Welcome! This blog celebrates both the local and the catholic -- that is, universal -- aspects of the Roman Catholic Church by sharing reflections on experiences of the Church in a variety of settings and cultures. Postings will come from around the world and around the corner. You don't have to be a Catholic to come along.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Our Multilingual Church

On a trip to Europe last month, during which we visited many churches, we heard a lot of beautiful music. Some of it was in English, and the context was surprising.

One Sunday morning we participated in Mass at the beautiful Peterskirche -- St. Peter's Church -- in Vienna. While still a large church by most standards, it was not so vast that it was hard to take it in as at St. John Lateran or St. Stephen's.

Near the entrance was a table full of brochures highlighting the history and the architecture of the church in several different languages. Obviously this was a church used to receiving tourists.

At the same time, though, it was a real parish church, populated that Sunday by local residents with lots of small children. Unlike many of the great churches in Europe that tend to be sparsely attended museums, gawked at by visitors for their art and architecture, this was clearly a living house of worship.

Since 1970 the pastoral care of Peterskirche has been entrusted to priests of Opus Dei, so a lighted icon of the personal prelature's founder, St. Josemaria Escriva, graced one of the side chapels. Instead of having extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist at communion time, a second priest came out to help distribute.

Several hours later we came back for a free concert. The choir looked and sounded wonderful. Both the men and the women wore black with accents of red -- red bow ties for the men, red scarves for the women. As we came in late, it took me awhile to realize that they were singing in English: "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," "Oh Happy Day!" and "Kumbaya" were among the songs, sometimes accompanied by clapping.

An American choir? No, it turned that they were German.

The current baroque Peterskirche was consecrated in 1733, but the first of three churches on that site was erected 1600 years ago, when Vienna was still a Roman camp called Vindobona. It is the parish's proud boast that Mass has been offered there every day since.

But I wonder how many times American Negro spirituals have been sung in the church?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

St. Michael, Defend Us in Battle

Maybe we shouldn't have named our second son Michael.

But, then again, maybe we were prescient.

The greatest of all Michaels, as far as I'm concerned, is St. Michael the Archangel, leader of the heavenly legions that vanquish Satan in the Book of Revelations. Is this why our Michael joined the military 13 years ago and has spent more time in war zones than I care to think about?

A couple of weeks ago, in the Italian town of Lucca in Tuscany, we saw a huge winged statue (photo above) of my favorite archangel perched on the pediment of a church called San Michele in Foro. He is shown in triumph over the great dragon, a spear in one hand and a globe with a cross on top in the other.

The church was built over a Roman forum between the 11th and 14th centuries. We bought there a small icon of the archangel.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, calls us to "put on the armor of God" (6:10-18). Traditionally, at confirmation we become soldiers of Christ. Some people today are uncomfortable with these military metaphors but they seem to me appropriate.

The fight against evil in the world is a battle worth waging. How good to know that our commander in the field is a real angel.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cathedrals and Cities

You can't read about the history of the Middle Ages (especially the art history) without reference to the great cathedrals such as Notre Dame and Chartres in France, Canterbury in England, Stefansdom in Vienna, the Duomo of Florence and St. John Lateran, seat of the bishop of Rome.

But cathedrals aren't just for the past, and they aren't just for Europe. They remain important today to American Catholics and American cities. A great example is St. Peter in Chains, the seat of the Archbishop of Cincinnati.

Consecrated in 1845, one architectural authority called it "the handsomest and most monumental of Greek Revival churches." It was magnificently designed by architect Henry Walter, designer of the Ohio State Capital. Nevertheless, by 1938 both St. Peter in Chains and the area around it had badly deteriorated. Archbishop Timothy McNicholas transferred the seat of the bishop some miles away to St. Monica Church as "pro-cathedral."

Another archbishop, Karl J. Alter, made the bold decision in 1951 -- the year after his arrival in Cincinnati -- to renovate St. Peter in Chains. It was a move that helped change the face of Cincinnati, for it touched off an urban revitalization of downtown Cincinnati in the 1950s. With the present transepts, sanctuary, sacristy and rectory added to the building, a newly refurbished St. Peter in Chains resumed its status as a cathedral in 1957.

One of its most distinctive features is a towering mosaic behind the alter depicting Christ bestowing the keys of the kingdom on St. Peter, along with two smaller images of St. Peter imprisoned in Jerusalem and in Rome. The German-made, Byzantine-style mosaic is made of thousands of pieces of Venetian glass.

St. Peter in Chains today is a beehive of activity all year long. A young adult group meets there after Mass once a month. Many parishes hold their confirmations there. Special masses are held there each year for safety workers and for health care workers. Each year the cathedral hosts a "Great Music in a Great Space" concert series that draws people of all religions and no religion. Two years ago the venerable building welcomed a new coadjutor archbishop in a glorious Mass livestreamed on the internet.

The Cathedral Choir is magnificaet, one reason that a new advertising campaign referring to the cathedral's "worship that inspires" is an example of truth in advertising.

As the oldest cathedral west of the Alleghenies still in use as a cathedral, St. Peter has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But it has not been placed on the shelf.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Shrines on the Streeets

Historically Christian Europe (at least the Catholic parts) and Shinto/Buddhist Japan share something interesting in common -- small shrines on or above the streets, as well as in unexpected rural locations.

We first noticed this in Belgium, where shrines to Mary distinguish the corners of many buildilngs. One in Brussels is right above a McDonald's sign.

Austria has them, too.

In Japan, of course, the shrines memorialize Shinto gods rather than Christian saints. But it seems to me that in both cultures these little shrines communicate a sense of the sacred at street-level, the divine in the domestic.

Given the state of religious commitment in Europe today, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to regard these shrines with sadness as largely historical curiosities. We often speak, negatively, of "cultural Catholicism," a faith inherited more than lived. This is not only a Catholic phenomenon.

In Hiroshima some years ago, I asked our Japanese friend what religion he was before he became Catholic. He had to think awhile before responding, "Probably Buddhist." The great majority (about 99%) of Japanese who are not Christians tend to be married in Shinto ceremonies and buried as Buddhists. "I think it is ceremony, not religion," Hiro said.

Shinto is an indigineous religion strongly identified with the Japanese state. Until after World War II, the emperor was considered divine. Christianity, by contrast, is very much seen as a foreign religion. But Japanese Catholics put their own delightful spin on the Church Universal. At the sign of peace during Mass, they bow to each other!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What a Saint Looks Like

Ann and I were close to Pope John Paul II on two occasions -- once in St. Peter's Square and a few years later at his tomb.

In 2004, when we attended one of his audiences, the great Polish pontiff had been on the throne of St. Peter for 25 years and everyone knew that he could not be there much longer. It was, in fact, slightly less than a year before his death.

And yet he still thrilled and inspired. Despite slurring his words so that they were hard to understand, his voice was strong, especially while singing. He spent nearly an hour after the audience greeting individuals and groups. Included was a long line of people in wheel chairs, young and old, and a host of recent brides and grooms.

An enthusiastic Italian woman near us, perhaps in her 30s, yelled enthusiastically, "Viva il Papa! Grazie! Sei grande!" Some much younger American girls chimed in with the familiar, "JP Two, we love you!" They didn't want him to leave.

Eleven months later, April 2, 2005, he went home to God.

On our next trip to the Vatican, in 2008, we began our tour of St. Peter's Basilica downstairs where the tombs of many popes are on display. As we walked along we unexpectedly encountered a group of pilgrim nuns and others praying in front of one of the tombs, many on their knees. There was a great silence, one that was never achieved in the Sistine Chapel despite the repeated pleas for silenzio. More than silence, there was a holy stillness.

Here was the tomb of Pope John Paul II. And I thought to myself, "This is how people proclaim a saint."

Friday, October 8, 2010

Where Knighthood is Still in Flower

If you think knighthood is a thing of the past -- except maybe in jolly old England -- then you don't know the Catholic Church.

We have all kinds of knights in the Church, some not well known. There are the Knights of Malta, the Knights of St. John, the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Peter Claver. And that's not a complete list. They all do wonderful work. I even know a Knight of St. Gregory, which is a rare papal honor (and a really cool uniform).

Recently I had the honor of being invested into the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, which includes knights and ladies on an equal basis. I was knighted by the Grand Master, Cardinal John Foley, seen above flanked by other luminaries of our six-state lieutenancy. To his immediate left is Grand Magisterium member Sir Thomas E. McKiernan of Cincinnati.

According to its mission statement, our Order "(a) fosters in its members the practice of the Christian life; (b) is zealous for the spread of the Christian faith in Palestine; (c) champions the defense of the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, the cradle of our Order."

The Order traces its origins to 1099 and Sir Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the first crusade. Its symbol, the Jerusalem Cross, was taken from his shield.

In preparing to become a member of the Order, I read a lot about it. One of the stirring statements that I came across was from Edmund Cardinal Szoka, former archbishop of Detroit and former president of the Vatican City State. He wrote:

"Investiture as a Knight or Lady of the Holy Sepulchre is not simply an honor, but a calling. Just as baptism itself brings with it not only the grace of salvation, but also an obligation to live a life of faith, so too joining this fraternal and charitable society entails a commitment of Christian service. Pageantry is not really for its own sake, but to inspire us to action."

I was even more taken by the Scripture passage from St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (6, 10-18) read at the very moving Vigil the night before my investiture. That passage said, in part:

"Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, hold your ground."

Now that's the kind of knight that every Christian can be -- even ladies.

Monday, October 4, 2010

St. Francis in Assisi

On our about this date, churches all over the world are blessing animals in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. Surely he is one of the best known and most beloved of all the saints in the calendar, and not just with Catholics.

Not surprisingly, the saint's hometown of Assisi is a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists. Three years ago we saw a group of Korean Catholics celebrating Mass in a side chapel of the Basilica of St. Francis. Some Baptist friends of ours visited years before we did and were overwhelmed by the holiness of the place.

It is inexpressibly moving to see the church of San Damiano, where Jesus spoke to St. Francis from the Cross, as well as the tombs of St. Francis and St. Clare, the basilicas built in their honor, the basilica of San Rufino where they were both baptized, and the former cattle stall where tradition says St. Francis was born.

We spent several days in Assisi in 2007, but our first visit was three years before that when we took a day trip as part of two weeks in Rome. I wrote down my impressions at the time:

Our last high point of the day was to visit the last resting place of St. Francis.

Some visitors, I know, have found it ironic that this huge basilica adorned with priceless art was named for St. Francis. But I do not find it at all inappropriate. The magnificence of the church honors the glory of God working through the humble Francis. As we saw, he and St. Clare were baptized in huge and beautiful churches.

In every church we have been in, including today, the visitors have been noisy. That was not true at the crypt of St. Francis, however. There we experienced a hushed and holy silence in honor of a man dead almost 800 years now.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that the values of St. Francis were so different from those of most of us that he must have been crazy -- or we are.

If the life of St. Francis doesn't challenge us to re-examine our own lives, maybe we're missing his point.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Avoiding Disneyland in Pisa

Recently I happened to mention to someone that we flew into the Italian city of Pisa twice because that was the most available airport with our Frequent Flier miles. The person with whom I was talking and another person who joined the conversation agreed sagely that there is nothing in Pisa worth seeing except the famous leaning tower.


It seems to me these folks were victims of what a friend calls the Disneyland approach: You have a checklist of tourist attractions and you go through them without opening yourself to other possibilities. Leaning Tower? Check. What's next on the list?

Any city, town or village is much more than its most famous attraction. The leaning tower, for example, was built as the bell tower for a fantastic Duomo (above), considered one of the finest buildings in Tuscany. The tower, the Duomo and a mammoth Baptistry stand in a place known as the Campo dei Miracoli -- the Field of Miracles.

We visited the Campo two years in a row and found much new to appreciate the second time around.

On our first visit to Pisa, we went to the vigil Mass at a parish called San Antonio. A priest was hearing confessions during Mass. When he stuck his head out of the curtain, he looked like a puppet!

Here are some other things I remember about Pisa, the kind of pleasures you miss if all you expect is Disneyland:

● Pizza with arugula, which Ann ate on our first night in the town a few years ago. She still talks about it.

● The best gelato we've ever tasted. It's sold at the simply but descriptively named La Bottega del Gelato. This is a small shop -- so small there's no place to sit down -- in Piazza Garibaldi.

● Pici with wild boar sauce happily consumed in a stone restaurant called il Campano. I asked a waiter how old the building was. He told me it was built in 1200.

Nothing else to see in Pisa? Only if you don't know how to look.