Virgin "swooning" or appearing opposite Saint John on Rood screens. In Greek iconography Mary is almost never shown without Christ; the Deesis images and the Seat of Wisdom are especially poignant reminders of the congruity between the Mother and Divine Son. And yet more modern religious art, often kitsch as can be, has Mary standing on a globe, almost ruling the world and crushing sin on her own, without her Son in sight. The common Catholic who prays in front of such an image in the local parish likely does not share the dodgy Mariology that elicited such artwork, but that same Mariology continues in some quiet, narrow corners of the Church whenever the Second Sunday after Epiphany of Our Lady of Mount Carmel rolls around.


Monday, January 1, 2018

Lux Fulgebit: A Review


Just as last year ended with a review, so this year begins with a review. Today we look at Lux Fulgebit: the Mass at Dawn of Christmas Day, a recording by the Schola Cantorum of Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Norwalk, Connecticut. Immediately, two distinct features make this recording worth a listen: it presents a hitherto unheard English Renaissance setting for the ordinary of the Mass by William Rasar; and that it is a full of a rarely heard Mass, as the second Mass of Christmas day is routinely neglected for the midnight and daytime Masses.

Lux Fulgebit is comprised of serious scholarship and recording effort. The Mass Christe Iesu, Rasar's only extant work, had to be consolidated from two manuscripts in order to present the full work, including the tenor part from a separate tradition. The decision to contextualize Rasar's Christe Iesu within a Mass means the complete Mass of Christmas at Dawn, replete with the collects and commemorations of St. Anastasia, the lesson, gradual, Gospel, preface, bells for the consecration, the Pater Noster, and the dismissal—all from the Roman liturgy despite the Mass's author having written in England in 1515.

The Mass begins with an organ prelude, the Introit, and a plainsong Kyrie before transitioning into the Gloria, which, with the Benedictus, was my favorite track on Lux Fulgebit. Because so few voices sing on the tracks, the parts are clear and harmonize very well, especially the treble parts, presumably sung by a woman rather than a boy, but without any of the vibrato or "breathy" sound one typically hears with the female voice. The choir paces itself while and resists any undue need to embellishment, instead letting the natural harmonies within the work's key provide layering of sound so characteristic of the English Renaissance and so atypical of the later "chirpy" polyphony.

Unfortunately, the plainsong and clerical parts fail to meet the same standard of excellence the polyphony achieves. Perhaps the sound equipment was too tuned or the choice of recording setting was not amicable to chant, but the Gregorian melodies are flat, without resonance, and far too intelligible in a bad way; one can hear the moisture of the cantors' mouths and that hiss every time a word ends with the letter "s". The real tragedy is that I am familiar with this choir's singing from when I lived in Connecticut and I know they can do much better this.

Is Lux Fulgebit a triumph? No, but it is a very good first recording that advances awareness of Rasar's Christe Iesu Mass and it is a pleasant listen. I am looking forward to St. Mary's next offering.