Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Father Nicholas: The REAL Santa Claus

When I was very young, some of my classmates would leave their shoes outside the bedroom door on the night of the fifth of December, so that Saint Nicholas would leave them treats.

We never did that at our house, but I did ask Mom how it was that Saint Nicholas got to be called Santa Claus. By this time I had already determined a connection between the two. But while my mother was salutatorian of her high school class -- there were about fifteen students at most, but hey, that's not the point -- she was not one to wear her erudition on her sleeve. So, rather than go into an entymological treatise on the subject, she simply told me: “Say ‘Santa Claus’ three times real fast.” That carried me over for at least a few years.

No good Catholic home is without an answer to the question of whether there is such a thing as Santa Claus. There is, but we are accustomed to the corruption of his real name, one that developed over the centuries. By the time devotion to Saint Nicholas reached Europe, he was known by different names. In the British Isles, he was known as "Father Christmas." In the Netherlands, he was known as "Sinterklaas." By the 19th century, periodicals such as Harper's Bazaar and promoters of a fountain beverage known as Coca-Cola had not only transformed the name, but the bright red costume with the white-fur trim, both of which we know today.

Whatever people call him, or however they depict him, the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century is a real person, and he presently dwells in Heaven with the Communion of Saints. Our Mother the Church celebrates his feast on the sixth of December, in both the East and the West.

VIDEO: A variation on a theme by Russell Jonas Grigaitis, OFS.

Nicholas was no lightweight. He was in attendance at the Council of Nicaea when the Arian heresy was being debated. At one point, he became so enraged with the Bishop Arius (whose errors were supported by the majority of bishops up to that time, remember), that he supposedly punched Arius in the nose.

That's right, kids, Jolly Olde Saint Nick cold-cocked a heretic! (Some accounts say that he merely slapped him, but that's so pansy, who'd believe it?)

Anyway, many of the bishops there, including the Emperor Constantine, were scandalized by the assault, and given their sympathies, had Nicholas thrown in the dungeon. That night, the Emperor had a dream where Nicholas appeared to him, adorned in his finest liturgical vesture, and holding the Book of the Gospels. Awakened with a fright, the Emperor summoned his guards, who joined him as he raced to the dungeon, to find Nicholas unchained, with ... you guessed it.

The story varies in certain details. Some accounts tell of Our Lord and Our Lady appearing to Nicholas in the dungeon. I heard the above account from an "Old Calendar" Russian Orthodox priest. It is also said that Nicholas, now restored to his rightful place in the council, slept through the rest of the proceedings.

I can't say I blame him.

At the little Byzantine Rite parish where my son learned the Faith, as it had been taught to his mother, the Feast of Saint Nicholas is a particular cause for celebration. He is the patron of Byzantine Catholics, and his image graces the iconostasis on the far left side as viewed from the assembly. There is a special hymn dedicated to him ...

O kto kto, Nikolaja l'ubit,
O kto kto, Nikolaju sluzit.
    Tomu svjatyj Nikolaj,
    Na vsjakij cas pomahaj.
    Nikolaj, Nikolaj!

O who loves Nicholas the Saintly,
O who loves Nicholas the Saintly.
    Him will Nicholas receive,
    and give help in time of need.
    Nicholas, Nicholas!

... and the children in the School of Religion program do a pageant in his honor every Sunday closest to the sixth of December. It culminates in the arrival of an elderly man with a long white beard, dressed in the robes of an Eastern bishop, with whom the children meet in much the same manner as they would his commercialized (and most inauthentic) counterpart.

Paul used to get special icon cookies to take home, much like the ones that appear in the photos, emblazoned with the words "O Holy Nicholas" in Slavonic. These unique gingerbread cookies are from a recipe which appears at the stnicholascenter.org website.

I dearly miss that little parish. It has changed over more than three decades. Several years ago, they completed a new and larger place of worship next to the original, one that emulates the style common to Eastern Europe. But with every successful building project they have -- the parish hall, the rectory -- the place seems a little less homey, a little larger than life. Still, the spirit of Saint Nicholas reminds them every year, of the things that are passed on, and that remain the same.

Now, enough of this self-indulgent soul-searching. Let's go bake some cookies already!

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Sunday, December 04, 2016

Advent II: Peace

(Romans 15:4)

Brethren: Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. R. Thanks be to God.

V. O Lord, hear our prayer.
R. And let our cry come unto Thee.
V. Let us pray ...


Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to prepare the way of Thine only-begotten Son: that through His coming we mat attain to serve Thee with purified minds. Who liveth and reigneth, with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end.

R. Amen.

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent I: Hope

(Romans 13:11)

Brethren: you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. R. Thanks be to God.

V. O Lord, hear our prayer.
R. And let our cry come unto Thee.
V. Let us pray ...


Stir up Thy power, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and come: that from the threatening dangers of our sins we may deserve to be rescued by Thy protection, and to be saved by Thy deliverance. Who livest and reignest, with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end.

R. Amen.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Mana Janji Ayah?

This eight-minute short film “Mana Janji Ayah?” (Where is Daddy's Promise?) is the story of a girl born into a very poor family. Her father is only a Bajaj driver (Bajaj is a three wheel vehicle, one of the public transportations in Jakarta). Since childhood, she has always been mocked by her friends, because she's very poor, and her fathers job is too inferior for them. They also make fun of his crippled leg. She is anger over her lot in life, and she vents this anger at her father.

The young girl has grown up with her anger, making her increasingly insecure, and underestimated by her friends. Her wishes for the trappings of the good life, especially material possessions, are not fulfilled. She is unaware of how much her father struggles to please her, to the point of selling his own prized possessions.

Her anger continues to grow, and the young girl continues to resent her father, because all her desires are not fulfilled. He is willing to struggle for his only one daughter's happiness.

Then one day, as her birthday arrives, he is finally able to fulfill all of his daughter's desires. It is then that tragedy strikes, and he is the victim of a highway accident, and is killed. Suddenly, and tragically, the little girl learns not only of the extent of her father's sacrifice, but the cost to herself, in losing that which matters more than mere possessions.

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

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This feature and commentary are possible through the kind assistance of Miss Fillia Astika, of Sidoarjo, Jawa Timur, Indonesia.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Original Black Hat

The black hat has been my trademark, off and on, for roughly half my life. In college and my early adulthood, it was a Greek fisherman's hat. The broad-brimmed fedora -- known as the "outback" style; no, it's not a cowboy hat -- has been de rigeur since the mid-1980s. In this photo recently uploaded by my sister Pat for the "family album" on Facebook, we see its first incarnation fifty-five years ago this month.

As financial secretary for his Knights of Columbus council, Dad was chosen among those representing Ohio at the Annual K of C Convention, held that year in Denver, Colorado. He and Mom made the most of it, climbing Pike's Peak (with the assistance of a shuttle bus), and brought us back these matching fashion statements. From left to right is yours truly (6 1/2 years), my sister Mary (5 years), and my brother Stephen (4 years). Patricia was to show up one year and four months later.

I have no idea why my eyes are closed, never mind what happened to that hat. I would have loved to have had it bronzed for posterity. Of course, then it wouldn't be black.

Steve looks pretty sure of himself, don't you think?

Or don't you?

Friday, June 03, 2016

In Corde Jesu

Today, Catholics of the Western tradition celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

Outside of devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is none more popular or more identified with the traditional piety of Catholic life than this feast, occurring on Friday of the week following the Feast of Corpus Christi. It was on that earlier feast when a Novena to the Sacred Heart would begin, culminating in the Mass and Office of today.

“Christ’s open side and the mystery of blood and water were meditated upon, and the Church was beheld issuing from the side of Jesus, as Eve came forth from the side of Adam. It is in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that we find the first unmistakable indications of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Through the wound in the side, the wound Heart was gradually reached, and the wound in the Heart symbolized the wound of love.” (1917 Catholic Encyclopedia)

There were various monastic communities who took up the devotion, but the real tip of the biretta has always gone to St Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-90), a Visitation nun who had a vision. While praying before the Blessed Sacrament, she saw Our Lord with his heart beating openly, and the sight of it all sent her into a spell of ecstasy. “He disclosed to me the marvels of his Love and the inexplicable secrets of his Sacred Heart.” To say the least.

But perhaps the finest explanation of this vision can be found in an episode of The X-Files, a detective series that ran on The Fox Network for nine years, and to this day has a formidable cult following. It is from the series' sixth season, and is entitled "Milagro" (6X18), originally airing on April 18, 1999. It seems there were people being murdered by their hearts being removed by hand. FBI Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) visited a Catholic church, and coming across the image of the Sacred Heart, she runs into this unsavory fellow who explains the story behind the image to her. A piece of the dialogue, from the mysterious writer named Philip Padgett (John Hawkes), describes a vision:

I often come here to look at this painting. It’s called “My Divine Heart” after the miracle of Saint Margaret Mary. Do you know the story ... The revelation of the Sacred Heart? Christ came to Margaret Mary, his heart so inflamed with love that it was no longer able to contain its burning flames of charity. Margaret Mary ... so filled with divine love herself, asked the Lord to take her heart ... and so he did, placing it alongside his until it burned with the flames of his passion. Then he restored it to Margaret Mary, sealing her wound with the touch of his blessed hand.

His account portrays an almost sensuous quality to the Saint's reaction to this vision, in a way that one might rarely hear or read anywhere else. It is a sign that perhaps the influence of Christendom has not entirely faded from the popular culture, not to mention images created in tattoo parlors.

A common practice in many Catholic homes until the mid-20th century (including mine), was the "Enthronement of the Sacred Heart," in which the family placed the appropriate image of Christ on the wall, and together recited the necessary prayers, pledging the consecration of the family and the home to Him, in return for special graces. Fisheaters has a good explanation of the whole she-bang, just in case it makes a comeback.

It could happen.

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Sunday, May 22, 2016


Today the Roman Rite, and much of western Christianity, celebrates Trinity Sunday. What began as a local feast in some parts of the Western church in the Middle Ages, was added to the universal Roman calendar by Pope John XXII (1316–1334), and designated as the first Sunday after Pentecost.

Three folds of the cloth,
    yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger,
    but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock,
    yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snowflakes and ice,
    all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God:
    to one God alone we make our prayer.

(An ancient Irish prayer)

The Reverend Doctor Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York. He writes:

Unlike most Sundays in our calendar, we are not marking any specific Biblical event, but it makes sense to celebrate the Trinity on the Sunday after Pentecost. On Pentecost God exposed God’s self in the Holy Spirit -- God came among us in the third person of God. Fifty days before that, on Easter, God exposed God’s self the Lord Jesus -- God was among us in the second person of God. The Easter season celebrates the mighty acts of God for our salvation as these actions of two persons, so now that the Season is over, we can put God back together!

We continue with what the reformed Roman calendar refers to in English as "ordinary time." This is ostensibly a faithful rendering, if not a literal one, of the Latin "tempus per annum;" literally, "time during the year." There was a time you might have heard the following Sunday referred to incorrectly as "the Umpteenth Sunday of the Year" or the "Umpteenth Sunday of the Church Year," which it is not, but rather, the Umpteenth Sunday of the regular part of the Church year. Thus, "ordinary" refers to that which is part of the regular order (the words "ordinary" and "order" having the same root) of the year.

Personally, this writer would just as soon they referred to Sundays After Epiphany and/or Pentecost, which some Anglican churches still do, even as they have adopted a more contemporary Book of Common Prayer, and a three-year-cycled lectionary.

And so it goes.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Roamin’ Catholic: St Rita of Cascia (Alexandria VA)

Following a brief hiatus to allow for the Mother of all Novenas, this temporary Sunday wanderlust continues, with an experience at a different parish church each Sunday. It will run nearly every week until yours truly is tired of running.

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It is difficult to imagine in the present day, but for more than a century after the end of the War Between the States, Virginia was very much a part of the south, and by extension, very Protestant.* Even the northern part of the state outside of the Nation's capital was still virtually a mission territory for the Faith. In 1912, a society of Catholic ladies began a program of religious instruction in a local cobbler's shop, for the children of families in the towns of Abington, Del Ray, and Saint Elmo, those which now comprise the northern part of the city of Alexandria. It was at that little storefront that Mass was first said, and that the story of a faith community began. As a mission of the long-established Saint Mary's Parish in "Old Town" Alexandria, a little stone church was erected just two years later in nearby Mount Ida. In 1924, the Bishop of Richmond elevated it to the status of a parish, in the title of Saint Rita of Cascia, an Italian widow and Augustinian nun of the late Middle Ages, and patroness of hopeless causes.

The war production buildup, already underway by 1940, brought a considerable rise in the population, and the pastor secured a three-acre plot about a mile to the north on Russell Avenue, with enough room for a school, a convent, a rectory, and a larger church. In 1949, a beautiful Gothic edifice of Virginia fieldstone and Indiana limestone was completed and dedicated. But for a narrow separation of the main altar from the reredos, to allow for the celebration of Mass "versus populum," the appearance of the church interior has changed little in more than seventy years since then. In addition to being arguably the most beautiful church in what is now the Diocese of Arlington, there is an impressive listing on the parish website of clubs and activities, with a unique outreach, not only to the Latino community, but to “the young at heart approximately between the ages of eighteen and forty.” (One may wonder just how broadly "young at heart" is interpreted.) And although the parish school is no longer administered by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chestnut Hill, its lower grades are at full capacity, a sure sign of growth among young families.

As one walks amidst the stone walls and pillars of this place of worship, it speaks to the viewer of permanence, of stability, of a place that weathers the storm, that is here to stay. Such is a reminder of the things that matter, that one need not be far from the kingdom of God. Venturing into the church itself is where architect Samuel J Collins further demonstrates his acute understanding of traditional church architecture. The viewer gazes upon a space that is devoid of excessive decoration that was characteristic of parish churches in North America up to that time. The order and proportion therein speak for themselves through the generations.

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The Sunday Mass at eleven in the morning is said to appeal to those inclined toward a "reform of the reform" of the sacred liturgy. Contrary to popular opinion that such an endeavor is an attempt to create a "hybrid" of both pre-conciliar and post-conciliar forms of the Mass (a rumor generated mostly by those who know just enough to show off what they don't know), it is in fact a two-pronged initiative, both to examine what the Council Fathers actually intended for the reform of the Roman Mass, and in the interim, to celebrate the Novus Ordo Missae in a manner that respects its tradition and heritage. At a time and place when the Traditional Latin Mass becomes more available, this is an opportunity that is often overlooked, one that can reach a broader spectrum of the Latin-rite faithful.

To this end, the parish uses the “Lumen Christi” missal and hymnal, both the work of Illuminare Publications. The choir sings the Propers for the Mass -- the Introit, Offertory, and Communion Antiphons, supplemented by verses based upon the Graduale Romanum (thus reviving an ancient practice associated with the antiphons). Those hymns that are sung are in English or Latin.

Only boys or men serve the priest, and Communion is administered kneeling at the altar rail, whether on the tongue or in the hand, and only by the priests. The reverence accorded to the ars celebrandi is tempered somewhat by a certain minimalism. The procession seems a bit rushed, walking at a somewhat brisk pace, as if on a deadline. Parts of the Mass best chanted (as shown in the pew missal) are spoken, which while a common practice in most parishes today, even at a "sung" Mass, neglects availing itself of one of the features given new emphasis in the 2011 English-language Sacramentary. If a liturgical counter-reform would deign to put the "High" back into the "High Mass," one would hope for no less clear a distinction between "High" and "Low."

It cannot escape notice that the priest here celebrates Mass "ad orientem," that is, "facing East," if only metaphorically, so that he and the faithful are facing the same direction, thus "turning toward the Lord" together. What is equally inescapable is that the priest's chair -- the "sedilia," as it is known -- is conspicuously placed on what appears to be the ledge at one side near the reredos. The celebrant faces the people from a higher place than when he is when the Mass culminates at the altar. It is obvious from the design of the sanctuary (to say nothing of custom) that the sedilia was never intended to be at such a lofty vantage point, but rather down below at the "plano," the floor of the sanctuary. It is from below where the Mass begins, reminiscent of the ascent to the "holy mountain" cited in the traditional prayers at the foot of the altar.

The result of this physical arrangement defies the hierarchy within the Mass itself, wherein one enters into the Holy of Holies from the outer sanctum. All told, and in an otherwise magnificent setting, the priest becomes more noticeable than the ritual action, one of the very things which "ad orientem" worship is intended to avoid.

An ancient and laudable practice that deserves mention, and is commonly overlooked by even "conservative" parishes, is the ability to go to confession immediately before Mass, and even during its beginning. This is how it used to be done in most places, rather than dropping everything and going to church on a Saturday afternoon (which is easy to rail about if you're standing at a pulpit without children to care for), or even worse, making an appointment. In the post-conciliar years, this practice has been looked down upon by pointy-headed liturgical scholars, as a detraction from the central action of the Eucharist (which seems not to be a problem elsewhere for liturgical dancers and a bevy of ministerial minions invading the holy place), the practice serves to highlight both the contemplative and diverse aspects of the sacramental life of the Church. One is there to reconcile with God and neighbor before communing at the table of the Lord.

The church is just over half full this day, and most of the congregants are in their twenties and thirties. (Just like my day job, I'm practically the oldest guy in the building.) The choir of about a dozen young ladies fills the air with lovely voices from the loft. The homily given by the celebrant, who is also the pastor; a young, congenial, squared-away sort of fellow, is bold, enthusiastic, yet conversational. There is no doubt as to one's catholicity, where one is to stand. We hear no call to condemnation, but to conversion.

After Mass, there are those who stay briefly, and it would appear that a number of them make their way to the nearby Wafle Shop. (That's "Wafle" with one "F." Don't ask me why.) This diversion is yet to be confirmed, but it only makes sense. Conspicuously absent here is the suburban mentality of emptying a huge parking lot as quickly as possible (the needs of families with young children notwithstanding), in a mad dash to what is ostensibly a day of rest.

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There are those among the status quo at both ends of the ideological spectrum, for whom St Rita's might stand as a defiance of conventional wisdom. They do not see the "Tridentine" Mass offered on Sundays (as at present it is available on holydays of obligation and select weeknights), and decry the faithful rallying around a "reverent Novus Ordo" as if to a lost cause. Conversely, there is also no attempt at rebranding, as witnessed by some Protestant "emerging churches" (and a few Catholic ones only recently), with the usual unbridled enthusiasm and soon-to-be-dated musical genré (or in the manner of some progressive urban parishes administered by the Society of Jesus, which is another story for another day). What is found in a renewed urban neighborhood in northern Virginia, is a renewed approach to a tried-and-true model of parish life, one that reaches its people where they are, whether under forty, or over fifty, and leads them higher.

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* When this writer first moved to northern Virginia in December of 1980 and was looking for an apartment, one high-rise development had a line on its application for "Religion." It was left blank. Whether or not this was a factor in being passed over remains a mystery to this day.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Novena: Pentecost

Da virtutis meritum,
da salutis exitum,
da perenne gaudium.
Amen. Alleluia.

Give them virtue's sure reward;
give them thy salvation, Lord;
give them joys that never end.
Amen. Alleluia.


Come, O Holy Ghost, fill the hearts of Thy faithful, And enkindle in them the fire of Thy love.

V: Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created,

R: And Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.

Oh God, Who didst instruct the hearts of the faithful by the light of the Holy Ghost, grant us in the same Spirit to be truly wise and to ever rejoice in His consolations, through Jesus Christ Our Lord.


(Our thanks to Soulpacifica for the lovely images personifying the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which have appeared in this series without permission or shame. To view this entire series, click here.)

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Novena Day 9: The Fruits of the Holy Ghost

Da tuis fidelibus
in te confidentibus
sacrum septenarium.

On the faithful, who adore
and confess thee, evermore
in thy sevenfold gift descend.


The gifts of the Holy Ghost perfect the supernatural virtues by enabling us to practice them with greater docility to divine inspiration. As we grow in the knowledge and love of God under the direction of the Holy Ghost, our service becomes more sincere and generous, the practice of virtue more perfect. Such acts of virtue leave the heart filled with joy and consolation and are known as Fruits of the Holy Ghost. These fruits in turn render the practice of virtue more attractive and become a powerful incentive for still greater efforts in the service of God, to serve Whom is to reign.


Come, O Divine Spirit, fill my heart with Thy heavenly fruits, Thy charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, faith, mildness, and temperance, that I may never weary in the service of God, but by continued faithful submission to Thy inspiration, may merit to be united eternally with Thee in the love of the Father and the Son. Amen.

Our Father ... Hail Mary ... Glory Be ...

(Our thanks to Soulpacifica for the lovely images personifying the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which have appeared in this series without permission or shame. To see the novena as completed to the present, click here.)

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