Corpus Christi: a Norbertine feast

Today we enter into the month of June: the month of the Holy Eucharist. The medieval Church might not have gotten everything right, but one thing they excelled at beyond all human measure was devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. To read any secular historian’s account of how the feast of Corpus Christi came into existence, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was all centered around a quaint belief system not seen for hundreds of years. And yet, despite the passage of time, nothing has changed. The Catholic Church, whether in the 13th or the 21st century, has consistently taught that, at the words of a validly ordained priest, mere bread and wine are transformed into the incarnate God: Jesus, not symbolically, but truly present in our midst to be worshiped and consumed.

At the height of the Middle Ages in the west, adoration of the Eucharistic Lord–not the reception of Communion–was the climax of the liturgy for the average layperson. The faithful, called to attention by the ringing of the Sanctus bells, would jostle each other for a glimpse of the Host raised up by the priest over his head at the elevations. As told by Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, zealous parishioners might not leave until they had satisfactorily gazed upon the Lord, shouting across the nave, “raise it higher, sir priest! Raise it higher!”

No one did more to foster a devotion to Christ’s real presence in these crucial centuries than Saint Norbert of Xanten: founder of the Praemonstratensian Order. Four hundred years before the Protestant Reformation, a wandering preacher known as Tanchelm had caused many people in the city of Antwerp to deny the saving power of the Eucharist and the authority of the bishop. St Norbert was invited by Bishop Burchard of Cambrai to take a few trusted disciples with him into the city and bring it back to the orthodox faith: a feat he accomplished with both gentleness of heart and zeal in preaching. He said to the people,

“Brothers, do not be surprised and do not be afraid. Unwittingly you have pursued falsehood thinking it to be the truth. If you had been taught the truth first you would have been found effortlessly tending toward salvation, just as you now effortlessly lean toward perdition.”

Focusing on Christ’s discourse on the “bread of life” in John 6, Norbert reconciled the city to the Church and was thereafter known as the Apostle of Antwerp. For teaching clergy and laity alike to reverently care for the altar cloths and handling of the Sacred Species wherever he went, even bringing the Blessed Sacrament away from the church to the battlefield, making Christ the instrument of peace between warring clans, Norbert became known as the Apostle of the Eucharist.

A young woman soon picked up where Norbert left off to take the medieval Church’s Eucharistic devotion to its apex. Saint Juliana of Liège, a Norbertine canoness, reported having a vision of a full moon, shining brightly but marred by a dark line across its surface. She understood the moon to represent the Church on earth, reflecting the light of Christ’s glory. The dark line was a void in the Church’s myriad cycle of celebrations: a lack of a day dedicated to the Lord’s real presence in the Eucharist. Until then, Maundy Thursday was the only day to commemorate the institution of the Eucharist (at the Last Supper), but it was inevitably shadowed by the gloom of Good Friday. St Juliana petitioned her bishop to declare a feast for the Body and Blood of Christ within the diocese–which he did, though he died before he could act on it.

St Juliana died in 1258, before the feast of Corpus Christi could take root outside her city. Shortly thereafter, though, the former archdeacon of Liège was elected Pope Urban IV. Juliana’s surviving friend petitioned the Pope to institute a feast according to Juliana’s plan. This he did, well beyond what St Juliana could have ever dreamed: on the 11th of August, 1264, Urban IV issued the bull Transiturus, proclaiming a feast in honor of the Body and Blood of Christ throughout the entire Latin Church, which we now call Corpus Christi:

“although this memorial Sacrament is frequented in the daily solemnities of the Mass, we nevertheless think suitable and worthy that, at least once a year – especially to confound the lack of faith and the infamy of heretics – a more solemn and honourable memory of this Sacrament be held. This is so because on Holy Thursday, the day on which the Lord himself instituted this Sacrament, the universal Church, occupied with the reconciliation of penitents, blessing the chrism, fulfilling the Commandments about the washing of the feet and many other such things, is not sufficiently free to celebrate so great a Sacrament.”

The feast would be marked with Eucharistic processions (still novel at that time) through every city in Christendom on the Thursday after Trinity: Thursday to link the celebration with the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The Angelic Doctor himself, Saint Thomas Aquinas, was commissioned to write an office and several now-famous hymns for the feast. The sight of the Lord enthroned in a monstrance, paraded through the central square with all the magistrates of the city in attendance, naturally captivated the medieval imagination with a fervor we may never see again, giving birth to thousands of local traditions and guilds.

The Protestant Reformation challenged belief in the Real Presence (Luther once preached of Corpus Christi, “at no festival are God and his Christ more blasphemed“), yet for many Catholics in Europe, the sight of Jesus in the Eucharist, borne in procession through the city, was enough to bolster their faith against every threat of war or schism in those turbulent times. At last, in 1582, centuries after his death, Norbert of Xanten was canonized a saint–thanks, I’m sure, in no small part to his defense of the Eucharist.

Today we stand at another fork in the road: will the Church, after losing her prominent place in civic life, retreat behind closed doors to celebrate the sacraments away from unbelieving eyes? Or will she dare to take to the streets once again, holding the Lord for all to adore, even at the risk of jeers, blaring horns, or the eyerolls of apathy?

Wherever you may find yourself this feast of Corpus Christi, dear reader, may we find the same fervor of the Body and Blood of Christ that moved simple peasants to fall to their knees in the mud when the Blessed Sacrament passed them by. May we find the true meaning of the words of Aquinas’ hymn, Pange lingua gloriosi, when we sing:

“Sing, my tongue, the Saviour’s glory,
Of His Flesh, the mystery sing;
Of the Blood, all price exceeding,
Shed by our Immortal King,
Destined, for the world’s redemption,
From a noble Womb to spring.”

The source and summit of our Christian life

Last Saturday, I was the concelebrant for my godson’s Mass where he received his “First Holy Communion”.  The church was filled to capacity and I was passing through the front door, the usher smiled to me and said, “Father, if only the Church could be filled like this every Sunday, it would be great”.  This statement by the usher to me sat with me all day and I began to reflect on how Vatican II has called the celebration of the Eucharist as the “source and summit of our Christian life”.

For the families and the new “communicants” gathered to celebrate and receive the Eucharist that day, I am sure the Eucharist was, at that moment, the source and summit of their life, but I began to wish for them that the Eucharist would continue to be the source and summit of the daily lives.

Of course, the children were all “cleaned and washed up” for their big day, but my hope and my prayer for them would that they might come to see that every time they celebrate the Eucharist, it is their BIG day.  Sure, there are different degrees of importance in our lives’ events, but my prayer was and continues to be for my godson and his classmates that they continue to see their intimate connection with Christ in the Eucharist as always a very special moment in their lives.

I surely came to a greater love and appreciation for the Eucharist in my life by participating in the First Communion Liturgy for these young Christians.  It gave me a great sense of gratitude for the gift of my priesthood and the priesthood of all Christians who participate in the breaking and the sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ at this, the “most precious sacrament of the altar”……..Come let us receive what we are and become what we receive: the Body of Christ.

Divine Mercy Sunday

On April 22nd, I had the great experience of being the celebrant for the “Grand Reunion” Mass at the high school that I attended many decades ago. It was a truly inspiring gathering because the venue for the Mass was filled with former students and classmates and it was a great day to rejoice not only in the Paschal Mystery, but also in the Divine Mercy Sunday devotions with the fellowship and fraternity of former students and colleagues.

The Gospel really hit home. The “doubting Thomas” Gospel was the one for the day and the filled chapel left no doubt in my mind that the lessons learned many years ago from our teachers in high school still had a great impact on our religious practices and beliefs. Those present were certainly those “blessed who have not seen yet believe” and the participation and singing in the Mass really inspired me and encouraged me in my vocation as a religious priest.

I mentioned this to one of my classmates after the Mass, and he suggested that not only the sound teaching that we experienced in high school but also the example of our teachers had such a positive impact on us that spirituality had become a constitutive element of our makeup. I was so humbled to hear him speak this way and then when I began to think about it and remembered both the teaching and example of so many of our teachers, I realized how full of truth my classmate’s remark was to me.

I was honored to be singled out to celebrate the Eucharist at the gathering and it made me stop and give a special thanks to God for my vocation just as the impact of the reunion made so many of those present to stop and give thanks for their respective vocations in the ministry of proclaiming the Paschal Mystery and Divine Mercy in their respective lifestyles. It was a great time to rejoice in fellowship and particularly so by beginning with the celebration of the Eucharist…..all of those who are blessed who believe even if they have not really seen, but have experienced the Divine Mercy in their lives.

Come, Holy Spirit

Last week, I had the opportunity to concelebrate the liturgy for the celebration of the sacrament of Confirmation.  A family member had a son who was being confirmed and I was invited to be a concelebrant at the Mass.  At first, I wondered how I was going to “fit” this celebration into a crowded calendar, but after some maneuvering, I managed to find the time needed for this momentous Christian initiation liturgy.

I was a very inspirational event for me, perhaps one intended for me by the Lord as this time during the Lenten season.  As I sat in the sanctuary and looked out at the faces of those being confirmed, I was touched by the integrity and devotion of the young adults being confirmed.  There was no lack of “being totally involved” in this Kairos moment in their lives.  The enthusiasm with which they “dialogued” with the Bishop and the solemnity with which they approached the bishop to be confirmed, inspired my own commitment to the Lord’s service and gave me great hope for the future of the Christian community.

I was reminded of St. Augustine’s famous quote about “our hearts are made for You, O Lord, and they will not rest until they rest in You”.  The Confirmandi exhibited a vitality in their expression of their faith commitment that touched my heart and my soul.  It stirred my heart as I watched them receive the Holy Spirit into their hearts in the very sacramental grace of the moment.  I was renewed and recalled to mind that invocation of the Holy Spirit where we pray, invoking the Spirit to come and renew the face of the earth.  Certainly, the change that I saw on the faces of the children confirmed, “confirmed” in me the special presence of the Spirit at that moment and inspired me to invite the Spirit into my heart that afternoon in a special way that renewed my own heart and soul. I was very thankful for the grace to be part of this very special afternoon Confirmation liturgy.

Untie him and set him free

“Untie him and set him free”.  These words from John’s Gospel on the raising of Lazarus from the dead have always struck me with a poignancy that truly affects my heart.  More than just the physical removal of the bandages from the now “brought back to life” Lazarus, the passage has always impressed on me a meaning for Lent that we as Christians and particularly, myself as a consecrated religious, should take note of in our Lenten times of contemplation.

Jesus restores Lazarus to life and his first words to the those is the crowd is to untie the bonds of death that still bind Lazarus to the land of the dead.  This too, I find, is the message that Jesus is giving me during this Lenten season.  I am being given the chance by Jesus to be “untied” from all of the bindings that keep me in the darkness of “death”.  Jesus calls me to come forth from my tomb of isolation and despair into the brightness of a new life in Jesus. Jesus gives us life and frees us from those things that bind us down…resentments, anger, envy, jealousy and complacency.

My call to religious life is one way for me to cut the ties that bind me to the bands of sin. I can through Lenten reflection and penitence give my life to Jesus in a way that frees me to live a life of love and joy. I can be brought back to life and live of life of service and commitment to God’s ways and not my own self-centeredness – a life that leads from the tomb to a new birth in the womb of a Christian community of Norbertines who will continually call me forth, untie me and set me free to proclaim God’s love and joy to the world.  May reflection on this reading do the same for you.

Remembering a confrere and friend

Today, March 3, Father Fran Dorff will be buried at Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  We will also have a stone for him here in our Daylesford cemetery, since he was a member of our canonry for 35 years. I first met Fran when I was a first year novice and he was a newly ordained priest on a visit home, as he completed his studies in Rome and was on his way to do a doctorate in Paris. I later had him for a theology class at St. Norbert College, and then after I was ordained in 1969, lived in a room close to his at Daylesford. During that time he taught at Rosemont College and began to do “Intensive Journal Workshops” in what we now call the Spirituality Center (as well as throughout the country as a colleague of Dr. Ira Progoff). As Fran explained it, he moved from teaching “content” in a classroom to teaching “process” to fellow spiritual pilgrims.

He also served as our vocation director and keeper of the Abbey grounds. Indeed, he oversaw the rebuilding of the oldest building on the property, a springhouse constructed over a small stream, and renamed it the “John the Baptist Chapel” — in honor of where Norbert accepted the vows of his first disciples in 1121. The Chapel continues to be a prayerful place that, for many of us, will always evoke memories of Fran.

He later went to New Mexico to minister at a rehab for priests struggling with addictions. As always, his compassion and wisdom were channels of healing. Eventually, he joined the newly established Norbertine community in Albuquerque, where he lived in retirement for a number of years. He wrote eight books, beginning with THE ART OF PASSING OVER. It described the call to “Let go, let be and let grow”, which very much defined Fran’s personal journey — including what the liturgy celebrated today, his “passing over” into eternal life.

A visit to our Abbey in Albuquerque

Twenty years ago, Fr. Domenic Rossi and I were on loan to the Norbertine community in New Mexico. Dom and I lived at the Priory (now Abbey) and worked at the local parish of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. From last Thursday to next, we are back visiting — and there are lots of fond memories.  However, we especially chose to come now because our confrere, Father Fran Dorff, is in a hospice program and we both wanted to say goodbye. Fran taught us both many years ago (when he was a member of Daylesford), and we lived with him again in our time at Albuquerque. Not only have we had daily opportunities to be at his bedside and talk and listen. This evening, after Vespers, we joined the local community in celebrating “Viaticum” (a simple communion service to provide food for the final journey) with Fran.
The doctor was here earlier today and explained that our brother was very near the end, with days or even hours left to live. Fran was alert and fully responsive to the prayers. Indeed, before we started, he had a few words for each of us. It was a gift to be with him tonight.  A fine theologian, gifted preacher, published poet, skilled spiritual director and genuine wisdom figure, Fran will leave his mark on the life and ministries of three abbeys: DePere where he first entered after graduating from our high school in South Philly, Daylesford which he joined upon our independence in 1963 and then, after having served in New Mexico for seven years, he joined the new Albuquerque community in 1997.
We have all been blessed to know him and call him both confrere and friend. May he soon awaken on the other side of heaven’s gate. He promised to pray for us.

Some good that came from the flu

It’s Monday evening and I’m just about recovered from a bad bout of the flu.  I went to the doctor’s last Thursday. He gave me an antibiotic and told me to take it easy for a few days.  That was easier said than done, if only because I was assigned out for Mass on Friday, Sunday, and Monday.  I’m happy to report that three of my confreres rearranged their schedules to be able to cover for me — and so allowed me to stay in my room and wait for the meds to work. Today, I’m almost back to normal and will be taking Mass with the nearby IHM Sisters tomorrow.
Anyone who knows the Abbey knows the key word in our mission statement is communio. We keep it in Latin because it defies a simple translation. It is the call to be of “one mind and one heart on the way to God”, to quote from the opening chapter of Augustine’s Rule (as the Rule quotes from the Acts of the Apostles).  This description of our charism is described again in the Rule’s last chapter, when it says, “You will know that you have have made progress when you put the community’s interest before your own” — which is what my brothers did for me these past few days. 
While in my room, I got to read three books that had been siting on my desk for months.  (Since I couldn’t go to church for community prayer, I thought I’d catch up on some spiritual reading.) I read a novel about early Christianity, another about St. Bonaventure’s insights into the Holy Trinity, and the third a lovely little book that I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about God’s unconditional love. Its title is GOD FIRST LOVED US and the author is a New Zealander who teaches in Australia, named Antony Campbell, SJ.  He beautifully makes the case that salvation is never something we earn but rather “accept”, and then try to live that acceptance by treating others with some measure of the generosity the Lord has shown us. The book is an invitation to take seriously the heart of the Good News, “It’s all a gift”, and then revel in the mystery of the Prodigal Father who loves us out of our brokenness.

Bethesda Project

This past Sunday, I celebrated Mass at Saint Norbert parish in Paoli. The first reading was from Isaiah 58: a passage that led to the birth of Bethesda Project, a ministry to the homeless in Philadelphia. Some 35 years ago, the leadership of the “Body of Christ Prayer Community” (a group of close to 300 people who met every Wednesday in the Abbey church to praise and thank the Lord) were sharing over this text when they came to a simple realization — finding the time to praise the Lord was but half the story. They also had to take the initiative to “feed the hungry and shelter the homeless”. Our own Father Domenic Rossi and a wonderful woman named Phyllis Martin, who would eventually become an Abbey Oblate, were among those leaders, who proceeded to share their insight with the full group. Soon the community was sponsoring a shelter for a dozen homeless women, that the Mercy Sisters had set up in the upper floors above the “Ugly Pub” in center city.

Three years later, what was now called Bethesda Project, helped by a $ 20,000 grant from the Abbey’s tithing fund, purchased an old house near 11th and Spruce and moved the ladies to a lovely facility that still is going strong. Indeed, the house on Spruce Street is one of five “permanent residences” (serving over 120 women and men who are no longer homeless) that are matched by a series of “overnight shelters” (that provide a safe haven for close to 300 men one night at a time), all interconnected as part of Bethesda’s mission “to seek out the abandoned poor and be family to those who have none”.

For most of the last twenty years, I have been blessed to serve on Bethesda’s Board of Directors– and one of my greatest joys as a priest has been to preach on behalf of Bethesda at area churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Not surprisingly, a little bit of this story was the way I opened my homily this morning on Isaiah 58.

Seven years as a priest

Just a few days ago, I began my seventh year as a Norbertine priest.

I really like my life here living at Daylesford Abbey. I love the rootedness of our life, where the relationships I am forming at St. Norbert Parish and the Abbey are ones that have the potential to deepen through the years.  Unlike diocesan priests that could be moved anywhere in the diocese, Norbertines take a vow of stability, which means we will be serving within our Abbey and its local apostates for our entire lives.  I enjoy this rootedness. I find that it grounds me.

Speaking of grounds, I enjoy exploring our Abbey grounds. I especially enjoy working to beatify them, mostly by pruning trees and shrubs of dead growth and helping them to thrive. I find this type of work lends me to pray through this physical work in which I ask God to show me as I work what needs pruning within me.  I also enjoy this work because it promotes wellness through stretching, sweating (releasing toxins through our skin) and strength building.  All that while praying to God and enjoying the wonders of nature!