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It ain’t over yet….

As I write this, perhaps like most of you, I am relaxing with my family after all the exertions and celebrations of this  Christmas weekend.  Confessions, Masses, greetings were all both uplifting both spiritually and personally. I was very moved by the good spirits, the kindness, the cheer and respectful sentiments expressed by so many of you. I think we can all agree that the decoration of the sanctuary; and the splendid music of our Masses were special and mark out St. Matthew’s as a place where a reverent, thoroughly Catholic atmosphere pervades our worship. Our Adult and Youth Choirs are among the very best in our Diocese.

The “world” will now turn away from its “Christmas Season” ( as good as it can still be even now with all its materialism) and focus on yet more sales and New Years. To use a modern term the world’s Christmas Season is very “front loaded.” While we were celebrating the Advent Liturgical Season, the outside  world was celebrating “the Holidays.” Now we embark on the “12 Days of Christmas”.

The Church ( and our Catholic tradition) “keeps Christmas ” for the 12 days between today, the Nativity, and the Epiphany, an ancient feast whose proper date is January 6th. ( I personally think that one of the least attractive features of the liturgical reforms instituted after the Second Vatican Council is this tendency to shift ancient feasts around for the sake of convenience. The Epiphany on January 6th is as ancient a feast as December 25th’s Nativity.)

The first 8 days are the Christmas Octave: 8 days to celebrate the Feast with its traditional Feasts: St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, St. Thomas Becket, St. Sylvester and the new Feast of the Holy Family.

Our Catholic ancestors viewed this time as the real Christmas Season. The joy of the feast can’t be penned up into one 24 hour period and we celebrate it throughout these days.

Christmas night, 2011.

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The “Greater Ferias of Advent”

Today, the 17th of December the last week of Advent commences with what is traditionally known as The Greater Ferias of Advent. The word “feria” is a Latin word used in the liturgical calendar to denote a weekday. From time immemorial in our Roman or Latin Rite these last seven days before Christmas have an especially beautiful liturgical character in the prayers and readings of the Mass assigned to each day and in the famous “O Antiphons”. Advent now turns from a meditation on the Second Coming of Christ to one on His first coming as a Child in Bethlehem.

An “antiphon” is a phrase that punctuates or begins and ends a Psalm or Canticle in the Breviary or Liturgy of the Hours: the daily official prayer book of the Catholic Church which is a special responsibility of clerics and religious. In the “hour” of Vespers ( Evening Prayer) Mary’s canticle the Magnificat is always sung or said with an antiphon before and after. In the Vespers of these “Greater Ferias” they are all unique and of a particularly moving and biblical character. They are often called the “O Antiphons” because they begin with what the grammarians might call a “vocative”: “O!” as in “O, you kid!”).

Here, of course, they are more solemn and each day uses a biblical title for the Lord. I learned them for the first time in Latin in the former “Prep Seminary” via  a Latin pneumonic: S-A-R-C-O-R-E:


Sapientia ( Wisdom)

Adonai ( a rare use of Hebrew meaning Lord)

Radix Jesse ( Root of Jesse)

Clavis David ( Key of David)

Oriens ( Rising Sun)

Rex Gentium ( King of the Nations)

Emmanuel ( Emmanuel)

(As you reading this online, you can find the full texts online as well by any number of search engines or sites. )

The Gospel readings of each Mass give us an almost dramatic “count-down” to Christmas day by day. This is a very good week to prepare the Stable of your soul for His Coming by the Sacrament of Penance and moments of prayer and reflection.

Come, let us adore Him!


December 17, 2011


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“I thought I was in a Protestant church….”

The words above hit me like a rifle shot I have to admit. I’d just finished offering Mass in the new edition of the Roman Missal and a regular communicant made that observation/criticism. At first I bridled inwardly; but then caught myself and gave some anodyne answer and moved along.

However, the words above do go right to the heart of one of the issues involved in the production of the new Missal: the use of the vernacular, in our case, English.

It was been observed that however long the Catholic Liturgy was in Latin, there flourished along with it in Europe great “Catholic vernaculars” ( e.g. English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, etc.) in which Catholic faith, piety and worship were known to the people in their own languages. Generations of Catholics were formed by catechisms, prayer books, “primers” and so forth that often drew from the Latin Liturgy and rendered the texts in words and ways that reached them.

We know, for example, that in pre-Reformation England prayer-books and translations of the Canon of the Mass, other liturgical prayers and devotions were in wide circulation and printed in great numbers. Translations of the Bible in whole and in part were well known. St. Thomas More wrote widely about this and added his own prayers all in the English vernacular of his day.

When in the 16th century then, when the Protestant reformers drew up their new liturgies in the vernacular they had an existing religious language at hand. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and others in compiling the Anglican Book of Common Prayer drew upon that already existing “Catholic vernacular” to enshrine their thoroughly Protestant theology. Hence for a Catholic today to peruse the Communion Service of the traditional Anglican liturgy is an experience not found until recently in officially Catholic worship. Words such as “oblation….sacrifices…bounden duty….graciously accept….” and so forth, not to mention the “old English” thee’s and thou’s all seem “more Catholic than we are..” or even, as my commentator said “Protestant”!

What Cranmer et al. did was to use the familiar religious vernacular, bred and formed in a Catholic matrix, to serve a new Protestant agenda. I’ve written on this in an earlier column here.

It is worth repeating though that what was done in our own case in the 1960’s and 70’s was not merely a “new Mass” in English; but in many ways a “new Mass” in a “new English”: an English devoid of the traditional and noble expressions found for generations in any English language hand missal or prayerbook.  It was a deliberate decision to create a new religious “Catholic” English: modern, every-day, prosaic, and it must be said, flat. Efforts were made to avoid Latin cognate words, Latin word order. Ancient liturgical prayers dating back 1500 years were rendered to sound as if they had been composed last week. God never “commanded”, he ( small case ) “asked”; the “merits” of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints were simply not mentioned; and even prayers most of us knew by heart ( e.g., the “Angelus” prayer or the prayer to the Holy Spirit) were consciously re-translated. Even the “Glory be” had to be changed,even though the ancient and official Latin had not changed.

We were lucky that the Lord’s Prayer remained the same; a favor not granted to other language groups. Imagine having to learn a “new” Our Father for communal use!

Now what has been done with this new English language translation of the Roman Missal ( the very term had fallen into desuetude) is to deliberately recapture the look, the sound, the rhythm of Catholic worship through the ages, using the new Missal of Paul VI. What we are using now is NOT the “old Mass” but the “new Mass” rendered for the first time NOT into “old English” but an attempt at a classic or more noble and uplifting English.

It is VERY Catholic indeed, and NOT “Protestant”.

However it may be hard for many of us, clergy as well as laity to “recapture” a language we never really knew. We are like the people of Israel recounted in the Old Testament who returned from their long exile in Babylon and who had forgotten the very words of the Law. The long-lost book of the Law was recovered and read out to them for an entire day. We are told they wept to hear the words of God their ancestors had once known.

Now, of course, our situation is not as bad as that!  We have been offering and attending the Mass for these past forty years and the Faith has been proclaimed and celebrated. But there is a bit of an analogy here nonetheless. We will be hearing the words of the ancient (and new) prayers of our Catholic Liturgy for the first time for many of us in their true and proper rhythm and sense. Of course, with all human products , this new edition of the Missal is not perfect.

It will be  a challenge for us to let the “new English” sink in and begin to work in our hearts as well as our minds. We may be mystified or not sure of what some words mean. I will do  my best as your pastor to explain them. But let us first open our hearts and minds.

November 29, 2011.

First Week of Advent

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December 7, 1941… September 11, 2001… and today, November 22, 1963 are all dates that for most of you reading this blog entry will have some resonance and impact.

For those alive at the time, and for any student of American history, the Pearl Harbor attack came as literally a bolt from the blue. The afternoon’s radio broadcasts interrupted by the announcer.. and the world had changed and millions of lives would be uprooted or, indeed, cut short.

Another bright blue sky, in the morning, and then we heard ( and now could see) in real time the incredible disintegration of the World Trade Towers and the simultaneous death of thousands there, the Pentagon, and in a rural field in Pennsylvania. It was the Pearl Harbor of our times.

And forty-eight years ago on this date for me, a seventh-grader at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Lindenhurst, with another bright, clear, crisp autumn day came the news of gunshots in Dallas, and the first presidential assassination since McKinley in 1901. None of us who were alive and aware can probably forget the sights and the sounds, and the words we learned over that stunning weekend: “cortege…muffled drums…riderless horse…Eternal Flame…”. President John F. Kennedy’s name still lives on in the names of airports, schools,  and parks.

These are all dates that an historian has called “mythogenic”: they create an immediate memory of where we were when we first got the news, how the day felt and looked, and so often, stories real or fabled about the day’s events.

Another event occurred on November 22, 1963 that passed unnoticed at the time. An Anglican layman, classic scholar, writer, and commentator named Clive Stapleton Lewis died of natural causes. His death was mentioned, if at all, way back in the pages of the weekend’s papers, and he was buried in an English churchyard on Monday, November 25th: the same day the world was watching the State Funeral in Washington DC. Yet, the man universally known as C.S. Lewis has probably touched more minds and souls for Christ than anyone in the first half of the Twentieth Century, other than perhaps Bishop Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, or Popes Pius XII and  John XXIII.

I still return with pleasure and awe at the spiritual and psychological insights of The Screwtape Letters, the brisk logic and perception of God in the Dock and Mere Christianity, and so many other works of apologetics, theology, and spiritual fable such as The Chronicles of Narnia.

I offer a prayer for him today, that even though he could not in his lifetime come into what Cardinal Newman said was “from shadows into light” and enter the Catholic Church, that now he rejoices with all those others in God’s Kingdom whom he helped to enter by his writings.

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Farewell to all that….

Today’s feast of Christ the King marks the end, as it always does, of the Church’s Liturgical Year in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. This year, it also marks the end of an era.

This is the last Sunday that we will use the old familiar responses and prayers of the Mass that we have absorbed over these past forty years. Next Sunday, the First of Advent, a new edition of the Roman Missal comes into effect throughout the United States and almost all the prayers and responses used by both clergy and laity will be altered and have a different tone and aura.

I’ve been writing about this here, and in the parish bulletin and from the pulpit for a few months now. In October I hosted two open meetings to introduce and explain the changes. One more will be offered on Tuesday, November 22nd, at 7 PM in Msgr. Goggin Hall.

For many conversant with the official Latin texts of the Missal, which has gone through three editions since 1970, there was always been a sense of a “gap” between what is in the Latin ( which is supposed to be normative) and what we actually hear and read in the translations that we have been using all these years. A combination of haste, didacticism, “horizontal dynamic equivalence”, and, in my opinion, a desire to downplay or altogether omit some traditional Catholic turns of phrase and concepts uncongenial to “modern man” is now to be corrected. We will enter a new phase of the grand experiment of a totally vernacular Liturgy. Until the 1960’s the Church’s Liturgy both West and East was often conducted in the “sacral language” that was the matrix of the Rites. For us in the West, Latin; for many in the Catholic Eastern Rites and the Orthodox Churches,  Greek and Old Slavonic.

We will now be using an English in the Mass that is more redolent of an aura of tradition, mystery, and respect for the actual language of what, after all, is referred to still as the Latin Rite.

We will find the language of the Mass will ask US to stretch up to it a bit, rather than us asking IT to come down to everyday speech.

For all of us it will mean a change in our habitus mentis, the accustomed way of thinking about, and doing, the Liturgy. Not just the words, but the mentality of forty years ago of a seeming endless experimentation and “adaption to current needs”  as vaguely defined will also have to change. I’ve sometimes joked that while we’ve talking about “implementing the Third Edition of the Roman Missal” many of us clergy haven’t yet implemented the FIRST edition of the Roman Missal!  How many times have I heard about, and witnessed, priests and deacons with varying degrees of skill and good theology altering words, gestures, even the Eucharistic Prayers themselves to “improve them” or make them more “relevant”.

I have had several meetings with my priestly colleagues and deacons in the parish to discuss these changes and to stress the fact that we are the servants of the Liturgy, NOT its masters.

This will, I suspect, be perhaps the greatest challenge of all: that what like to do, say, or rearrange in the Mass and its ceremonies and words must give way what the CHURCH wants.

November 20, 2011. Feast of Christ the King.

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The “new New Mass”

Dear friends,

As you may know, as of the First Sunday of Advent of this year, November 27-28th, a significant change in the texts, prayers, and responses that have been used for the celebration of Mass since 1970 will go into effect.

These revised texts involve all of us in the celebration of Mass, not only the priests and deacons but of all of you who participate in the Mass. In technical language we are going to be implementing the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, finally translated into English.

One of the many misconceptions that grew out of the liturgical revolution of the 1970’s was the mistaken belief that “liturgy is something WE do.” Many clergies have grown into the habit of paraphrasing or simply ignoring some at least of the actual prayers and texts of the Mass as we currently have them. The existence of an official Latin Missal (“Mass book”) whose texts were normative and published by the Holy See was often overlooked and many assumed that there were many “options” that enabled each priest, deacon, or liturgy committee to fashion its own celebration. While the “freewheeling” days of the 60’s and 70’s have largely passed on, many of the underlying attitudes have not.

I remember when my late father converted to Catholicism and he went to meet weekly with one of the parish priests. This was before the changes in the Liturgy and one of the things he had to learn was a familiarity with the English versions of the Latin Mass prayers as well as what was a challenge at first for some converts: the exclusive use of a “dead language” for the public worship of the Church. (Of course, the preaching and catechesis were always in the vernacular, English in our case.)  Among the reasons my father learned for the preservation of the Latin language in the Mass was that the actual texts of the Mass were “exempt from the shifting changes of any living vernacular” and “no matter where you went to Mass, the Mass was always the same.”

In the late 1960’s this objectivity was progressively abandoned by the Church. One of the risks taken was the exposure of the Liturgy to a naturally evolving vernacular as well as what was seen by some then, and by more now, as a hasty and overly broad practice and style of translation from  the new Roman Missal into a “new English  Mass.”

Many traditional and existing English expressions derived from the Liturgy of the Church were either rarely used, or used not all. Some have remarked that this has resulted in the odd phenomenon of the explicitly Protestant Reformation liturgy of the traditional Anglican and Episcopal Book of Common Prayer sounding “more Catholic” than our own liturgical texts to many ears. Many traditional Catholic terms in English were deliberately avoided or even “abolished” unnecessarily. For a while, even the very word “Mass” fell into disfavor while maintained by Protestants. (The very Lutheran Church of Sweden still refers to the principal Service on Sunday as the Hogmesse or “High Mass.”)

Some of this was a result of a belief that one needed to “make things understandable” and others just for the sheer passion for novelty; as well as some other, more serious, desires to downplay some Catholic doctrines that seemed out of place for that famous and proverbial creature of the time: “Modern Man” (oops, “Modern Human Being”). A good example of shifting vernacular right there!

Over the years, many priests, laity and even those outside the Church warned that the language currently used was excessively flat, uninspiring, and in some cases, poor and even misleading.

For example, the current text of the Nicene Creed starts with “We believe” while the ancient 4th century begins with “I believe” (“Credo in Latin) as well as referring to Christ “by the power of the Holy Spirit was born of the Virgin Mary” while the actual text says nothing of Him being “born” but made “incarnate” (literally “enfleshed”) of the Virgin Mary, a different thing. You and I were “made flesh” in the wombs of our mothers nine months before our birth: a distinction not only one of language but also of theology as well as matter of the beginning of human life.

These are but a few examples.

In the new Missal the ceremonies and structure of the Mass remain the same but in a new and, yes, often more traditionally Catholic and more elevated language.

You will find in this Sunday’s bulletin a guide from the Bishops’ Conference to many of these verbal changes and their meaning.

I will also be hosting two open meetings on Wednesday, October 19th: at 1 PM for the “daytimers” and one at 7:30 for the “evening and night timers”. The changes will be discussed and pew cards containing all your new prayers and responses will be available for you to take home and keep as we prepare for Advent. Coffee and cake will be served at both.

I’ll have more to say as time goes on.


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The “Wall of Separation”…

The phrase that appears as the title of this entry is often quoted by those concerned about the real or imagined encroachment of organized religion in the public and social life of this country. The phrase appears nowhere in any of the founding documents of the United States but appeared in a letter of the deist Thomas Jefferson to the Baptists of Danbury, CT. It is his interpretation of the “establishment clause” in the Bill of Rights ( the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.)  This “wall” image has become the rallying cry of those who wish to resist and often remove any religious exercise from the “public square”.

As a side note, I cannot forbear from an anecdotal observation that the “wall”  seems most often deployed against Catholicism and orthodox Christianity in general than other religions. It is not for nothing that one of the most prominent lights of the old WASP secular liberal world, John Kenneth Galbraith once described anti-Catholicism as the “single most perduring prejudice” in America. Anti-Catholicism has also been described as “the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals”; the last “respectable prejudice” left in America.

In the previous blog, I mentioned some instances of this even among those whom many of us might consider political or social-issues allies.

Ironically, Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholics, in general, have done more theological and civic work underpinning the American value of “religious freedom” than most other religious bodies in America.

Our leaders have gone out of their way to appear as “American” and have made themselves as “popular” and “non-threatening” as humanly possible. One need only remember John F. Kennedy’s remarks on his Catholic faith in the 1960 campaign to Protestant ministers and others.

Yet that was an era when Catholic prelates such as Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Sheen; and Catholic clergy and nuns enjoyed a high public esteem; while retaining a reverent dignity both in their own demeanor and in the minds of the public. Movies such as Going My Way; The Bells of Saint Mary’s; The Song of Bernadette was not “niche” films but played to nationwide audiences. Catholic priests showed up as strong and wise figures in films as military chaplains, prison chaplains, and even on the docks of New York City.

Today, to put it mildly, things are “different”.

We have come from a respectful tolerance to a scorn and an exclusion that has been unknown in the country until now.

The editor of the New York Times recently seemed to put belief in “space aliens” on the same plane as normal ( and serious) Christianity in examining the religious beliefs of (Republican) candidates. He even managed at first to lump the very Catholic Rick Santorum with “extreme” Evangelicals. He also tossed in a parody of the doctrine of Transubstantiation that would have done any anti-Catholic propagandist proud.

As we all know, there will be no prayers or religious references in the 10th Anniversary ceremonies of 9/11 at the World Trade Center. It is thought to be “too difficult” to arrange. Yet no more than a week later in that very year a massive public memorial service could be organized at Yankee Stadium which I remember being broadcast over the PA system at Jones Beach and hearing even the eerie wail of a Muslim imam, along with Hebrew chants, and Christian hymns without causing any discernable damage to the fabric of American political life.

I wonder where we’re heading.


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Religion and politics don’t mix…or do they?

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic Church in France was enjoying a comparatively rare period of public and official favor. Since 1789 the Church had been derided, persecuted, subjected to State control; and Napoleon even imprisoned two of the Popes in his time. Periodic riots and outbreaks of terror had destroyed churches, convents, abbeys, and sent hundreds of clergy, nuns and brothers, and devout laity to prison, exile, or indeed, the guillotine.

Yet in 1849 a nephew of the same Napoleon, Louis Napoleon, had by skill, persistence, and a dash of Bonaparte ruthlessness made himself the first directly elected French Head of State in history ( and the last till 1962) and then in 1852, his uncle’s heir as Napoleon III, sovereign of what history terms The Second Empire. Possessing few, if any; of his “great” uncle’s talents and abilities, this Napoleon also possessed few of his uncle’s vices and cruelty. Married to a devout Spanish noblewoman, the Empress Eugenie, he was friendly to the Church, its mission, and its clergy and history. This was the era of St. Bernadette, and the beginning of the shrine at Lourdes, of the Cure of Ars, of the growth of religious orders ( including the Little Sisters of the Poor), and a revived Catholic social doctrine,as well as support for Pope Pius IX in his struggle against Garibaldi and the Risorgimento. It seemed to many French Catholics that a new era was at hand, and lasting.

However, a great figure of Catholic France, Frederic Ozanam, sounded a warning: Messieurs, let us not think that the State will do our work for us.

He was right. It came crashing down in 1870 and the Church once again went into a darker period of anti-clerical, Masonic, and atheistic mockery and despoliation.

I wonder if we Roman Catholics in America had our “Second Empire moment” in the 1980’s with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and a new social and political conservatism? It was an era in which Roe vs. Wade seemed imminently reversible, social liberalism was in retreat. An era in which the new Polish Pope ( an astounding thing in itself) along with help from the USA could bring down Communism; and “push back” the seeming decline of the Church in the post-conciliar era.

Perhaps we thought “the State” would do our job for us; if only we kept voting for “pro-life Republicans” and “social conservatives” we might create a more Christian, if not more Catholic, America?

30 years later, practically unrestricted abortion is still “the law of the land”; the very definition of marriage itself is altered beyond anything imaginable even a decade ago. Millions of children born into no stable family; in fact in some segments of our national community the illegitimate birth rate is near 70%. Catholic politicians show no fear of crossing the Bishops Conference; as indeed do most laity. It seems that most of us feel that “religion and politics don’t mix” to an extent that public and civic life should be “value free.” Genuinely Catholic faith and practice are in a minority even among those who define themselves as “Catholic.”

Also, most “pro-life” and social conservatives who espouse a religious ethic are not of our religion. Perhaps, never were. Today we see conservative politicians inviting evangelical pastors of “mega-churches” to share platforms with them who have declared Roman Catholicism to be a demonic “cult”. Another one is a practicing member of a denomination that officially teaches that the Papacy is the “anti-Christ”, and yet others are fallen-away Catholics. One defected from the Faith in full knowledge after years of what he described as a serious Mass-going practice of the Faith.

Perhaps we too are entering into a “winter” of declining influence and impact on our society. The old optimism of “morning in America” culture-wise seems to have been without a firm foundation after all.

Ringing across the millennia comes the cry of the Psalmist: Put not your trust in princes in whom is no salvation!

Even good princes…

August 22, 2011.

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Countdown to Advent

I know it’s still the summer and we’re all enjoying the warm weather, the Summer Religious Education Program; but as I’ve been mentioning here and elsewhere we are about to embark in the English-speaking world a new era in the celebration of the Mass as we’ve known it for the last forty years. The familiar English texts will be changing and this will affect all of us, clergy and laity.

Below you may link to a valuable guide to the new edition of the Roman Missal offered by the US Catholic bishops.


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“For this reason….”

The Catholic Bishops of NY State have released the following statement:

The subject line of this blog refers to the words of the Scripture about marriage: For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother, and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

This simple truth no longer applies to civil marriage in our State. The implications of the new marriage law will gradually become apparent. There is no longer any transcendent or natural referent to marriage in our law. The same arguments for “same sex marriage” might as well be applied to multi-party marriages.

The Church retains the legal freedom to set her own qualifications for celebrating marriages; though we might well be put under pressure to accord legal and financial recognition to same-sex unions for the purpose of adoptions and spousal benefits.

I do not think it impossible that we are entering into a new era of tension between our Faith and the secular authorities. Sad to think that the leadership in this movement is so heavily populated with “Catholic” politicians.

July 3, 2011